Learning disability services in Ireland are seeking to address adult service- Users’ needs for information and skills in the area of interpersonal relationships. Dave Travis, Social Worker, Brothers of Charity Services, Kilcornan Centre, Clarinbridge, Co. Galway describes personal development courses within the Brothers of Charity Services in County Galway.


In discussion with frontline staff about the areas of their work that they find most challenging—and about which they feel most vulnerable—personal development and sexuality of service-users is consistently mentioned. Similarly, listening to our self-advocacy groups and the Galway Service Users’ Council, the issue of relationships is frequently raised. Parents and family members can also find the issue of sexuality extremely difficult.

What then should service providers ‘do’ about this challenging and controversial area of our work? The response in parts of the Brothers of Charity Services in County Galway has been to establish Personal Development and Stay Safe Courses for service users.

Personal development courses have been organised for service-users in centres catering for people (labelled as) having mild, moderate and severe degrees of learning disability. Obviously the structure and pace of the courses vary with the different needs of the group involved, but the basic structure remains the same, following the course outline below.

  • Communication
  • The sexual life cycle, reproduction and sexuality
  • Personal health and hygiene
  • Looking after me and staying safe
  • Body awareness
  • Growing older
  • Self-esteem
  • Death and bereavement
  • Self-advocacy
  • Reminiscence
  • Friendships and relationships
  • Spirituality
  • Emotions and their expression

Courses may be extended depending on the staff time-needs involved. The model provides for two staff facilitators (one male and one female). For most of the course, the whole group is together, but some modules benefit from a separation of the sexes. Course methods include role play, video work, slides and question-and-answer sessions. We have made use of a wide range of materials; (Hilary Dixon’s A chance to choose and Winnifred Kempton’s Life horizons have been found particularly helpful).

Owing to the length of the personal development course, the small number of staff available for facilitation and the large number of service users who would benefit, shorter, more focused courses have also been developed. These are seen both as useful in their own right, providing a shorter course ‘tailored’ to specific group needs, and also as an introduction to the full personal development courses for all service-users who wish to avail of them.

One short course that has been developed for people with a severe learning disability, tailored to the specific needs of the group and delivered at a pace relevant to their abilities, is outlined below:

  • Self-esteem building
  • Communication
  • Staying safe
  • Bullying
  • Appropriate and inappropriate behaviour
  • Relationships and friendships
  • Sexuality and emotions
  • Relaxation

Another short course is the Stay Safe programme. So far, this has been piloted with a group of people with mild and moderate learning disabilities. This course (see outline below) specifically aims to equip participants with the skills necessary to prevent possible exploitation, including sexual exploitation. This course was developed in response to staff and family members’ concerns regarding the vulnerability of many service users. It is fair to say that all of our courses have illustrated just how potentially vulnerable many of our service users are. People with a learning disability often find it difficult to say ‘no’!

  • Introduction/self-esteem (feeling good about myself)
  • Assertiveness/rights and responsibilities/saying no
  • Bullying at home/work/by strangers. Am I a bully?
  • Stay safe: body parts/good touch-bad touch/right to say ‘no’
  • Stay safe: dealing with unwelcome advances from strangers/acquaintances/role play
  • Stay safe: protecting ourselves/who to go to for help/recap

We feel that we are only ‘scratching the surface’ with our present courses. In particular, we see the need to offer a service to people with learning disability who sexually abuse others. We feel that all service users would benefit from personal development/stay safe courses, and this should be seen by service providers as a priority. Furthermore, services need to develop policies on personal development and sexuality to provide a framework for those of us working in this area—and indeed for all staff, family members and, crucially, for users of our services.