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Sex and disability: The conversation we urgently need to have

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Brook Sex Health Access to sexual health services is vital in order to empower all young people, says Lou Brack

Navigating the complexities of sexual health can be daunting, especially when you’re also tackling the stigma that surrounds sex and disability. At Brook we know that access to sexual health services is vital in order to empower all young people to understand and explore their own sexuality. That’s why our theme for Sexual Health Week 2019 is sex, relationships and disability.

We want to be part of normalising the conversations around sex and disability, and this also means better supporting professionals who work young people and their diverse needs.

Research conducted as part of Mencap’s Treat Me Well campaign found that a quarter of healthcare professionals had never attended training specifically on learning disability, and over a third thought that people with a learning disability received worse quality healthcare than those without.

When working with young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), there are a few simple adjustments that can be made to ensure you are providing the best support possible.

I have cared for a number of individuals with various abilities, and my biggest piece of advice is to allocate adequate time to properly speak to a patient with SEND. You might need to take some time to establish the level of terminology they are comfortable using and their level of understanding. Having pictures or using visual aids can also be really helpful if a patient doesn’t have the language to describe what they’re going through.

Be aware that the patient may need an advocate present during the appointment, this is not necessarily a parent or carer but it could be. An advocate can offer support by continuing to reinforce the information provided after the appointment, but it’s important to be mindful of confidentiality and to have an appreciation of whether the patient wants to share that information.

Research suggests that children with learning difficulties are more at risk of sexual exploitation. As such, I would always recommend using the opportunity to talk about sexual health as part of any general wellbeing check-up so that you can identify any risks or safeguarding concerns.

Don’t forget to use the expertise that already exists! Get to know your local network and signposting options and if you need help with a client then refer them to a nearby service.

Lastly, remember that everyone has the right to a sex life and to enjoy sexual pleasure. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to be done to address misconceptions and you may need to be ready to challenge those beliefs.

You can support Brook’s Sexual Health Week (16-22 September) by sharing our suggestions with your colleagues, being part of the conversation on Twitter using #SHW19, and displaying this poster in your services.

Sex and disability simply isn’t talked about enough. Be part of the change.

Lou Brack, Head of Nursing for Brook

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