Interview: The Taboo Breaker - Dr Graham Jowett, director of education, Treloar College

Cathy Wallace
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The campaign to secure equal rights for disabled children and young people has seen specialist childcare, opportunities for disabled young people and communication needs pushed up the political agenda.

But there is one basic human right that could be considered inappropriate or difficult to tackle for disabled young people - the right to have relationships and express their sexuality.

"Growing up, you are bombarded with images about relationships and sexuality," says Dr Graham Jowett, director of education at Treloar College in Hampshire, a further education college for physically disabled young people aged 16 to 25. "It would be inhuman to live in a community such as ours where this was on the TV and in magazines, and then say it's nothing to do with us."

With this in mind, the college has a specialist framework entitled Sexuality in Further Education (Safe) which sets out guidelines and a policy for students to express their sexuality.

"When I came to the college it was with a remit to make it a more adult environment," Jowett explains. "Students said: 'you're saying you want us to take control of our own lives, but it's hypocritical to say there's one area of adult life that is off limits - relationships and sexuality'. They were absolutely right."

"Within one year we produced a policy and guidelines for staff," Jowett continues. "Then I had to sell it to the college governors and that took a bit of time. We had to give it to barristers as some students have learning difficulties and it could be an offence to aid, assist or procure a person with learning difficulties to perform a sexual act."

The policy means disabled young people who want to pursue relationships, including physical relationships, have the right to be supported and assisted, if necessary, by staff.

This could include staff helping students touch and kiss each other, or simply helping students out of their wheelchairs and on to a mattress where they can be left alone together.

Jowett says the result is an open attitude to sexuality among disabled young people. "Everyone who comes here knows we're upfront about it. I'm sure before we did this people would slope off and have a surreptitious snog in a place they weren't supposed to be."

He adds: "We have had a lot of students come from mainstream schools at 16 and it's such a revelation to them. They say: 'no one has ever fancied me before, but now I've come here I'm fighting off boyfriends'. It's good for their self-esteem."

Staff, who are all checked by the Criminal Records Bureau, volunteer to be involved in the frame-work and Jowett says any employee who feels uncomfortable has the right not to be involved, although this is rare. "Everyone is committed to the notion of letting our students have responsibility and take control of their own lives and make decisions for themselves."

The reaction from parents has been generally positive, Jowett adds. "We explain this to families who may feel very protective of their sons and daughters and see them as vulnerable students.

"This isn't a licence to have sex, and there are lots of safeguards for vulnerable students. Once I start to talk about these things with families and say we have a drop-in sexual health clinic and advice for any particular issue, most are reassured."

There is potential for the policy to be introduced in other similar colleges and hospices for young people.

Jowett says: "You can have youngpeople with life-limiting conditions who are saying: 'I want toget the most out of the life I haveleft and that includes sexual experiences'. It's not morally right to say to them, 'sorry, we can't discuss that'."

BACKGROUND - IN THE SERVICE OF YOUNG PEOPLE

- Jowett, originally a biochemist, completed a masters degree in social work at Oxford University and worked with people with learning difficulties ina mental health unit for young people and families

- He moved into education in 1982, teaching and then managing social care and health studies courses in large, urban, further education colleges

- He was appointed principal of Treloar College in 1995

- He is now director of education for the Treloar Trust with responsibility for strategic planning of the trust's services for young people with disabilities. www.treloar.org.uk.

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