Change that leads to better lives

If good relationships are good for us, what does that mean for people with learning disabilities?

As part of learning disability week, Sue Turner looks at the importance of addressing barriers that still exist for people with learning disabilities seeking romantic or sexual relationships.

As detailed in a report by Relate - good relationships are good for us. They can protect us from the effects of long term health conditions, aid recovery and even prevent ill health in the first place. Failure to take account of and address the social determinants of ill health (including social isolation) trap us into reactive and unsatisfactory service responses. Clear evidence is available in Relate’s report with recommendations aimed firmly at public health policy makers.

With learning disability week this week, the focus is on relationships, so what does the above mean for people with learning disabilities? Given that people with learning disabilities tend to have smaller social networks, are more likely to be socially excluded and have poorer health and die younger than their non-disabled peers – this seems important!

In January 2015 we held a conference called ‘What is going on – resetting the learning disability agenda’. We were concerned that national policy had become focused on a small (although important) group of people with learning disabilities who challenge, and the need to close in-patient beds. We thought this was detrimental for all people with learning disabilities as the agenda should be about enabling people to lead full and satisfying lives in the community with families, friends and partners. At our conference, Chris Sherwood (then a director at Relate) talked about ‘access to equal sex and relationships’. One of the barriers people with learning disabilities faced was the attitudes of professionals, carers and families.

We thought it was important to find out more about this, and as a result we did a short literature review focused on the issues people with learning disabilities face when they are trying to develop and build relationships. We focused on romantic and sexual relationships as feedback showed this was an area of particular difficulty for people with learning disabilities, their families and support staff. Issues such as abuse, overprotection, capacity to consent and unwise decision all require serious consideration, but should not get in the way of people’s rights to have romantic and sexual relationships.

Therefore we specifically asked the following two questions:

  • What are the barriers or challenges to people with learning disabilities developing sexual relationships?
  • What works to support people with learning disabilities develop sexual relationships?

Our report identified the following key contributing factors for people with learning disabilities to form romantic and sexual relationships:

  • Positive and accepting attitudes from staff and others
  • Having a safe and private space and ability to get there (transport)
  • Sex education
  • Support from services including the provision of accessible information and staff who listen and trust individuals
  • Support to explore sexual identity

Although one of the barriers to people with learning disabilities forming romantic and sexual relationships was a lack of information, we also identified a number of resources that were easily available on websites.

None of the factors identified seem an unreasonable ask, and with clear evidence that this is important for long-term health, it seems essential to see this reflected in policy.

We need to address the underlying determinants of health inequities for people with learning disabilities, including ensuring the right attitudes and conditions exist for them to form friendships and romantic or sexual relationships. This means the focus needs to be firmly on prevention – not attempting to ‘cure’ people after their support has been cut to a minimum and unsurprisingly things go wrong with devastating consequences for them and their families.

To read the full report click here

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