Silence, stigma and suppression. These are the stock responses when the subject of sex and learning disability rears its head.

And when even heterosexual sex for people with learning disabilities remains taboo what chance is there for those who are gay?

Learning disability nurse Sue Medley has spent almost three decades in the NHS and she admits that after nearly a lifetime in nursing, she has spent “nowhere near enough” time talking about sexuality with people with learning disabilities.

But Medley and her colleagues at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) are now working to chip away at the prejudice that has prevented people with learning disabilities exploring their sexuality.

Safe space

The trust’s adult learning disability team has launched a project to encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people with learning disabilities to open up about their sexuality.

LGBT+ SafePLACE will provide a venue where it is safe for people to talk confidentially about their thoughts and feelings and signpost them to other services.

There’s also a phone line people can call if they are not ready for a face-to-face chat.

“For us it came about because we saw a need," says Sue. "We had some professionals talk to us about some people that they were working with that they felt were really isolated.”

Alongside colleagues, Sue discussed the subject at a forum made up of people with learning disabilities and their carers. “We were quite shocked (by) how positive they were about it,” she recalls."

Sue said one forum member from a residential care home told the group how she didn’t know whether she was gay or straight. The woman said she would not discuss it with anyone in her home for fear of their reaction.

Relief

Over a decade ago researchers at Bristol University completed a three-year study on lesbian, gay and bisexual people with learning disabilities.

The work produced the book Secret loves, hidden lives?

Authors David Abbott and Joyce Howarth found all those they spoke to were attracted to people of the same sex in their teenage years.

But they also found that their accounts of coming out were “dominated by a fear and anxiety of rejection, followed by a strong sense of relief if, and when, the news was well received”.

Those who had recently been through college felt unable to come out there, while others feared they would be asked to leave services or organisations they valued.

Community Support Worker Ian Duncan, who helped to develop the NSFT scheme, said the early response to their service, though low key, suggests a long-standing unmet need.

“It wasn’t until the phone lines opened that we realised there appears to be a lot of people out there struggling with their sexuality and not knowing where to go and who to speak to about it,” Ian says.

Peer support

One of the first people to make contact with LGBT+ SafePLACE, Hayden, says he finds it easier to talk about his sexuality with someone other than those who are paid to support him.

Hayden, who did not wish to reveal his surname, said: “I am pleased there is a group like this, where I can choose to talk about my sexuality and what my views are.”

Sue hinted much of the fear among people with learning disabilities might be linked to a lack of understanding rooted in poor education about how far LGBT culture has moved into the mainstream.

She said: “If you think about how we support children who are from the non-disabled community — they have lots and lots of education and that’s part of their growing up.

“They have the education that’s very formal, also education from their families and their peers, whereas in a special school that’s very, very different — there’s a very different vibe in a special school.”

And for families raising a child with a learning disability sexuality may be low down on their list of priorities, says Medley.

The efforts of the NSFT to provide support for LGBT people with learning disabilities are mirrored elsewhere around the country with similar projects.

The Meet ‘N’ Match friendship and dating agency in Lancashire also provides a secure environment for its LGBT members to meet.

Set up by community interest company the Unite Group Meet ‘N’ Match has around 12 members in its LGBT group that meets monthly.

Project coordinator Lucy Hamlin said: “For us, just in terms of relationships, if you’ve got a learning disability there’s a need for support around that regardless of your sexuality.

“But then if you’ve got a learning disability and you identify as LGBT there’s less support.”

Bradley Wilson, 24, who has a moderate learning disability and ADHD, joined Meet ‘N’ Match to meet new people and find love.

Bradley, who came out as bisexual about two years ago, said: “I’ve not found love, but I’ve found new friends.”

Now a volunteer with Meet ‘N’ Match, Bradley says the group has made a “real big difference” to his life.

Manchester-based support group Better Things was set up around five years ago after it grew out of an advocacy group when a couple of members opened up about their sexuality.

With around six regular members based at the LGBT Foundation, in Canal Street, Manchester, this group also meets monthly.

Chief executive of the charity Kate Maggs said: “We work with a number of couples who are married and people who have got children across the ability levels of learning disability and autism."

“So we know people with learning disabilities have those same emotional needs and needs to have relationships and be in loving relationships with whatever gender. But I think historically it’s been very overlooked.”

Image: Bradley Wilson, who says the Meet ‘N’ Match LGBT group has made a “real big difference” to his life.