In many areas of life, learning-disabled people are provided with much more independence and recognition than in the past. However society is not very aware that learning-disabled people have rights when it comes to pursuing sexual relationships.
It is essential to recognise and acknowledge that learning-disabled people also experience the same needs, feelings and desires associated with developed and active sexuality. It is also essential that this sexuality is given the freedom to express itself, and not be shut away for mistakenly being deemed inappropriate. A learning disability should not prevent any person from channelling their needs and feelings into means of expression that allows them to enjoy their sexuality and get pleasure and enjoyment from intimate relationships.
Education about sex and sexuality has often been completely denied to learning-disabled people. This not only denies the basic right of expression, but creates a number of unnecessary difficulties. Sexual development and the management of feelings that come along with it can be stressful for anyone. If no help is given to understand what is happening, physically and emotionally, then this stress is greatly increased. In addition to this, if the only messages that are given consist of phrases like “don’t do that, it’s bad” or “don’t touch yourself there”, then further confusion and frustration can build up. We should all be given the opportunity to learn about our own bodies and what we like or dislike.
Appropriate sexual behaviour, and the difference between private and public behaviour, is another important area that needs to be fully supported with positive messages and learning. There is a misconception that learning-disabled people can have an uncontrollable sexual drive, and present some kind of danger as a result. If no proper education is available then there is no opportunity to develop the kind of behaviour that is considered publicly acceptable. It is important for educators, particularly those involved in education programmes with disability workers or disabled people, to understand community attitudes towards disability and sexuality, and the impact of these views upon disabled people themselves.
Without good education and support, learning-disabled people can be very vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, or negative consequences of their actions. This education needs to be consistent in the various settings someone might be, and consistent between different people who might carry out a support role – family and carers, care workers, supported education or employment workers, and counsellors.
Developing as a full, aware adult, also involves experiencing a wide variety of social situations. This should be incorporated into the support of learning-disabled people thus avoiding the situation where social lives can become very restricted in terms of only having contact with the same people, for example, family or the same day-centre.
Through open acknowledgement of sexuality, and addressing the relevant issues rather than suppressing them, a learning disability need not deny an individual their complete sexual and personal development, or forming satisfying sexual relationships. Understanding our bodies and learning to say no to unwanted contact are essential for us all to be able to protect ourselves.
NHS Lanarkshire’s Adult Learning Disability Service have created a website for people with a learning disability and health professionals. For more information go to: www.healthelanarkshire.co.uk