Learning Disabilties and Sexual Health

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • People with learning disabilities live with a stigma of being unable to care for themselves, of being "stupid" or being slow, all of which are untrue. People with learning disabilities usually have average or above average intelligence, but may have problems interpreting or processing information, written, verbal or non-verbal.


    A recent study in Ireland emphasized this stigma and how it may impact relationships and the sexual health of people with learning disabilities. According to the study, both caregivers and professionals dealing with people with LD indicated a reluctance to allow sexual relationships to develop freely. This resulted in people with LD having a more "limited or incomplete understanding of sexual health issues." [1]

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    Over 500 people participated in the study, some of which were adults with learning disabilities, caregivers and professionals providing services.


    Over 60 adults with learning disabilities were interviewed for the study. The results indicated: 

    • Many people with LD do not have adequate opportunities to talk about sexual health issues, even though they are both willing and able to discuss the issues. 
    • Many people with LD do not have complete information regarding: masturbation, pregnancy, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. Of the adults aware of these issues, there was incomplete information or a lack of resources available to check the accuracy of the information. 
    • Some people indicated there were restrictions placed on them by caregivers and professionals in relation to sexual expression or developing relationships or being sexually active. 
    • Most people with LD believed they should have the opportunity and freedom to be part of an intimate relationship, if they so chose. 

    Care-givers were also interviewed or completed questionnaires regarding the sexual health of the person in their life having a LD. One of the most striking responses is that although the majority felt it was the right of the person with LD to have a relationship, only one half of those questioned felt a sexual relationship was important to that person. In addition, caregivers felt it would be appropriate for professionals to stop any sexual relationship or masturbation but felt kissing or holding hands would be okay. Although most of the care-givers (86%) would support the rights of adults with LD having a boyfriend or girlfriend, there was a distinct hesitation at the thought of a sexual relationship. Information and resources to help educate people with LD on sexual health was not available, caregivers felt, and all believed more information should be available.


    Professionals working with people with LD were also interviewed or completed questionnaires on sexual health issues. Many of those that worked closely with adults felt they were being pressured to limit or discourage and sexual relationship, even when doing so would be disrespectful of the person with LD. Most professionals felt a need for specific policies and procedures to follow so they could best help educate adults with LD on sexual health issues.


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    The Family Planning Association of Ireland, who completed the study, recommended that information on sexual issues be made available to teens and adults with LD in schools and other learning centers, as well as a staff member trained in this area be made available to help answer questions and provide additional resources and information to the person. Staff should be trained in helping to develop healthy and safe sexual relationships and should be trained in how to help people with LD in personal relationships.


    Teens and adults with learning disabilities are not any different than other teens and adults. They want a healthy relationship, both emotionally and sexually. Caregivers and professionals working with people with LD should be aware of the lack of information and resources available and the capacity for limited or incomplete information based on the lack of information. Caregivers and professionals should work with adults with LD to help provide information to allow them to develop safe, healthy relationships and enjoy the emotional and sexual benefits of an intimate relationship.





    [1] "Sexual Health and People with Learning Disabilities", 2008, October, Family Planning Association, Ireland

Published On: January 24, 2009