Centre for Disability Studies

Centre for Disability Studies

MA Disability Studies students celebrate graduation

MA Disability Studies students celebrate graduation

Talking about sex and relationships: the views of young people

This is a three year emancipatory research project (2007-2010) looking at relationships and sexuality for young people with learning disabilities. The project is a collaboration between the University of Leeds and CHANGE ( a national organization that fights for the rights of people with learning disabilities, based in Leeds) and funded by a grant from the Big Lottery Fund. Leeds staff involved in the project include Colin Barnes and Ruth Garbutt (email Ruth for more details or contact CHANGE).

An accessible illustrated summary of the project is available.


The project aims to find out about the views and experiences of young people, parents and teachers around sex and relationships, with the long term aim of improving the future of sex and relationships education for young people with learning disabilities. The methods involve extensive drama workshops with young people with learning disabilities, a national survey of special schools, interviews with parents and focus groups with teachers/ governors. The project is innovative and user-led, tackling a subject on which there has been little previous large-scale research.


It is often hard for young people to talk openly about sex and relationships and theatre can assist peopel to express their views and feelings. Amongst the gains are the likelihood that people otherwise unable to express their views through language (for example, using traditional types of research tools) are able to express themselves through mime, movement, dance, role play, forum theatre, theatre games or through the use of sign language. This means that it extends participation to individuals who might otherwise be disabled by the research approach taken, rather than by their ability to communicate. The highly acclaimed work of theatre groups run with and by people with learning disabilities is presently growing (e.g. Mind the Gap, Strathcona, Dead Earnest) and CHANGE has its own resident drama group of adults with learning disabilities, the Rainbow Group, who deliver training and give presentations at conferences and workshops.

The Sex and Relationships project is using interactive/forum theatre to collect information from young people with learning disabilities because this makes it easier for them to express their feelings and views. The Rainbow Group have a lot of experience of doing interactive theatre which is theatre that allows people to express themselves and to join in making a play as they go along. The Rainbow Group will help the group of young people with learning disabilities to create a play. Twenty young people between the ages of 16 and 25 have been recruited to form their own theatre group. The parents of the young people have given their consent for the young people to be involved.

Two co-ordinators (a person with a learning disability and a co-worker) are employed to do the drama workshops. The University researcher and the illustrator also participate in the drama sessions. Each session is videoed (with permission from the young people). The research team look at the video of each session and analyse what people have said and done. This gives the team an idea about what the performers know, what they want to know and what they hope for in the future. After twenty sessions with the young people, the Rainbow Group at CHANGE will get involved. The Rainbow Group is making a piece of drama based on what the young people have told the research team in their weekly sessions.

The second set of twenty theatre sessions will allow the young people to work to change the drama made by the Rainbow Group as they see fit, using a forum theatre technique. At the end of the second set of twenty weeks the young people will put on a play and a large audience will be invited to watch it. The research team will also find out from the young people what their experience of doing the drama was like. The drama method will be evaluated as a social research tool. Other methods used in this project include a national survey to all special schools and colleges to find out what kind of sex education is taught and what some of the difficulties are; interviews with parents; and focus groups with teachers and governors.


A key feature of dissemination will be the play that the young people with learning disabilities will perform towards the end of the project. By this time the young people will have met almost every week for over 18 months. They will have explored their ideas about sex and relationships. They will have developed their drama skills and worked together as a team. They will have worked with the Rainbow group to produce a play that brings out some of the themes they have talked about in their sessions. The play will be performed to an audience of young people with learning disabilities, professionals, parents, and others.

Other dissemination activities will include:

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