Decision Making: When Are You an Adult?

Maybe this sounds like an odd question but I’ve been mulling this over since reading this article about Molly Davidson who went to London to meet ‘a stranger she met on the internet’ and was brought home by her parents.

Molly has epilepsy and learning disabilities and her disappearance was certainly a safeguarding concern. However, the newspaper story of what happened was not sought from Molly, instead her parents and an NSPCC spokesperson give their opinion on the events. In fact, the article reads as though this happened to a child. I double checked and Molly is 19 years of age.

Young people in sport and activity organisations

This reminded me of some recent conversations that I have had with sport and activity organisations that have got in touch with ACT to discuss cases of working with groups of young people with learning disabilities. A common theme is that parents and carers assert more influence with their adult children than they would in a mainstream team. Sport and activity is a great way for people with learning disabilities to have new experiences, my concern is that they are not included in making choices as fully as they could be and that their voices are sometimes not heard.

This is perhaps not surprising, after all none of us wake up on our 18th birthday a fully formed adult doing all things adult. Like Molly, we are likely to still live at home with parents or carers who set rules for our behaviour that they think are in our best interests and that we conform to or rebel against. We may also still continue to take part in activities with children and young people, for example play a sport with a 14-25 year old team, and if we go in a bar and look under 25 we are asked to provide proof of your age.

We will have been starting to make decisions for ourselves from an earlier age and the Mental Capacity Act acknowledges this as it applies from age 16. Some of our choices may not be the wisest ones but they are our choices. However, I wonder whether people with learning disabilities are seen in the same way, whether they are given the same chances to become more independent.

What does adulthood mean legally?

As this was all floating about in my mind, I did some research about the legal age of when we can do certain things in England. I thought that this might shed some light on when we become an adult.

The conclusion I came to is that at 18 – you are ‘the age of majority and no longer a child’. (s.1 Family Law Reform Act 1969). There is no distinction made between disabled and non-disabled people, people with learning disabilities over the age of 18 are adults.

What does this mean for sport organisations?

What does this mean for sport and activity organisations working with young people with learning disabilities, some of whom are children and under 18, some of whom are adults and over 18?

I think that organisations need to be clear that the views of people with learning disabilities should be included wherever possible in the organisation. They should be encouraged to make decisions and offered information in a format they understand. As adults their consent should be sought, rather than their parents, although parents may be involved in helping to support them to make a decision.

So back to the news article, Molly is an adult. I feel that she should have been offered the opportunity to express her views on the situation, to explain her motivation for her actions and her thoughts on the outcome. Then lessons could perhaps be learnt for the safeguarding of other young people with learning disabilities.

For more information about the relevance of the Mental Capacity Act for sport and activity organisations see the new Safeguarding Adults in Sport Resource Pack
For help with reviewing your organisation’s policy and procedures email
For advice on disabled people in sport and activity see the English Federation of Disability Sport.
For advice for people with learning disabilities about keeping safe see the Safety Net Project.