From the experts: Disabled people have the right to intimacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 5:30pm

In 2006, the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was unveiled, with the aim of achieving the same human rights for the disabled as people without disabilities. But what about sexual rights?

Almost 20 years earlier, the late Dr Ann Craft, a British social worker, was advocating freedom of sexual expression for people with learning disabilities. She argued that such people have the right:


  • To grow up - to be treated with the respect and dignity accorded to adults without learning disabilities;
  • To know - to have access to and assimilate information about themselves, their emotions, their bodies and those of other people, and appropriate social behaviour;
  • To be sexual and to make and break relationships;
  • Not to be at the mercy of the individual sexual attitudes of different care givers;
  • Not to be sexually abused; and
  • To live in humane and dignified environments.


The right not to be abused seems like a no-brainer to most people. But the other points may result in anxiety for some people. What if they get themselves or someone else pregnant? Won't this put them at risk of abuse or abusing others? What if they don't have the emotional capacity to be in a relationship?

Actually, these are the same questions that are asked about normal people with respect to sex and relationship education.

People with learning disabilities also go through puberty. This developmental leap occurs in, and exacerbates, a personal context in which they often already feel "different" and struggle to understand the world around them. But they're often thought of as being asexual and therefore not wanting or needing relationships.

Alternatively, they may be seen as promiscuous or deviant because of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Both of these views can lead to these people being denied any information related to sex and relationships, which reduces the opportunities for them to gain helpful knowledge and to express themselves in appropriate ways.

The lack of information, coupled with low self-esteem that arises from a denial of individual rights, makes these people vulnerable to abuse. "We believe that it's important for our students to be given a space to ask questions and learn about sex and relationships in a supportive environment," says Emma Rhoda, programme director at the Nesbitt Centre in Sai Ying Pun.

"We run an Understand Relationships Group for students of a similar developmental age, which provides a safe forum for them to explore their social and sexual identities. Our students can learn about issues such as the difference between public and private behaviour and of appropriate and inappropriate touch. Not having this knowledge leaves our adults open to potential abuse or exploitation."

In 2009, an Australian study that interviewed adults with mild learning disabilities demonstrated that they have the same sexual and intimacy needs as people without learning disabilities. Research has also shown that as people with learning disabilities engage in sexual activity in close relationships, there is a reduction in aggression.

This fits with the knowledge base that healthy relationships are beneficial for people and are associated with longer, physically and psychologically healthier lives.

"To be a human being is to be a sexual being," says Craft. "Although there may be a range of intensity, varying over time, we all have sexual needs, feelings and drives, from the most profoundly handicapped to the most able among us. Although we can shape [and mis-shape] sexual expression, sexuality is not an optional extra which we in our wisdom can choose to bestow or withhold according to whether or not some kind of intelligence test is passed."

Wise words.


Dr Justin Grayer is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist at