Thinking out loud
People with learning disabilities are just like you and me....defining themselves as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning who they are sexually.
I’m a student social worker with a vision that one day I would like to change the world. Except realistically I know this is not possible. I’m going to start by trying to change the way people think.
Therefore, when my supervisor told me about this amazing project called Living It Up, I could get involved in, I jumped at the chance. Social work is not just about abuse and neglect. It’s also about vulnerable groups of people who are marginalised through health and social factors outside of their control.
Working with adults with learning disabilities fuelled my passion to promote inclusion, equality and diversity. Now these words are social work buzz words, but the important part is how would I do it? I did not learn my knowledge through reading a lot of books (I did try) but because this amazing group of people have taught me about all their wonderful qualities.
Do you know what I’ve learnt? People with learning disabilities are just like anybody else! Just like you and me. They want to go out, have relationships, fall in love, have sex. Even defining themselves as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and falling into the questioning box where they are not sure who they are sexually.
The difference is, you and I can understand the term LGBTQ, and yet we still have questions and confusion. Who says that people with learning disabilities can’t have sex or a relationship? I don’t have a learning disability but some mornings I wake up thinking I’m heterosexual; some days I’m bi-sexual and other days I think I’m a lesbian.
I set out to organise an LGBTQ event for adults with learning disabilities who may fall into this category too. This was not an easy task. Even pulling together a flyer had its challenges. How should I word it? What language can people in this group understand? Who will read it or explain it to them? So, I kept to the traditional LGBTQ colour themes with a few arty effects to make it stand out. I had written the words ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’,’ bi-sexual’, ‘transgender’ and ‘questioning’ in capital letters. I was feeling satisfied with my work thinking that this flyer will generate a mass of interested people.
I started to look for venues, another hurdle. First, there are not many venues that are accessible for disabled people. One venue that is well known for hosting regular LGBTQ nights responded promptly when I contacted them. However, when I explained the target group of people I was ‘ghosted’ (they never replied)!
I did not give up. I then went to a high street bar who accommodated me and my ideas with pleasure. The next part was how to send out invites. I attached my flyer with an email to most of the well-known service providers and organisations. Basically, to anybody who was on my list who could be relevant candidates for the event. I felt like I was achieving something. I was already imagining that so many people would turn up, the night would be a roaring success. I kept it realistic and booked for only 14 people. If more people came we could just pull up more tables. Sadly, I didn’t get any responses back to confirm attendance.
The reality was far different. My success consisted of just one person! So, there was my supervisor, myself, another volunteer, one attendee and 10 empty seats. Now at this point, we could have ended the night and gone home, but I don’t work like that. The one person who turned up, I shall call her L, came dressed up and ready to party, and perhaps meet a partner. She was very disappointed to find that she was the only person. Should I have been disheartened? I still thought this was a success. One person meant that there are people with learning disabilities who define themselves as LGBTQ. They do exist in this world and if we’ve found one, we’ll find more.
We began to ask L questions, which she was happy to answer honestly. She told us she likes girls but did not know what ‘lesbian’ meant. When prompted with clues, she understood the term better. So, I realised that my flyer would not reach those who did not understand the terms lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning. I made a mental note to use pictures next time. L was happy to become our resident expert and help us with the project. This was exactly what we needed, an expert by experience. Do you know what else I found out? L wants a relationship where somebody will love her, with someone she loves, wants to go out with, have fun and do things together and even think about having sex! Yes, people with learning disabilities want to have sex! What she doesn’t want is to be ‘dumped’ and have her heart broken. Does all this sound familiar? Just like you and me, L wants what everybody else wants. What makes her different?
Here are some of the barriers we found. It was not the people with learning disabilities themselves, but the carers and families who think, god forbid their disabled adult child would ever want intimate relationships. Cultural influences where the idea of LGBTQ is wrong irrespective of being disabled or not. Finally, this group of people may not be able to come to our events independently, unless they have a carer or supporter to chaperone them. Do carers understand the importance of enabling and not disabling? Do they understand that for this group of adults attending these LGBTQ events is just as important in terms of their wellbeing and identity as empowering them and promoting their independence?
My thoughts are simple, not your body, not your choice. But of course, I must be diplomatic and tactful. So perhaps a bit of gentle education is helpful in my endeavour to enable people with disabilities embrace their sexuality. First and foremost, by understanding what sexuality may be. I’m still enthusiastic because by turning up L gave me renewed ideas and knowledge. I know that with perseverance, we will succeed.
The views expressed in the Supported Loving blog are not necessarily those of Choice Support.