Protecting learning-disabled adults from sexual abuse

Protecting learning-disabled adults from sexual abuse

Did you know that in the UK adults with a learning disability are four times more likely to be sexually abused than their non-learning-disabled peers? It’s a haunting statistic, made worse by the fact that this is the tip of an iceberg submerged in fear, ignorance, isolation and prejudice.

"Recently someone asked if I am enjoying a relaxed retirement. Once I’d stopped laughing, I explained that in my 70th year a Churchill Fellowship had given me renewed focus and drive." - Sue Sharples, Fellow

It was knowing people who were part of these statistics, and recognising their unbearable, unnecessary suffering, that led me to a Churchill Fellowship. With many years of experience in social work, provider management and training, I was privileged to visit North America in search of knowledge and solutions for the issue of sexual safety for people with a learning disability.

Whilst the innovative solutions that I found on my travels are multifaceted, a key factor lies in providing appropriate training and information. However, in England there is no statutory requirement for support staff to receive training in relationships and sexuality, which results in patchy, inconsistent practice.

In some areas of North America, I found that a more proactive approach is taken to enable understanding about safe and healthy relationships in the learning-disabled community. This ranges from agencies having legal responsibility to provide training and information, to the equivalent of Safeguarding Adults Boards’ focus on preventative activities.

Applying this to a very different context in the UK was not easy, but here are a few of the recommendations for change that derived from my experience:

  • Strengthen individual knowledge and skills amongst a range of stakeholders. This is fundamentally about starting a currently taboo conversation, raising awareness, encouraging recognition of the importance of education and promoting the opportunities available.
  • Fostering coalitions and networks. I learned the value of collaboration from my hosts, many of whom had achieved change through building networks across non-traditional boundaries. With a metaphorical mountain to climb, I realised that it would be necessary to influence and forge links with a range of partners.
  • Changing organisational practices. There is a prevailing culture in social care services of risk aversion and prioritising safeguarding, which has led to inertia in this area. Supporting organisations to have a more open culture that recognises, nurtures and enables developing relationships is a necessary counterbalance.

So, what have I been able to do about this? Armed with the additional drive, inspiration and confidence provided by the Fellowship, my focus has been on developing new materials and sharing innovative practice.

As a trainer and consultant, I was immediately able to integrate what I had learned about trauma-informed sex education into my courses for people with a learning disability, and to use new approaches and techniques designed to normalise learning opportunities.

Building on observations in Canada and America about sexual self-advocacy, and involving people who draw on services as trainers, during lockdown I worked with our user-led group to develop an education and information pack about friendship. This has been used by organisations across the country.

I was fortunate to be involved already with Supported Loving, a network organisation dedicated to highlighting the importance of good support for personal and intimate relationships. I shared my Fellowship findings with colleagues through a webinar and have written their information toolkit sections on staying safe in relationships, supporting friendship and policy development.

Together with colleagues from Supported Loving, I made links with Skills for Care, the strategic workforce development and planning body for adult social care in England. I co-authored their guidance on supporting personal relationships, and contributed to an extensive learning materials review, all designed to inform and empower staff.

Subsequently, I have been working on a training pack for Skills for Care on relationships and sex for social care staff. The content for this work has been expanded to include all client groups. To address the need to have more open dialogue about intimate relations in social care, I have collaborated with colleagues to write a practical tool specifically for direct support staff called Shoo the Taboo.

I was delighted to have received a Covid-19 Action Fund grant from the Churchill Fellowship. This has allowed me to meet an objective of ‘family members having access to information and resources about relationships, designed and delivered by them’.

Recently someone asked if I am enjoying a relaxed retirement. Once I’d stopped laughing, I explained that in my 70th year a Churchill Fellowship had given me renewed focus and drive. There is much left to be done, the demand is gathering momentum and we are seeing a visible impact on staff’s confidence and the wellbeing of people supported. But there are still too many vulnerable people who are ill-informed, isolated and subject to sexual abuse and exploitation. So, as long as there is change to be achieved, improvements to be made and barriers to be broken, to paraphrase Churchill’s words - I’ll never, never, never give up.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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