love and sex in a school for disabled people

15 years 4 months ago #2045 by Able_Here_Team
Anushka Asthana, education correspondent
Sunday October 7, 2007
The Observer

Meet Tyran and Leanne - they learnt of love and sex in a school for the disabled

A pioneering policy is breaking an old taboo by encouraging disabled teenagers to form sexual relationships, with help from carers if necessary

Jan Symes remembered every detail of the scene. A 17-year-old girl with straight brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, heavy purple boots and clothes ill-suited for her age sat opposite her in a small office at Treloar's College, near Alton in Hampshire.
The teenager had cerebral palsy and was sitting in a wheelchair, using a machine to speak. She lifted her head, looked across at Jan and asked: 'Do you think it is all right for me, as a very disabled person, to fancy someone?' Symes was horrified. 'Will society think it is disgusting?' the girl went on.

Today the college for physically disabled teenagers over 16 goes public about a ground-breaking 'sexuality policy' that began to take shape that day two years ago, when a young woman shocked her counsellor by asking whether she had the right to fall in love.
A policy was designed that aimed to break down one of society's most enduring taboos: that of disability and sex. And now, for the first time, staff are ready to speak out about the controversy, legal wrangling and heated debates involved in producing a three-page document that fundamentally changed the ethos of the college. Students, it stated, not only had the right to pursue sexual relationships, but would be assisted physically and emotionally by specially trained staff.

Now other colleges for the disabled are looking to make a similar change. Like Treloar's, they have young people whose disabilities are so severe that even to hold hands, cuddle or kiss is impossible without help.

'Before, if any student was caught in a sexually compromising position, they would be expelled,' said Symes. Two pupils were kicked out when they were found getting close in the swimming pool changing rooms. Another girl became pregnant, but admitted that she had gone to a churchyard, outside the grounds of the residential college, to have sex.

Physical relationships, argued Symes, were a basic human right for every individual, able-bodied or not: 'At least now at Treloar's there is someone to talk to if a student wants to say \"I know I am going to die in a couple of years and I would like a relationship before that\", \"I fancy someone of the same sex\", or \"I have erections because I am a 17-year-old boy but I have no hand control\".'

The shift was not easy. At the start some staff were so vehemently opposed to it that they refused to put posters up in their departments asking for people's opinions. Barristers had to be brought in to scrutinise the wording. In some cases, helping pupils with learning disabilities to have sex would be against the law.

Safeguards were needed to prevent students being 'coerced, exploited or manipulated' by their peers, and the constant challenge was finding the borderline between 'assisting' pupils and becoming a participant. What was meant to take three months took close to two years.

When the Safe (sexuality and further education) policy finally came into being, one female member of staff was so upset that she left the school. She felt that staff were setting up pupils for failure, putting too much emphasis on sex and moving away from the core focus of education. Most of the staff disagreed.

Graham Jowett, who was principal of the college as the policy was being implemented and is now its director of education, said there was a drive to treat students as adults. 'You cannot do that without at some point young people saying, \"Hang on, if we were not disabled and at a special college, we would be able to have a relationship\",' said Jowett. 'It would be dishonest to say \"we are going to treat you like adults, but this is one area that is taboo\".'

Sitting in a bright office leading on to one of the corridors at Treloar's, Jowett argued that, before the policy came in, many students rarely experienced touch other than with carers. He remembered watching some students take part in a dance recital where able-bodied peers draped themselves over their wheelchairs. 'I thought that perhaps that was their only experience of sensuality with other people,' he said.

From day one, Jowett was 'uncritically positive' about the new policy. The document itself focused on dignity and respect, providing information on safe sex and making it possible for the teenagers to experience what millions of others took for granted. One key paragraph read: 'Students may wish to have opportunities for loving and being loved, and to be helped to achieve fulfilling relationships: these will range from platonic friendships to partnerships which include a mutually agreed sexual element.'

