I have been involved in staff training on sexuality, relationships and learning disability for (deep gulp) 30 years. In that time I have seen interest and commitment to supporting the sexual rights of people with learning disabilities, autism or both rise and fall several times. Right now (hooray) feels like a high-water mark.
We do, at least and at last, seem to be beyond the point of believing that sex + learning disability = problems. There is now a shared belief that access to intimate personal relationships and sexual expression are fundamental human rights, and that people with learning disabilities can and should have the same expectations as the rest of us, but what exactly does that mean?
I have always been, and remain, of the opinion that we cannot begin to work in such a sensitive and challenging area of other people’s lives without coming to terms with our own beliefs and attitudes around sexuality. What do we consider to be ‘off limits’ and what is okay? Is it OK for a man with autism to wear a dress or even transition? For someone to use their personal budget to employ a sex worker? For someone with mental capacity to visit extreme online pornography? Can we even agree what extreme pornography is?
The current one-day ARC England workshop that I deliver allows a safe space in which those attending can examine our attitudes – individually and as a society – and the influences that have shaped our beliefs. It deals with some facts, but accepts that much is opinion. We look at the law covering sexuality, and the vast grey areas that need to be negotiated. We practise responses to difficult situations and agree some golden rules. But what I mostly do is give people permission to say the unsayable and bring to the foreground what has often been hidden.
However, what I can’t do in six hours is turn people into ‘sexperts’. Recently I have been experiencing some frustration around this, as well as picking up that people need a lot more practical advice and guidance.
The one-day Personal Relationships and Sexuality (PRS) workshop that we currently offer has been the only one I deliver which has not been transferred online. There are good reasons for that, which I have explored above. Personally, I have loved most of what online learning offers. It is cheaper, easier and somehow more democratic. It has been transformational in involving people with learning disabilities, autism or both as co-trainers. It also means I don’t have to get up at 5am and drive 200 miles or stay in yet another nondescript Premier Inn.
However, for me, PRS is delivered live and in person or not at all; it is too intimate. I need to be able to read the unspoken language from everyone in the group in order to care for people, and the whole group dynamic is absolutely critical. The online experience works against people letting their guard down, developing relationships with those on the same space, relaxing.
Throughout the pandemic I have been pondering how we can offer additional material in a way that is cost-effective and meets those practical needs. Ideally, we could put on a two-day, perhaps residential, programme. Realistically though the costs would prove beyond most of our members.
My solution, therefore, is a hybrid delivery two-day programme that consists of the same first day face-to-face followed by two half-day online sessions of work in small groups based on a series of case studies covering common issues that services and staff struggle with, for example:
- online pornography and dating
- working with families
- sexual and gender diversity
- harmful sexual behaviour
My hope is that this approach will give people some really useful discussion time and an opportunity to establish best practice and leave with some useful tools and advice.
The Level Two online material is still under development, so it would be great to hear from anyone with thoughts as to what it would most usefully include. As it is a pilot programme we are offering it to the first cohort at a greatly reduced rate of £30 per person.
Find out more and book your place
- Personal Relationships, Sexuality and People with Learning Disabilities: Level One, 30th March 2022, Bristol, 9:30 am – 4:30pm.
£90 for ARC England members and £120 for non-members.
- Level Two Personal Relationships, Sexuality and People with Learning Disabilities , studied over two half-days via Zoom.
£30 per person
Tel: 01237 441 786
Email: [email protected]