Following on from today’s BBC Breakfast news piece on the right to relationships for people with a learning disability, Grace Krause, Policy Officer at Learning Disability Wales explores why it is hard for people to have relationships. Grace details the work we are doing in Learning Disability Wales and calls for more training of support staff and family carers so people with a learning disability get the support they need. 

This morning BBC Breakfast aired a film about how hard it often is for people with a learning disability to date and have romantic relationships (watch on iPlayer at 2 hours, 58 minutes and 18 seconds). In the piece we meet several people with learning disabilities who are struggling to find and maintain romantic relationships.

We hear from Joanne, whose fiancée Lee was living in an assisted living accommodation where she was not allowed to stay past 10pm and from Joe who is struggling to find a romantic partner as well as to maintain his friendships since his support hours were cut from 24 hours a week to 7. We also hear from Gary Bourlet from Learning Disability England who talks about how important relationships are to people with a learning disability: “being lonely is what kills people. To have a relationship – you aren’t lonely anymore. It is everything.”

Why is it hard for people with a learning disability to have relationships?

So why is it so hard for people with a learning disability to have romantic relationships? One reason is that they are often not getting enough support to live independently. Another is that often support workers are more worried about minimising risk than about letting people with a learning disability make their own decisions. People with a learning disability are often not treated as full adults and trusted to know what is important to them. They are given curfews that mean they can’t stay out as long as they want or are not allowed to have partners stay over where they live. People with a learning disability often have little to no access to sex education and support staff are not trained to support their clients in navigating the sometimes tricky terrain of relationships and sex.

Our work for people with a learning disability and relationships

At Learning Disability Wales believe that every person with a learning disability has the right to be valued and respected, have a meaningful life, have control over their life and have friendships, relationships and a social life. Listening to the people talking on BBC Breakfast we recognised many of the barriers they talked about. We know from our members how difficult it can be to make friends and have romantic and sexual relationships when the support you’re receiving is not set out to help you with this.

This is why we are running several projects at the moment which support people with a learning disability to socialise and date.

Ffrindiau Gigiau / Gig Buddies

Our Gig Buddies project matches volunteers and people with a learning disability depending on what interests they share. The volunteers and participants then go to gigs and other events together. We also run regular social events for both participants and volunteers where people have a chance to meet each other and to have fun together.

Love Life

Our Love Life project is similar to Supported Loving, which was featured on the programme. Together with other organisations across Europe we are developed a training programme on relationships and sexuality aimed at supporting staff and family carers. As part of this training programme we are supported people with a learning disability to become co-trainers to deliver this training in Wales.

Working Together with Parents network

Working Together with Parents supports parents with a learning disability and worked with key stakeholders to make support for them better. We did this through bringing together advocates, professionals and parents with a learning disability to share good practice and work towards getting the right support

Support makes all the difference

We have seen first-hand what an amazing difference being able to socialise and date has on people’s wellbeing, confidence and general happiness and how sad and devastating loneliness is. It is great that the BBC is drawing attention to this important issue.

In order for people with a learning disability to be fully able to have their right to relationships, love and sex we urgently need to make sure that more awareness and support becomes available to them. This means training support workers and carers to respect and support people with a learning disability in their social and love life. BBC Breakfast mentions guidance on sex and relationship for people living in adult care in England produced by the Quality Care Commission earlier this year. Guidance like this should be made widely available throughout the UK and form a compulsory part of training and care guidelines. Furthermore independent living must be properly financed. In practice this means making sure that disabled people have enough support work hours available and that support workers and carers have working conditions to make sure they can do their work well.

Grace Krause
Policy Officer, Learning Disability Wales

Follow me on Twitter at @Grace_LDW.