“I like that he reads a lot, and that he’s handsome too!” says Nicoleta of her boyfriend Marian. Marian and Nicoleta, both in their twenties, met by chance in 2014, and are now eager to move in together. “She’s beautiful,” he says, “the moment I saw her I knew. It was love at first sight.”
Their story is not uncommon. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and get married. Except, that Nicoleta and Marian both have special needs and live in residential care homes far apart. They are only able to meet every three months, when Marian’s carer can drive him. Yet, the distance doesn’t perturb them. When asked about the future, Marian grins, “We want to move in together and start a family one day”.
Marian and Nicoleta are the lucky ones. The support provided by their carers has enabled them to develop their relationship, yet the reality across many countries in Europe is that young people with intellectual disabilities are often not afforded the same opportunities as everyone else.While there are rapid changes in cultural and social norms, people often don’t realise that young people with learning disabilities are not children, but young men and women with the same need for intimacy, sexual affection and love just like anyone else. There also tends to be a lack of engagement in positive sexuality discussion, as sexuality in itself is taboo.
A key issue is that parents are often not provided with the tools to support and teach their own children about their rights and, crucially, ensure these are respected in their day-to-day reality. Eugenia Behar is cognitive behavioural therapist and a parent of a daughter with a severe developmental delay. She was trained within the Keep me Safeproject by the Society for Education on Contraception and Sexuality (SECS) and went on to train other parents;
“We need to give them as much autonomy as we can and let them find their own way. Identifying the emotions they are passing through and having the language to express these are vital. As a parent or as a caregiver, sometimes you forget that it's not your choice.”
Ninety percent of people with disabilities experience sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Young people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse due to stigma, discrimination and ignorance about disabilities, isolation, as well as inadequate services and support to the families. The perception that they are not sexual beings also means that many young people with disabilities have little to no access to sexuality education. If no one ever talks openly to them about sex and sexuality in a positive way, as well as discussing rights, responsibilities, boundaries and social norms, it may result in inappropriate sexual behaviour, violence and abuse. Tolerance and understanding from the community are also crucial to tackling abuse.
Empowering young people with disabilities to protect themselves against sexual abuse and violence requires acknowledgement and respect of their sexuality and need for love from their caregivers, as well as guidance on protection and appropriate behaviour.
On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, it is crucial to acknowledge that everyone deserves to live happy and fulfilled lives. For many, like Nicoleta and Marian, projects like Keep me Safe have had a long-lasting positive effect on the quality of their lives. They should be the rule, not the exception.
The two-year ‘Keep me Safe’ project aimed at empowering young people with learning disabilities to protect themselves against sexual abuse and violence across Europe was co-funded by the European Commission Daphne III Programme. ‘Keep me Safe’ was implemented across Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania, Spain, Denmark, Latvia and Macedonia with the help of our Belgian, German, Irish, Dutch and UK Member Associations.
By Dearbhla Crosse, Communications Advisor, IPPF EN