But it is not all about sex. In one case a student was granted his wish of visiting a strip club before he died; in another, sexy magazines and DVDs were purchased. 'My guiding principle would be, are they over 18, is it legal, is it licensed?' said Jowett. 'It is not for me to make a moral judgment about the right or wrong of it.' His work is now being drawn on by the hospice movement and other colleges.

Close to the main building at Treloar's, is a set of flats designed to help pupils to learn to live independently. Amid brightly coloured flowers, wooden doors automatically swing open into typical student flats, with clothes strewn over the furniture and posters on the walls. Only on closer inspection is it clear that work surfaces move up and down, that the beds have buzzers attached to them and that there are tracks on the ceilings to help pupils move around.

In one such room, Leanne Tasker and her boyfriend, Tyran Hawthorn - 20-year-olds who both use electric wheelchairs - were helped to take their relationship further with the assistance of support worker Teresa Capes. Until Leanne left the college last July, they needed her to help them touch, hug and kiss. 'I did not feel embarrassed because I knew we needed help,' said Tyran, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a rare condition that causes progressive muscle weakness as cells break down and are lost, giving sufferers a life expectancy in the mid-twenties.

Even with the policy, the couple found their love life frustrating. If they wanted to hug, they had to book in time with Capes, wait for her and a mattress to be brought up, be assisted into position and finally left alone. 'Not many people realise that people in wheelchairs want to do normal things,' said Leanne, who has just started at Southampton University, 'like having relationships and taking them to the next level. The most frustrating thing is that we have to rely on other people.'

Leanne, who has arthrogryposis - a condition that affects the joints - said she tried not to think about the fact that she and her boyfriend would never grow old: 'If we thought about it, we would not be able to live or do anything.'

Tomorrow a remarkable documentary on Channel 5, part of the Extraordinary People series, will tell the story of another pupil at Treloar's who suffers with DMD. In it, Stuart Wickison, 19, talks candidly about his sexual desires: 'We all have this desire to lose our virginity. We feel we need to experience this ultimate pleasure to balance out the pain we have - not just physical pain; it's psychological pain as well. It is as if we feel the only way to make worth of ourselves is to have sex. It sounds so crude, but I feel that to experience that is to live life to the full, to know the whole of life. We don't have much time left. We have to live our 77 years in 20.' People like Capes help to make that possible. 'If an able-bodied teenager was falling in love, they would find somewhere to have a kiss and a cuddle and take that relationship further,' she said. 'If you are not an able-bodied person, that may not be possible, but the emotional needs are still there - why should people not have sexual relationships?'

It is an attitude shared by staff across Treloar's. Many emphasise the differences for students who have severe physical disabilities. 'Most people learn gradually about sex, from playground banter on,' said Helen Goodenough, an assistant principal. She pointed out that it would not be illegal for a student to hire a prostitute, provided that staff did not make the call for them. In January Nick Wallis, a DMD sufferer, made the headlines when he persuaded nuns and nurses at his hospice in Oxford to help him find a prostitute so that he could experience sex before he died.

'For most of us, flirting at the school disco, having a dance and a smooch is normal,' said Goodenough. 'But if you are an electric wheelchair user and cannot get out yourself, it is difficult.'

That was the case for the 17-year-old girl who felt it was wrong to fancy someone and feared society would sneer. Thanks to people like Jan Symes, her life has been transformed. Not only did she find a boyfriend and fall in love, but she is now engaged to be married.

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8 years 3 months ago #56684 by tanvirbajwa1
hi my name is davey i am 29 years old i was born with spina bifida. and im looking for friendship also i like meeting new people.


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8 years 3 months ago #56686 by Tomrymer
Three cheers for Treloars! An enlightened attitude that respects the individual students as individuals with desires a strong and normal as anyone else's while confronting the practical difficulties of those with severe impairments is long overdue in colleges and other institutions where others have traditionally used their power to intervene or interfere.

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