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Talking about sex and relationships: the views of young people

This was a three-year emancipatory research project (2007-2010) that looked at relationships and sexuality for young people with learning disabilities. The project was 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 were Colin Barnes and Ruth Garbutt.

An accessible illustrated summary of the project is available.


The project aimed to find out about the views and experiences of young people, parents and teachers around sex and relationships, with a long term aim of improving the future of sex and relationships education for young people with learning disabilities. The methods involved 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 was innovative and user-led, tackling a subject on which there had been little previous large-scale research.

The Sex and Relationships project embodied an emancipatory, user-led paradigm. Specific emancipatory features included:

  • People with learning disabilities led the planning of the project.
  • People with learning disabilities were on the board of trustees at CHANGE.
  • People with learning disabilities at CHANGE were employed on equal salaries to people without learning disabilities. On the Sex and Relationships project team, one worker had a learning disability. This worker was involved in every part of the research and was very involved in running the drama group and doing interviews. There were 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 delivered training and acted, based at CHANGE, helped 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 gave their views and ideas about sexuality and relationships using drama. Some of the young people also looked at training packs and leaflets about sex and relationships to tell the team what they thought of them.
  • The project had a volunteer with a learning disability who helped every week with the young people in the drama group.
  • The project involved interviewing parents. When the team talked to parents, they ensured that this included parents with a learning disability.
  • A group of volunteers with a learning disability helped the illustrator, who drew pictures for all public documents that were produced to make sure that everything was accessible for people with learning disabilities. The volunteers suggested pictures and gave the illustrator advice.
  • When the research was disseminated, people with learning disabilities made up a large part of the audience because the research was about them and affected them.
  • When the research was written up, it was written in an accessible way, using easy words and pictures. People with learning disabilities were involved in writing it up and they gave presentations about the research.


It is often hard for young people to talk openly about sex and relationships and theatre can assist people 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) were able to express themselves through mime, movement, dance, role play, forum theatre, theatre games or through the use of sign language. This meant that it extended 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 had its own resident drama group of adults with learning disabilities, the Rainbow Group, who delivered training and gave presentations at conferences and workshops.

The Sex and Relationships project used interactive/forum theatre to collect information from young people with learning disabilities because this made it easier for them to express their feelings and views. The Rainbow Group had a lot of experience of doing interactive theatre (theatre that allows people to express themselves and to join in making a play as they go along). The Rainbow Group helped the group of young people with learning disabilities to create a play. Twenty young people between the ages of 16 and 25 were recruited to form their own theatre group. The parents of the young people gave their consent for the young people to be involved.

Two co-ordinators (a person with a learning disability and a co-worker) were employed to do the drama workshops. The University researcher and the illustrator also participated in the drama sessions. Each session was videoed (with permission from the young people). The research team looked at the video of each session and analysed what people said and did. This gave the team an idea about what the performers knew, what they wanted to know and what they hoped for in the future. After twenty sessions with the young people, the Rainbow Group at CHANGE got involved. The Rainbow Group made a piece of drama based on what the young people told the research team in their weekly sessions.

The second set of twenty theatre sessions allowed the young people to work to change the drama made by the Rainbow Group as they saw fit, using a forum theatre technique. At the end of the second set of twenty weeks the young people put on a play and a large audience was invited to watch it. The research team also found out from the young people what their experience of doing the drama was like. The drama method was evaluated as a social research tool. Other methods used in this project included 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 were; interviews with parents; and focus groups with teachers and governors.


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

Other dissemination activities included:

  • 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