People with learning difficulties are often overlooked when it comes to sex education.
LGBT people with learning disabilities have often faced barriers when it comes to their identity – but some are now using their negative experiences to bring about change.
“I thought I was going mad, I thought there was something wrong with me.” That’s how Shaun Webster felt when he first realised he was attracted to both men and women.
Shaun is 48 now, but It took him over a decade to come out as bisexual – in part he says, because of barriers many LGBT people with learning disabilities face.
Shaun has short-term memory issues and dyslexia. He attended a special needs school when he was younger, where he says he wasn’t given a “proper sex education”.
“I didn’t know what bisexual meant,” he says. “Special needs schools didn’t do proper sex education for people with learning disabilities. They think people like us don’t have sex.”
In 2019, relationship, sex and health education was made mandatory in all schools in England. Before that, special needs schools didn’t have a mandate to provide sex education, so the provision was often mixed.
For some people, the lack of sex education in their youth made it really hard for them to come out as LGBT in later life.
Shaun says the little sex education he did get largely focused on “making babies rather than explaining terms like gay, bisexual, trans and non-binary”.
He didn’t come out until he was 38, but says he wishes he could have sooner. “Coming out when you’re 38 is a big thing to do. It’s life-changing.” When he did, he says he felt “a huge weight had been lifted” and he is now proud to be bisexual.
Shaun now works for Change, a learning disability charity, and as part of his work he helps to give sex education lessons.
One of the sessions Shaun runs focuses on sex and relationships, while the other looks at LGBTQ+ awareness. He says they talk about everything from sex, consent and the difference between friendships and relationships.
Coming out when you’re 38 is a big thing to do. It’s life-changing
A lack of sex education isn’t the only barrier people with learning disabilities have faced.
Ray Everall is a 21-year-old trans man from Brighton. He struggles with communication, audio and visual processing and has learning difficulties, including ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. For him the main challenges are around accessing trans health services.
He started taking testosterone in 2018 and is having top surgery – the removal of breast tissue – next month.
“The main difficulty is processing information especially when it comes to gender identity clinics, which are a whole minefield,” he says. “They have a checklist of things you need to be able to explain and I have difficulty expressing myself properly.”
“There are a lot of invasive questions about your sex life,” he adds. “That makes me uncomfortable. And when I’m uncomfortable it’s even harder for me to express myself.”
Trans people often report coming up against barriers in the health system, but having a learning disability adds another layer of difficulty for Ray. “Trans people are always infantilised to some degree and so are people with learning disabilities, so it becomes really challenging.”
Ray is now part of the NHS youth forum and is working on improving trans and non-binary access to healthcare. One of the things he does is to help to make leaflets with advice on, including issues such as legally changing your name and title.
And while Ray has met some nice people on dating apps, his learning disability can make them challenging territory. “I really struggle to read tone, so the other day a girl messaged me saying ‘you seem very bubbly’. But I was like what does that even mean?”
He adds: “Sometimes I take about a month to reply and that can make it seem like I don’t care but that’s not the case. I care a lot, I can just be quite forgetful because of my learning disability.”
Ray’s last relationship was with someone who also had learning disabilities. “I love being with other people who have learning disabilities because it’s so nice to be with someone who can empathise with your experience, even if they don’t have the same learning disability they just have more understanding.”
Dr Claire Bates, runs Supported Loving, a national network that helps organisations support people with learning disabilities find love and relationships. She is also an honorary researcher at the Tizard centre, which specialises in learning disabilities, community care and autism.
Dr Bates says people with learning disabilities who identify as LGBT have often “really struggled to meet partners and find relationships”.
The situation is particularly hard for LGBT women with learning disabilities, she adds: “I work with dating agencies for LGBT people with learning disabilities and some of them don’t have any women on their books.
“We don’t know exactly why but we know that in sex and relationship education there is very little about two women together. Historically when it comes to LGBT sex education it’s been more focused on gay men. I’m not aware of any learning resources solely aimed at LGBT women with learning disabilities.”
Dr Bates adds: “We certainly don’t talk about relationships with people who are LGBTQ very often in social care, there are some social care organisations doing a brilliant job but some just aren’t doing enough.”
The Care Quality Commission, which regulates social care in England, has guidance that says social care providers should support patients with their sex and relationship needs but it’s not listed as a key line of enquiry, meaning providers aren’t judged on the level of sex and relationship support they provide in inspections.
In social care settings – including in care homes, for people in supported living and those in their own homes – there isn’t much training for staff on how to have conversations around sex and relationships with patients who have learning disabilities.
Dr Bates feels regulators need to be seeing sexuality as “a fundamental part of being human”.
“In an inspection we should be looking at friendship and relationship support and that should include the whole spectrum of sexualities,” she says.
As for Shaun, today he is married and lives with his wife and children. He has an MBE for his work helping people with learning disabilities abroad and in the UK.
“I feel like I’m making a difference,” he says. “I feel proud to be a role model for people with a learning disability to help them to understand about their sexuality.”