The whole issue of sex and relationships for those with disabilities is a difficult one.
Those with a disability have just as much right to happy and loving relationships and sexual experiences as the rest of the population.
Of course in practice this is often not the way it turns out. Their disability can get in the way both in terms of how others see them and in more practical ways as well.
Added to this is the issue of how those who care for those with a disability feel about getting involved in facilitating such relationships particularly where they may be sexual in nature.
The issues I have outlined above become even more complex when the person concerned has a learning disability.
A few interesting points come to mind
- The majority of women with a learning disability have sex standing up. Why? Because the opportunities to have a sexual relationship in "normal" surroundings do not exist and liaisons have to be snatched as and when they can.
- Masturbation is a big issue for those dealing with teenagers with a learning disability. Pretending otherwise will not make the problem go away.
- There are examples of couples who have been "going out" with each other for years and yet neither has visited the other ones home. Why? Because the carers or the system will not enable to happen.
Sometimes they may suffer from physical disabilities as well but the key issue becomes one of consent. Obviously where people are vulnerable we need to ensure that they are protected from abuse and abusers. The important thing is can the person understand the issues involved and can they be helped to make informed choices?
However, just as importantly can we as a society accept that they have a right to happy relationships and a fulfilled sex life just as much as anyone else. Can we find ways to help them to make informed choices and enable them to act upon these choices once they have made them?
So what needs to be done?
1. The issue needs to be talked about. People with learning disabilities and those who care for them and support them and work with them need to discuss this issue. We need to gain a better understanding of the issues involved and the current state of play with regard to various areas which may have an impact as this issue is taken forward such as the law and current research
2. Information and Training needs to be designed and made available. This needs to be aimed at both those with learning disabilities and those who care for them be they parents, carers or those involved through charities and social services. This information should help those with a learning disability to make informed choices and support their carers or parents in helping them to act on the basis of those informed choices
3. Research needs to be done. Admittedly I am not sure what has already been done in this area. However a number of bodies could get together and pool current knowledge / research before deciding what gaps need to be filled. I would like to see some specific research on the benefits of long term relationships and the benefits of a healthy sex life to those with a learning disability. I would hypothesise that those who were enjoying a healthy sex life and /or were in long term relationships would find a number of benefits to their life. I suspect that their health would be better; I suspect that they would be happier; I suspect that they would require less medication and I suspect that they would be more able to partake in other activities.
4. Campaigning may be needed to ensure that the research is funded, to ensure that legislation is changed and ultimately to ensure that appropriate resources are made available to ensure that those with a learning disability have an equal chance of forming happy and healthy relationships
This is undoubtedly a very difficult area but just because it is does not mean that it should not be tackled.