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.

  • The Sex and Relationships project embodies an emancipatory, user-led paradigm. Specific emancipatory features include:
  • People with learning disabilities have led the planning of the project.
  • People with learning disabilities are on the board of trustees at CHANGE.
  • People with learning disabilities at CHANGE are employed on equal salaries to people without learning disabilities. In the Sex and Relationships project team one worker has a learning disability. This worker gets involved in every part of the research and has been very involved in running the drama group and doing interviews. There are four people in the research team: a University researcher, two drama co-ordinators (one with a learning disability) and an illustrator.
  • A group of adults with learning disabilities, called the Rainbow group, who deliver training and do acting, based at CHANGE, are going to help young people with learning disabilities create a play about their experiences and views on sex and relationships, as part of the project.
  • Young people with learning disabilities are giving their views and ideas about sexuality and relationships using drama. Some of the young people are also looking at training packs and leaflets about sex and relationships to tell the team what they think of them.
  • The project has a volunteer with a learning disability who helps every week with the young people in the drama group.
  • The project will involve interviewing parents. When the team talk to parents, they will make sure that this includes parents with a learning disability.
  • A group of volunteers with a learning disability are helping the illustrator, who draws pictures for all public documents that are produced to make sure that everything is accessible for people with learning disabilities. The volunteers suggest pictures and give the illustrator advice.
  • When the research is disseminated people with learning disabilities will make up a large part of the audience because the research is about them and affects them.
  • When the research is written up it will be written in an accessible way, using easy words and pictures. People with learning disabilities will be involved in writing it up and they will give presentations about the 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:

  • A series of leaflets in easy words and pictures about the findings of the project.
  • A report in easy words and pictures for the Big Lottery Fund.
  • Two regional seminars: one in the South and one in the North of England.
  • Reports on the CHANGE website and other websites.
  • Articles published in magazines and academic journals