Online sex education and disabled under-18s: workshop in Liverpool

[Image showing the programme description. Dusty pink background and triangle pattern in different colours on the left. Uni of Liverpool logo, the workshop name and organizers, date and place of event]

In June I participated in a workshop at the University of Liverpool, arranged by Aoife Daly, director of the European Children’s Rights Unit (ECRU). Aoife has recently published the book Children, Autonomy and the Courts: Beyond the Right to be Heard. After an introduction to the day, doctoral candidate Rachel Heah presented a literature review undertaken by ECRU examining ‘perspectives on the sexuality, sexual identities, sexual development and sexual practices of people with disabilities, with a view to evaluating the need for people with disabilities, especially children and young people, to have access to sexuality education’. 

Rachel is collecting data with young people in sex and relationships education (SRE) classes. She has recently written about the government’s plans to update the curriculum, which includes some great additions such as consent, sexting, mental health and LGTQ+. But it also proposes a worrying new regulatory framework which would see relationships education taught separately from sex and relationships education. The former would be compulsory while parents have the right to withdraw their children from the latter. I look forward to Rachel’s research findings, they will surely be valuable additions to this field.

After Rachel’s introduction, the first speaker was Kirsty Liddiard from the School of Education and Institute for the Study of the Human (iHuman), University of Sheffield. Her talk was based on her recent book The intimate lives of disabled people and gave a great introduction to the rest of the day. One of her key findings relates to disabled people’s experiences of missing out on SRE in their youth, leaving them with lacking knowledge about their bodies, sexualities and reproduction in adulthood.

Not having such important knowledge may be an important reason for having increased vulnerability to being in destructive relationships, of being sexually abused and for not having enough information to secure one’s sexual and reproductive health.

Other academic speakers included Darren Chadwick, Institute of Sport and Human Science, University of Wolverhampton, who presented his research on ‘Experiences of people with a learning disability of online risk and support for risk management and digital inclusion’, and Catherine O’Sullivan, School of Law, University College Cork, on ‘The importance of yes: Sexuality education and the understanding of consent amongst children’.

There were also presentations by civil society organisations: the ‘appropriate relationships and keeping yourself safe’ programme presented by Rita Jones from Advanced Solutions; and sex education and learning disabled young people by Lucy Dabner from the sexual health charity Brook.

Another two presenters came from special school contexts; ‘Engagement and Participation in Relationship Education – reflections from a SEND school’ by Janette Porter, Tender project Co-ordinator and Facilitator, Liverpool John Moores University; and ‘Teaching Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in a special school setting’ by Marie Armstrong, Bank View High School.

After the talks, we had some great discussions about the issues that are specific to young disabled people and how to work most effectively with them, as well as the issues that are pertinent to all youth and which we hope that the new curriculum will cover adequately. It was a very information-packed day which nevertheless included lots of opportunities for discussion and reflection. I especially enjoyed the mix of academic and practice-based experiences – a mix that I think is crucial for successful programmes.

Lastly, I was happy to disseminate my recent paper Cripping sex education: lessons learned from a programme aimed at young people with mobility impairments to the participants afterwards (there might be a couple more open access copies left on this link, let me know otherwise). Sexuality and relationships education is a topic that I would gladly engage more with in the future.