A new study has emphasised the importance of a loving relationship as a source of pleasure and meaning in the lives of adults with intellectual disabilities, an area that has historically been hindered with only their basic physical needs being seen as important.

The research study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with 40 adults with intellectual disabilities in the UK to see what kinds of support they wanted in the 21st Century to pursue relationships.

Participants placed a high value on having a partner and being supported to maintain and develop a loving relationship. The factors which constrained them in achieving this included a lack of social opportunities, barriers created by social care services and limits on them exercising autonomy.

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Facilitating factors included access to specialist dating agencies, strong family and staff support and opportunities to learn about relationships.

Treat individuals as they wish to be treated

The authors said that whilst people with intellectual disabilities, like everyone else, have the right to be protected from actual abuse as far as is reasonably possible, there is no logical, moral or ethical reason why they should be protected from the ‘everyday’ highs and lows of relationships.

Adults with intellectual disabilities will, like everyone else, sometimes make bad choices, sometimes choose a partner who turns out to be a grave disappointment, may love someone dearly, but still get their heart broken. These things are part of the human experience and whilst painful, there is no reason to prevent adults with intellectual disabilities from exposure to them.

Alongside this is the recognition that understanding the views of people with intellectual disabilities is critical to creating policies and practices that treat individuals as they wish to be treated. Nowhere can this be more important than the issue of personal and intimate relationships.

The authors concluded: "Intellectual impairment may close off some avenues of enrichment (academic attainment, professional achievement or participation in some artistic or cultural activities, for example).

"All the more important, then, that those who support people with intellectual disabilities should seek to enable them to find pleasure and meaning wherever they can in life, and a loving relationship is surely one fundamental aspect of this."