Claire Bates Choice SupportIn this guest blog, Dr Claire Bates writes about how support workers can have a vital role in helping people with learning disabilities to develop relationships and maintain them, and about a new campaign to get this message across.

In the words of The Beatles, ‘all you need is love.’ But for many people with learning disabilities this is sadly not the case. Valuing People Now showed that, despite various initiatives: “many people are still not recognising and accepting that people with learning disabilities, like anyone else, want and need personal and sexual relationships.” Research has repeatedly shown that people with learning disabilities want a loving relationship with a partner (Kelly et al, 2009; Rushbrook et al, 2014). Finding ‘The One’ is challenging, but for many people with learning disabilities it is more complicated that just chemistry, it can come down to whether you get the right support from your staff.

In 2015, Choice Support sponsored me to complete a PhD exploring relationships for people with learning disabilities. All participants in my research (not supported by Choice Support) found love but this was not without its challenges, such not being allowed to share a bed on weeknights or go on dates alone. Some participants appeared to have low expectations regarding their romantic relationships, such as not expecting a partner to spend the night and only having a single bed. 

Some couples reported perhaps ‘perceived’ restrictions, such as asking staff’s permission for their partner to share their bed. Relationships were not always recognised as significant: one woman shared how she was not taken immediately to the hospital when her partner was seriously ill. 

Despite the challenges, the research revealed the fundamental roles support staff play in supporting relationships. Without staff support many of the couples I met would not have found or maintained a loving relationship. Support staff worked in a variety of roles from matchmaker helping to form relationships, safeguarding people from potentially abusive partners or supporting them to end abusive relationships, relationship counsellor when couples experience difficulties, family planning advisor and mediator when supporting couples through separation. 

Yet since the 2000s there has been a decline in requests for relationships and sexuality training in social care, suggesting that in times of austerity this type of training is considered a ‘luxury’, despite the complex relationship support staff provide.  

At Choice Support we believe the people we support have the right to fall in love and are committed to making this a reality. We know that supporting people with relationships can be challenging and we do not always get this right. We wanted to launch a campaign that would get everyone thinking and talking about the support people receive around relationships and how we can ensure we give the right support. Our campaign, called ‘Supported Loving’, aims to highlight how important good support is in helping people with learning disabilities to develop loving relationships. We want Supported Loving to do this by getting feedback directly from the experts: people with learning disabilities who receive support around relationships. 

We want people with learning disabilities to tell us:

What good support people have received that has helped people to find or have a relationship 

What poor support have people received that has made it difficult to find or have a relationship.

We want people to share their stories with us, either by filming themselves and sending it to, sharing it on our Facebook page or by posting a picture with a message of good support/bad support and using the hashtag #SupportedLoving on Twitter. 

We will also have a monthly blog with a range of contributors from a variety of organisations, all focusing on support for people with learning disabilities in relationships. We will use the blogs and stories collected from people directly to create a book that will be available to all to inform best practice on supporting people with learning disabilities with relationships, based on what people say works best for them and their relationships.  

Please check out the campaign and encourage people to get in touch with us and spread the message of what works for them in their relationships. 

Let’s make finding love a reality for people with learning disabilities. All you need is love (and the right support).

About the author

Dr Claire Bates is quality analyst/researcher at Choice Support