Why we need better representation of people with learning disabilities

For Sexual Health Week 2020 and throughout September, Brook is celebrating the introduction of mandatory RSE in all schools in England. In this blog, Richard Lawrence, Project Support Assistant at Mencap, tells us why it’s so important that we see better representation of people with a learning disability in education and the media.

I have the same rights as anyone else to enjoy a happy and healthy relationship. Relationships are an important part of everyone’s life and that includes people with a learning disability, like me. When you are with someone you love it gives you companionship and happiness, and it has given me the chance to have my own family.  

Unfortunately, people don’t always understand learning disabilities, and it’s often believed we are not capable of having a relationship, a family or living a full life. 

A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability which affects someone for their whole life but, with the right support, most people with a learning disability in the UK can lead independent lives and many would like to enjoy a relationship – just like anyone else. 

However, it makes it difficult for people with a learning disability to have opportunities for relationships when society is so judgemental, and when relationships and sex education is not inclusive.  

Accessibility of education 

One of the biggest challenges people face is not receiving accessible RSE to give them the knowledge they need to enjoy a happy relationship. When I was at school, I didn’t understand some of the words they used and felt very left out. Important topics were not properly explained to me, like contraception and LGBTQ+ issues, so I was left feeling confused.  

Without the right education and support, there can be a lot of misunderstanding about sexual health and relationships. 

For example, some people might not understand the difference between a good relationship and bad relationship, or understand important things like consent.  

I feel the most important thing to help people with a learning disability enjoy a meaningful relationship is to give them accessible relationships and sex education from a young age. If you use complex words or lots of jargon then people with a learning disability might not understand and could become confused. Pictures, videos and examples can all help to explain things.  

That also goes for leaflets and information at sexual health clinics or GPs; it’s so important that they are made accessible so everyone can understand them. 

Representation 

Representation of disabled people in relationship and sex education and stories about different types of people in relationships, not just men and women without disabilities, is also important. It’s something the media and TV should be playing a bigger role in – they should reflect all the different lives people lead.  

When I was growing up, I don’t remember seeing someone on TV who had a learning disability, let alone who was enjoying a happy and healthy relationship. 

Having better representation of disabled people enjoying fulfilling relationships could make a huge difference to the public’s understanding. 

It would also give knowledge and confidence to people with a learning disability, and even give them role models to look up to. 

With Mencap, I now do lots of work to talk to people about how important sex and relationships education is for people with a learning disability. I co-chair a sexuality and relationships steering group and I am also a part of the Sex Education Forum. My team has gathered resources where people with a learning disability can get the information and advice they need. You can see those resources here.

Like anyone, people with a learning disability should make their own choices about being in a relationship. Being better educated helps people make those choices. 

Find out more about sexuality and relationship advice for people with a learning disability on the Mencap website.

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