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Exploring the barriers to sex and relationships for people with learning difficulties

Ruth Garbutt, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds


Before the introduction of Community Care policies in the 1990s, a large number of people with learning difficulties lived in institutions, and were often segregated. They were not encouraged to have relationships, and the opportunities for any kind of sexual experiences were very limited. Added to this, people with learning difficulties tended to be seen as 'eternal children', for whom sexuality was irrelevant because of their level of cognitive and communication impairments. Worries about vulnerability and risk of abuse headed the debates and were used as reasons to discourage relationships. Nowadays, many people with learning difficulties are living, working and taking their leisure with everyone else in the community and the potential for having relationships becomes more likely. This paper considers some of the issues around sex and relationships for people with learning disabilities, drawing on some of the preliminary findings of an innovative three year emancipatory research project looking at the issue. The research project has been using drama as a research tool to find out about the views and experiences of young people with learning difficulties. It has also undertaken a national survey of special schools, interviews with parents, and focus groups with teachers and governors. The paper will show how the findings of the project have specifically highlighted some of the barriers that people with learning difficulties face in this area and there will be some discussion around the wider issues of social exclusion. It will also explore how some of the findings have implications for professional practice and policy.

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