07:12am Friday 13 December 2019

Sex education needed for young adults with learning difficulties

Young couple holding hands

These are the findings of a three-year project by the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds to examine the sexual experiences and understanding of people with learning difficulties.


The project explored issues around sex and relationships through group sessions, role play and improvised drama for young people with learning difficulties – as well as interviews with parents and teachers and a national survey of special schools.


The project revealed that while some young people with learning difficulties had some knowledge of sex, they also had some serious misunderstandings:

  • Several of the young people thought gay sex was illegal;
  • In contrast, several didn’t realise that the police investigate cases of sexual abuse;
  • Others were unaware that sex could lead to pregnancy;
  • Some had little or no understanding of contraception;
  • Few knew that pregnancy would last nine months.

Equally, parents and teachers revealed further issues for the young people:

  • Some were frightened and confused by puberty – including a boy who had plucked out his pubic hair with tweezers;
  • Girls were unprepared for menstruation – and unable to deal with it when it happened;
  • A number of the young men had a tendency to masturbate in public;
  • Some of the young people were unable to handle the emotional side of relationships – including a girl who stalked a former boyfriend;
  • A misunderstanding led to one young man being arrested for indecency.

The research was led by Dr Ruth Garbutt, who said: “People with learning difficulties have more rights and more freedom than ever, and are much more likely to be living in the community. Their right to sex, family life and to marriage are now enshrined in UK and European law.


“All these developments are welcome and positive – but at present these vulnerable young people don’t have the training and information to make the right choices.


“The teachers were clearly struggling, too,” said Dr Garbutt. “They hadn’t had training, it wasn’t seen as a high priority for school governors or Government and they didn’t know how to deal with it.” And though there are some resources available for teachers, there was a chronic lack of sex education materials for young people with learning difficulties to look at.


“Sex education is done in mainstream school, of course, but it’s pitched at a level which some young people with learning difficulties don’t understand.”


At the same time, parents were unable to explain the issues to their children – whose major source of knowledge seemed to be the television: “They were picking up information from the TV soaps, but parents were understandably worried that they were getting misinformation.”


A lack of opportunities for meeting other young people or travelling independently further restricted the young people’s access to accurate information, Dr Garbutt added.


The project, funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Health and Social Research Grants Programme, makes a series of recommendations:

  • There needs to be more information for young people with learning difficulties about relationships, including same-sex relationships, issues of public and private space, abuse, masturbation and contraception;
  • There should be more youth clubs and night clubs which cater for the needs of young people with learning difficulties;
  • Young people with learning difficulties should get support to use transport more independently.

Along with volunteers of the national organisation CHANGE, (based in Leeds) which fights for the rights of people with learning disabilities, the research team produced a number of illustrated booklets to help the young people to understand the issues and overcome some of their misunderstandings and fears.


But Dr Garbutt said much more needed to be done in school, the home and wider society to help prepare these young adults for a full and fulfilling sexual life: “We have moved on from segregation and institutionalisation but we are not preparing these young people properly for it.


“You want them to have as much freedom as they can – ¬but without this information they are being set up to fail.”


Further information:


For further information, or requests to interview Dr Garbutt, please contact Simon Jenkins, senior press officer at the University of Leeds, tel: 0113 3434031, mob: 07791 333229, email: s.jenkins@leeds.ac.uk


A full copy of the report: “Talking About Sex and Relationships: The Views of Young People with Learning Disabilities” is available at  http://www.changepeople.co.uk/showContent.php?id=73


Notes to editors:

  1. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK’s eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University’s vision is to secure a place among the world’s top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk
  2. The Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law brings together internationally-renowned expertise in these key areas of human interaction. Its four schools – education; sociology and social policy; politics and international studies; law – embed world-leading research into a range of undergraduate, postgraduate and professional development courses. www.essl.leeds.ac.uk/
  3. Its Centre for Disability Studies has played a pivotal role in changing the world’s perception of disability, ensuring its recognition as a significant equality and human rights concern on a par with ageism, sexism, racism and homophobia while establishing disability studies as an internationally-recognised area of academic enquiry. www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/
  4. The research was facilitated by CHANGE, a leading national organisation led by disabled people and based in Leeds. CHANGE fights for the rights of people with learning disabilities. www.changepeople.co.uk
  5. The project was funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Health and Social Research Grants Programme. http://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/index

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