Sex ed overlooks youth with learning difficulties

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A three-year research project reveals that while some young people with learning difficulties have some knowledge of sex, they also had some serious misunderstandings. “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,” says says Ruth Garbutt, who led the research. (Courtesy: iStockphoto)

U. LEEDS (UK)—Young people with learning difficulties are more integrated into society than ever before, but a lack of basic sex education often leaves them embarrassed, vulnerable, and confused, according to a recent study.

The three-year project by the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds explored sexual and relationship issues for young people with learning difficulties. Data was collected through role play, group sessions, improvised drama, and  interviews with parents and teachers.

“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 U.K. and European law,” says Ruth Garbutt, who led the research.

“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 study reveals that while some young people with learning difficulties had limited knowledge of sex, they also had serious misunderstandings:

  • Several thought gay sex was illegal
  • Several didn’t realize 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 lasts 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

“The teachers were clearly struggling, too,” says 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,” Garbutt explains.

Parents said their children’s major source of sexual 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 access to accurate information, Garbutt adds.

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

  • Information is needed for young people with learning difficulties about relationships, including same-sex relationships, issues of public and private space, abuse, masturbation, and contraception
  • Youth clubs and night clubs which cater for the needs of young people with learning difficulties are needed
  • Young people with learning difficulties should get support to use transport more independently

Garbutt says much needs 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 institutionalization, 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.”

The research was facilitated by CHANGE, a leading national organization led by disabled people and based in Leeds. CHANGE fights for the rights of people with learning disabilities.

University of Leeds news: www.leeds.ac.uk/news

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  1. sex education

    Being overlooked like this is something that I never considered. Sex education is very important with youths.

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