Getting relationships and sex education right for disabled young people

Getting relationships and sex education right for disabled young people

In the past it has often been assumed that children and young adults with SEND will not have any interest in sex.

With the advent of statutory Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), we have an opportunity to dispel this myth once and for all, and ensure that all children, including disabled children and those with disabilities have access to high-quality, comprehensive RSE.

With that in mind, later this month the Sex Education Forum is co-hosting a conference with the Council for Disabled Children, focussing on inclusive RSE for children and young people with SEND.

This is a pressing concern for large numbers of children and young people. In 2017, the Department of Work and Pensions estimated that one in ten young people aged 10-24 have a disability that affects their ability to do normal everyday activities.

All of these children will go through puberty and deserve to understand what is happening to their bodies and how to deal with the changes that happen at that time in their lives.

Furthermore, research suggests that disabled children are at greater risk of abuse (including sexual abuse) than non-disabled children.  Sexual health statistics also highlight inequality, with one example being that there are higher rates of unplanned pregnancy and STIs amongst deaf young people and adults.

The truth is that many people with a learning disability say that having a relationship is important to them.  However, only 3% of these adults live in a couple, compared to 70% of the general adult population. We need to do more if we are to meet Mencap’s Vision Statement on Relationships and Sex, which states:

“People with a learning disability have a right to develop loving relationships and must be free to express their sexual identity. Adults and young people with a learning disability also have the right to have consensual sex”


This vision statement chimes very well with the World Health Organisation’s definition of sexual health as:

 “…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”

As a sexual health doctor who has experience in working with patients with disabilities in a clinical setting, I am only too aware of how important it is to involve parents and carers to ensure that any treatment or management plan is followed correctly.  The same principle applies to education, as is reflected in one of our 12 principles for the key requirements for good quality RSE in a school setting:

“Principle 3 – working in partnership with parents and carers, informing them about what their children will be learning and about how they can contribute at home”

At the conference I will be drawing on some of my clinical experience to lead a workshops entitled: “The home/school partnership: Talking about sexuality with parents and carers”.  I will be using a ‘backwards mapping’ approach to talk through some case studies based on actual patient contacts – to discuss ways that good sex education could have prevented attendance at a sexual health clinic.

Many parents and carers find it difficult to talk about sex and relationships with the children and young people in their care, and this can often feel even more daunting if the child in question has SEND. In my workshop I will be also be outlining some ways that teachers can work together with parents and carers to ensure that the relationships and sex education that these children receive is timely, relevant and useful.

The conference will be a chance to listen to what support is needed, and understand what gaps there are in RSE for children and young people with SEND.  The government’s new Sex and Relationships Education and PSHE advisor Ian Bauckham is going to present, which presents an opportunity to influence the updated guidance on RSE.  The current call for evidence from the government includes a question specifically asking schools how they should be expected to consult with parents, and they also want to hear from parents, as well as teachers, practitioners, and young people. You can take part in the consultation here.

There are still limited places available at the conference – you can sign up on our Eventbrite page.

This year could be a watershed for how we support young people to understand relationships and sex, and a perfect opportunity to give disabled children and those with SEN the information they need as they grow and develop.


By Dr Eleanor Draeger

8 January 2018