Obituary: Ann Craft

Over the years Ann Craft precipitated a quiet revolution in the way that services for people with learning disabilities (mental handicap) approach the sexuality of the people in their care. Latterly she played an important part in addressing the issues raised by sexual abuse of children with learning disabilities and of vulnerable adults.

Her research and scholarship contributed to a fundamental shift in attitudes in such services and had a huge impact on the lives of people with learning disabilities, who used to be condemned to furtiveness and ignorance, but are now accepted as adults and as citizens.

Initially she broke a taboo by speaking of these issues at all, and it is a tribute to her knowledge and her skills that she was able to do so in ways which have allowed consensus to develop around good practice. Her unique combination of research and scholarship, widespread consultation and accessibility, and her social work skills enabled her to hear as well as to listen and to bring together, rather than shut out, the different and sometimes conflicting perspectives of service users, parents, staff and managers.

Ann Burkimsher was born and educated in Aldershot, Hampshire, with a brief spell in Egypt which gave her a taste for travel and a certain air of indomitability. She worked abroad for the World Council of Churches for a time in her twenties but later studied at Swansea University and qualified as a social worker in the early Seventies. She then found herself working in Bryn-y-Neuadd Hospital, in Llanfairfechan, Gwynedd, one of the larger, old-fashioned, mental subnormality hospitals, where she began to articulate the needs of residents for sex education and support in their relationships. She believed passionately that service users deserved to be given the information they needed to make sense of their own lives and personal options.

Her early research work on handicapped married couples (with her then husband Michael Craft), was followed by work funded by the Health Education Council on the development of sex education programmes, and both are still widely used. Her books on aspects of sexuality, including Sex and the Mentally Handicapped (1978), Mental Handicap and Sexuality: issues and perspectives (1987) and Practice Issues in Sexuality and Learning Disabilities (1994), are considered essential texts for undergraduates, postgraduates and for those on professional courses.

She moved to Nottingham University in 1987, and in 1996 was appointed Reader in Learning Disabilities. More recently she had been working with a colleague at Nottingham, Caroline Downes, on the sexuality needs of people with profound learning disabilities which she regarded as an appropriate "rounding off" of her contribution - the results of their collaboration will be published later this year.

She came to the work on sexual abuse with this very positive commitment to people whom she regarded as uniquely disadvantaged. In 1989 she and I convened the first national conference on sexual abuse of adults with learning disabilities. It was clear that there was much work to do to lower the odds that such abuse would occur and to ensure that people who had been victims of abuse were properly supported and protected.

In 1992 Ann Craft set up a voluntary organisation within Nottingham University to inform practitioners and to influence public policy. Napsac (the National Association for the Protection from Sexual Abuse of Children and adults with learning disabilities) has gone from strength to strength, producing, in collaboration with other relevant agencies, model policies and guidelines governing the prevention, investigation and response to such abuse.

She spoke as a recognised authority on all these issues and her views were sought by a very wide range of individuals and agencies including the Department of Health, the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Association of Chief Police Officers, and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Abuse and Learning Disabilities. She was also the first social worker to be admitted on to the Royal Society of Medicine's Learning Disability Committee, in 1993, and had last year been asked to convene a sexuality group for the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual Disability (Iassid), the main international organisation working in the field of intellectual disability.

Ann Craft was as wise as she was clever and enormously generous as a colleague and mentor. She became a somewhat reluctant feminist as she analysed the pressures and prejudices which led practitioners to flock to her seminars and workshops while her work was sometimes sidelined within the mainstream academic agenda. Her response was to open the field as widely as possible; she was always ready to give support to people starting out on their careers or studies.

She was particularly keen to encourage practitioners who wanted to undertake practice-based research and a Fellowship scheme is to be founded in her name to allow people working in relevant fields to take time out for such projects. Having started as a lone voice, she leaves a thriving and dynamic field of work and policy development: that is what she wanted most and will be her most fitting memorial.

The seriousness with which she addressed her work was balanced by the pleasure she took in her personal life. She was wonderful company and had many friends all over the world, having spoken and worked in Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, America, Belgium, Israel, Iceland and Italy. She was an intrepid sightseer and eater of sea food - I remember sitting opposite her in Australia while she devoured, undeterred, something which looked like an extra from a horror film.

Hilary Brown

Ann Burkimsher, social worker: born Aldershot Hampshire 5 June 1943; Research Associate, Department of Learning Disabilities, Nottingham University 1987-88, Lecturer 1988-92, Senior Lecturer 1992-96, Reader 1996-97; Director of Napsac 1992-97; married Michael Craft (marriage dissolved); died Nottingham 13 April 1997.

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