Sexual Expression and people with learning difficulties

Sexual expression and people with learning difficulties
by Simon O’Corra

Work has gone on in the field of personal relationships and sexuality for people with learning difficulties for many years. Discussions have been held within local authorities and other care organisations, sex education training courses have been run for people with learning difficulties and in some cases parents and carers have been part of forums to discuss the issues from their point of view. Positive stuff but where are we in terms of people with learning difficulties actually having and maintaining sexual or even non-sexual relationships, being married or in long-term partnerships.

Up until now legislation has meant it has been very difficult to support and encourage people with learning difficulties in having a sexual relationship witness the Mental Health Act (1983) which focusses primarily on what people cannot do and labours the point of consent. The Act gives no emphasis on the means of recognising consent or fully engaging people in an ability to recognise signs of consent. This is true, particularly in most cases where a person would be giving non-verbal consent and even in some cases of a person giving verbal consent. Therefore, particularly in cases where people have no verbal communication the Act has provided an excuse to do nothing with alternative non-verbal communication not being trusted. Of course it takes more time and expertise to glean the wishes of someone when they have no verbal communication.

Now with the Human Rights Act (1998) and the new White Paper ‘Valuing People’ (2001) we have an opportunity to take hold of this issue and really make a difference in the lives of people with learning difficulties. What does the latest legislation say?

The Human Rights Act 1998
ARTICLE 12
RIGHT TO MARRY
Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right.
ARTICLE 14
PROHIBITION OF DISCRIMINATION
The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.The White Paper ‘Valuing people’ 2001
One of the four key principles:

Legal and civil rights – people with learning disabilities have the right to a decent education, to grow up to vote, to marry and have a family, to express opinions, with help and support where necessary.

Of course neither act explicitly makes it illegal to discriminate against someone with a learning difficulty on grounds of sexual relationships, sexual orientation, marriage, partnerships etc…. but both provide a framework for change. The Human Rights Act gives people the chance to go to law to challenge such discrimination; and in the case of ‘Valuing People’ brings guidance and moral pressure to bear for change.

Some of the issues for the partners in the lives of people with learning difficulties -

People with learning difficulties –
may experience received wisdom about sexual relationships not being for them
may not be interested
may have no knowledge on the subject
may have had negative abusive experiences
are treated and judged in different ways to non-learning disabled people

Care Organisations –
may have very few policies which actually transfer into practice
be wary of supporting someone in expressing their sexual lives for fear of a negative media response occasioned by the burgeoning litigious culture in this country
can fight shy of challenging parent/carers over the parents feelings about the sexual activity of their son or daughter
can sometimes talk from the standpoint of a ‘yes but’ scenario when talking about equal opportunities
often have very good intentions but the issue can be perceived as a minefield

Font Line Staff, –
often are unable to see a workable policy and therefore are scared of being pilloried as a irresponsible or liberal person with the attendant possibility of dismissal if they get it wrong
may bring own prejudices and religious beliefs to bear on the situation
can sometimes talk from the standpoint of a ‘yes but’ scenario when talking about equal opportunities
can often be deeply committed to supporting people with learning difficulties in matters of relationships and sexuality but feel unsupported

Parents, –
can have a heavy investment in their children
may experience difficulty in letting go (which is a pretty much universal issue for parents)
may have a fear of societies views
may not want to face the struggle of supporting a grandchild or face other issues raised by their son or daughter having a sexual relationship
can sometimes talk from the standpoint of a ‘yes but’ scenario when talking about equal opportunities
may be fully supportive of their son or daughter having a sexual relationship

Society –
has a tangible unease within society about people with learning difficulties having a sexual relationship and especially if a pregnancy results from this activity or the person wishes to express their sexuality in different ways to the mainstream
and the media have a fascination with and fear of sexual abuse
may not know about what makes a person with learning difficulties tick
can sometimes talk from the standpoint of a ‘yes but’ scenario when talking about equal opportunities
has some people who have a positive and objective view of people with learning difficulties and a recognition that they are fundamentally just the same as anyone else with the same aspirations and rights

Independent Advocacy and Resource Partnership –
provides strong support of what the person with a learning difficulty wants
is a bridge to enable all partners to voice their concerns and to see the efficacy of treating the person with a learning difficulty as a whole person with the same needs as any other member of society
brings an independent aspect to this work and can give an objective view about the issues and offers the skills to facilitate the process of change effectively and smoothly
provides education, to people with learning difficulties and those who support them
provides information on practice and policy issues
provides networking opportunities and investigates resources

Way forward –
Whilst acknowledging the work which has been done already, universal change in terms of the sexual expression of people with learning difficulties has not been achieved. However, with current changes in legislation and government support we have a new opportunity to move forward. One new initiative is a pilot project that is being set up by a small voluntary organisation in one of the London boroughs. This project is devoted to setting up a Sexual Rights Forum for people with learning difficulties which it is hoped will be supplemented by a parent forum and a working party of front-line workers. The forum for people with learning difficulties will include people already in relationships including those of a sexual nature and those with sexual experience. The forum will be encouraged to talk about sex and relationships in a frank and honest way. The best way forward is for everyone involved to express their desires and their fears and for them to get the support and training that they need to grasp this golden opportunity for positive change in the lives of people with learning difficulties.

Simon O’Corra, Independent Advocate and Resource Partner has worked with adults and children with learning difficulties and/or multiple disabilities for many years. He has a background in the arts, theatre and dance and uses these skills in his work with people with learning difficulties. He has undertaken the provision of training and group-work for people with learning difficulties and staff particularly in the field of sex education, self-advocacy, disability awareness and values. He is now a facilitator of Mens and mixed groups for people with learning difficulties; a facilitator of a Sexual Rights Forum and resource partnerships with people with learning difficulties and those who support them by helping people to think the unthinkable and to act on new ideas. Simon can be contacted on

Sexual Expression and people with learning difficulties

Simon O'Corra

Rouvres Les Bois, France

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