Researchers' masterclass to promote sexual rights for people with disability

Media release
26 March 2019

People with disabilities are too often seen as inherently vulnerable, without agency in relation to sexuality and relationships, according to the convenor of a masterclass in sexuality and intellectual disability being held at Deakin University this week.

The Disability and Inclusion unit within Deakin's School of Health and Social Development, will on Thursday bring together leading researchers, including those with a lived experience of intellectual disability, in a unique masterclass on sexuality and intellectual disability.

The masterclass convenor, Deakin Associate Professor of Disability and Inclusion Patsie Frawley, said the event would explore the way sexuality and disability is understood and responded to by researchers, service providers and policy makers, and how this work can be done in partnership with people with an intellectual disability.

"As part of the upcoming royal commission into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disabilities, we must engage with these issues and see the complexity of developing strong prevention approaches that also acknowledge the sexuality and relationship rights of people with disabilities," Associate Professor Frawley said.

"It's important that sex and relationships can be discussed in a way that acknowledges the full experience for people with intellectual disabilities. We want sexuality in the lives of people with an intellectual disability to be understood from their perspective."

Associate Professor Frawley said the newly-announced royal commission into disability abuse was an opportunity for research like hers to join with advocacy to help pave the way for greater sexual autonomy for those with a disability.

"Sexual abuse is an ever-present issue in the lives of people with an intellectual disability. We do not know the full extent of this abuse," she said.

"So unfortunately by necessity any conversations about sexuality for those living with a disability will overlap with discussions about violence and abuse. But we want to frame that conversation in an authentic and balanced way.

"Services are improving all the time in responding to the sexual abuse of people with disabilities, but we need to get the response right. These services are only effective if people are heard and believed when they disclose abuse."

Associate Professor Frawley said people with intellectual disabilities were most silenced in this space, but programs like Deakin's 'Sexual Lives and Respectful Relationships' aimed to provide tools of empowerment.

"This is a peer education program, which means it's facilitated by people with intellectual disabilities who engage with their peers around issues of sexuality and enable them to share their stories," she said.

"Our research and work with nearly 60 peer educators across Australia has shown that being a peer educator itself is an empowering and positive step towards changing the story about sexuality, sexual violence and abuse in the lives of people with an intellectual disability."

Linda Stokoe, a peer educator, researcher and trainer in the Deakin program said it was important for her to be able to change attitudes about sexuality and intellectual disability.

"I'm in their shoes," Ms Stokoe said.

Associate Professor Frawley said people with intellectual disabilities were people like anyone else.

"People with intellectual disabilities like anyone else have all sorts of feelings, needs, experiences and questions, and we have to be ready to hear those," she said.

"Dr Michael Gill, one of the international presenters at our masterclass speaks about how we have developed an 'extraordinary' sexuality for people with an intellectual disability that is without intimacy, without choices, and without reproductive rights.

"This understanding also goes some way to explaining what underpins the experiences of abuse of people with intellectual disabilities that might come to light in the royal commission.

"It's crucial we dismantle those systemic issues of power, control and isolation."

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