Analysis

Ending the double discrimination faced by LGBT people with learning disabilities

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues can often be overlooked in learning disability care, but some initiatives across England are seeking to change that and provide a space for LGBT people to chat freely and be themselves.   

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues can often be overlooked in learning disability care, but some initiatives across England are seeking to change that and provide a space for LGBT people to chat freely and be themselves.   


(L-R) Ian Duncan, Sue Medley and George Millington of the adult learning disabilities 
team at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.

When specialist nurse Sue Medley and her colleagues floated the idea of a ‘safe space’ for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people with learning disabilities they were ‘astounded’ by the response.

‘People we’d known for a long time made comments like “I don’t know if I like men or women” and “my brother says he’s gay, but I don’t know what that means.” It was a real eye-opener for us and we realised we needed to respond.’

Care Act 2014

Identified personal relationships as an eligible need

Ms Medley, a member of Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust's adult learning disability team in Great Yarmouth and Waveney, says it is still early days, but the initiative is starting to snowball. ‘It’s important for all of us working in this area to get those conversations going.’

Double discrimination

A recognition that LGBT people with learning disabilities face double discrimination is also gathering pace elsewhere. Claire Bates, honorary research associate at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent, has set up a UK-wide network called Supported Loving to share good practice among groups supporting people with learning disabilities to have relationships – including same-sex partnerships.

‘Whatever their sexuality, people with learning disabilities have a right to a loving relationship. But once austerity came in many of the groups supporting them to do that had their funding cut and just fell away,’ says Dr Bates.

A safe space for people with learning disabilities to explore their sexuality

The LGBT SafePLACE initiative was set up by Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, after staff involved with the already established My Health scheme – offering physical help and advice to people with learning disabilities – discovered that there was a need for it.

The first step was to set up a telephone helpline. This soon had calls from LGBT people with learning disabilities saying they felt isolated and had nowhere to go.

The next step was a meeting at Lowestoft Library Navigator centre. Sue Medley, a specialist nurse with the adult learning disability team, says staff were not sure anyone would turn up. But they did.

‘We had a man who said it was the first time he had told anyone he was gay, and he said he wanted to come back.

‘We’ve also had a referral from social workers for someone who wants to cross dress. Support staff can find these conversations hard so SafePLACE could make a difference. 

‘We see this as a key part of improving the lives of people with learning disabilities. We don’t know yet whether the group will take off, but the staff will show up each month so we’re there for those service users who need to talk.’

 

Many people with learning disabilities are desperate to have a conversation about the subject. Yet it is an area professionals often shy away from. One staff member told Dr Bates: ‘I don’t want to open that can of worms’ while another commented ‘If we let them meet someone and it goes wrong, then what?’

Is the Mental Capacity Act 2005 really working?

Dr Bates fears that the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which was meant to protect people’s rights, is being used as a way of restricting their behaviour to ‘keep them safe,’ particularly when it comes to sex.

3%

The number of people with learning disabilities who live with a partner compared to 70% in the general population

(Emerson 2005) 

‘LGBT issues are still something of a taboo subject for people with learning disabilities. We don’t always allow them the space to question their sexuality.

'If they tentatively mention they like people of the same sex they’ll either be ignored because “it’s too difficult”. Or they’ll be rushed off to an LGBT group before their feet touch the ground. There’s no balance.’

One area at the forefront of efforts to address the issue is Sussex, and in 2014 LGBT Health and Inclusion project held a roundtable event, for people who have learning disabilities and staff to discuss how services could do better when it came to supporting LGBT people with learning disabilities.

It led to the setting up of an LGBT advocacy group. This later became a victim of spending cuts, but it has recently relaunched after securing new funding from the local authority as part of efforts to engage with people with learning disabilities.

Staff or clients?

Dawn Thorpe, project worker with Brighton and Hove Speak Out, says that before the advocacy group was set up, staff helping clients fill out forms found that when they reached the equal opportunities question about sexuality the most common response was ‘what does that mean?’

‘We know from our experience last time it will be a slow-burner. So, to anyone thinking of starting a similar group the message is, do the groundwork, allow enough time for it to become established and get your LGBT service users on board – they are the best ambassadors to help spread the word’

‘People are often dependent on their support worker for knowledge, but not all staff find it easy to talk about this subject. And apart from lack of information, service users tell us their biggest problem is finding somewhere to go to meet like-minded people.’

Family members

A survey of LGBT people with learning disabilities found that most had been abused because of their sexuality, often by close family members

(Norah Fry Research Centre)

The Speak Out LGBT group meet once a fortnight in gay venues in Brighton. The hope is that LGBT people with learning disabilities will become more visible in the community, and as bar and café staff get used to them they will receive a warmer welcome.

But some meetings will be held at the Speak Out office for people who want to discuss confidential issues. ‘And, of course, if someone has a drink problem we wouldn’t expect them to meet in a bar. The group is very much service user-led, so they decide where meetings are held,' adds Ms Thorpe.

‘We know from our experience last time it will be a slow-burner. So, to anyone thinking of starting a similar group the message is, do the groundwork, allow enough time for it to become established and get your LGBT service users on board – they are the best ambassadors to help spread the word.’

A chance to Mingle

One of the longest running groups for LGBT people with learning disabilities is Mingle in Oxfordshire, which is funded by the service provider Guideposts.

Mingle grew out of the Mates ‘n’ Dates group set up ten years ago, and each monthly meeting starts with a workshop run by a clinical psychologist. The group then decides to discuss any issues the members want to raise. Topics have included what it feels like to be discriminated against, coming out to the family or a support worker and what is legal and illegal when it comes to sex.

Mingle has six core members and another four who drop in occasionally and some members come from outside the county to take part. The group aims to promote inclusion and members have attended Pride events.

 

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