…says Hugh Torrance about his trip to Tulsa and New York to learn more about how US agencies support people with learning difficulties. In the first of two articles on winners of the Isabel Schwarz Fellowship Award, he tells Natalie Valios what he found
Hugh Torrance was less than 24 hours from Tulsa but, like the song says, he still "had to stop and rest the night". In fact, he had to stop and rest two nights and eventually reached Tulsa feeling "shell-shocked".
Torrance was snowed in at JFK airport, New York, on his way to Oklahoma to look at how people with learning difficulties are supported in developing relationships and making choices about sexual health.
Torrance is a service manager at Partners for Inclusion, a Glasgow-based, small voluntary organisation supporting people with mental health problems and learning difficulties. He manages services for people who are leaving institutional care and moving into supported living. A key component of his work is sex education for staff and service users.
After some inspirational training from Canadian behavioural therapist Dave Hingsburger, Torrance contacted him about submitting an educational trip to Canada as his Isabel Schwarz entry. But Hingsburger put him in touch with a few US organisations that he thought matched Torrance’s requirements better.
“People in the US were on dating programmes and having relationships and sex lives, which were well supported. I wanted more of an idea as to how it was working,” says Torrance.
So, first stop Tulsa, the home of Responsible Choices, Oklahoma’s only approved provider of sexual health training programmes to people with learning difficulties; it is also contracted to work with sexual offenders. Its goal is to “promote responsible sexuality by preparing individuals with developmental disabilities to make healthy sexual choices based on respect for themselves, respect for sexual partners and consideration of the consequences of various sexual behaviours”.
At first Torrance was dubious as to how successful an organisation based in the heart of the Bible belt country could be. “Locals say it’s the buckle of the belt and I wondered how people could be supported with all that sexual oppression.”
But he was impressed. Instead of devising different programmes for different levels of needs – as Torrance has been trying to do – it starts with one curriculum, teaches it at the highest level but simplifies it, depending on the level of learning difficulty of the people involved. “I was looking for the holy grail of a curriculum, but we already have it – it’s just about working out different ways of teaching the same curriculum,” he says.
Torrance was also impressed by the organisation’s consent determination tests, which clients either pass or fail. If they pass and go on to start a relationship the organisation can refuse a request to look into it because the person has been legally deemed capable of making that choice for themselves.
His biggest disappointment was discovering how far the state lagged behind the UK in abolishing large institutions and big group homes for people with learning difficulties and mental health problems.
He says: “I was taken to one place called a residential home, but I would have called it an old-style learning difficulty hospital in the UK. They talk about downsizing, but my impression of that is going from big hospitals to little hospitals, rather than supported tenancies.”
He also found that people were thrown together with a mixture of labels, so some institutions housed people with learning difficulties and mental health problems who had committed no crime alongside those from these client groups who had committed sexual offences.
Another issue is the emerging split between mental health and learning difficulties services, so those with mental health issues who have been in learning difficulty hospitals are being moved.
Torrance was amazed that, in the face of such backward policies, Responsible Choices is such a forward-thinking organisation on sex education.
He was enthusiastic about the exercises and materials they used. For example, they concentrated on living skills as well as sexual health. “It seems obvious, so why don’t we do it? So instead of launching into looking after your body with a sexual care emphasis, they start with brushing your teeth and hair care, and move on from there.”
Responsible Choices’ philosophy is that people with learning difficulties and mental health problems have the same right to sex education as those in mainstream education. “Again, we don’t have that approach,” says Torrance. “Sex education isn’t on the curriculum in learning difficulty schools in Scotland.”
After Tulsa, Torrance flew back to New York for the second part of his trip. “It’s a nice place but I wouldn’t want to live there,” he says, referring to the pace of life. “If I can get burned out in the west of Scotland, I would die there.”
In New York, Torrance spent his time with YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities Network, which provides services, education and training in developmental and learning difficulties.
One trip to the Bronx showed HIV/Aids awareness training with people with learning difficulties. “I was surprised by how much people with learning difficulties knew about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. It is a testimony to what they do as a rolling programme.”
At a discussion group on relationships, he found it interesting to see the difference between New York and Tulsa. “In Tulsa they would deliberately avoid talking about gay, lesbian, cross-gender, but in New York they would talk about anything.”
He went to a relationships night with a variation on speed dating where people with learning difficulties can either spend two minutes talking about themselves or if they prefer, show a video they have made about themselves. Everyone has sheets and you tick those you are interested in and are matched up.
“The number of people with learning difficulties who had relationships and positive stories was amazing. They are much more proactive than in the UK. We have pockets of good practice around Scotland and further south, but it’s not high on the agenda or talked about much.
“Also, in New York – unlike Tulsa – there was much more supported housing. And people with learning difficulties talked about moving their partner in as if it were the norm.”
Apart from a set of videos made by people with learning difficulties about being in different social situations, worksheets, workshop ideas and a computer version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but with the questions about HIV/Aids, what else did Torrance come back with?
“The realisation that here we focus on teaching staff but don’t put the same effort in to teaching the people we support. The staff move on and the people are left in the same position.
“I have been buzzing since I came back and I am now talking about cultural exchanges between people with learning difficulties here and in New York.”
● If anyone would like to exchange ideas with Hugh, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org