Phil MorrisPhil Morris is the Chief Executive of ARC England Member Havencare (South West) Limited and is also a Champion of ARC England. In his blog he talks about the importance of positive relationships and people with learning disabilities:

I do not need to cite academic research to define a simple human truth. Positive relationships make us feel well. Isolation and negative relationships will invariably lead to poor mental and physical health. We know that relationships, including intimate relationships, can bring pleasure and boost self-esteem and confidence, but they also involve risks such as being hurt, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. It can be difficult to strike a balance between protecting vulnerable people from risks and enabling them to explore and develop wider personal and social relationships.

People with disabilities may be less likely to have guidance for positive intimate relationships because of attitudes towards disability and sexuality, barriers with lack of privacy, and a lack of professionals qualified to help people explore their sexual identity. Information advice and guidance is available; however, the resources that you can find tend to be for those who can understand accessible written materials. So, what about people with more profound disabilities, who may be non-verbal, but regularly show through their behaviour that they have unmet relationship needs?

Let’s throw out political correctness for a moment. Here are some of the (milder) things that some people can consciously or unconsciously think, if they consider it at all:

People with learning disabilities…
…don’t think about sex or relationships – they don’t have the ‘capacity’.
…are like very young children – they don’t understand or have those desires.
…shouldn’t be allowed to have sex – what if they get pregnant?
…can’t offer a ‘friend’ anything back – it will be a one-way relationship.
…will get used and abused – they are better off just staying out of harm’s way.

The five-stage Maslow (1943) hierarchy of needs situates ‘belongingness and love’ directly above the basic physiological and safety needs. Intimacy and friendship is a need, but often mistaken as a want. This element of support can often be skipped and more focus placed on esteem and self-actualisation through community integration. Self-actualisation cannot be achieved without belongingness and love. I believe that the capacity for positive relationships exists regardless of disability, but it can be more easily abused with a lack of reciprocity.

“It will be argued that we must protect those people who are unable to protect themselves. I vehemently agree. However, I also believe the benefits of meeting the basic needs of positive relationships and intimacy far outweigh the risk. So how do we encourage positive risk-taking? The easy answer is to provide specialist services focused at the ‘group’ – learning disability speed dating, online dating and more. In many cases, this may be fantastically successful and of course it makes sense to bring people with similar interests and needs together in reciprocal relations facilitated by support providers and advocates; BUT, let’s not be too hasty to close the door there…

…Is a person with a learning disability’s only hope of a positive reciprocal relationship with someone who also has a learning disability?

Of course not. If we talked in this way about race, religion or creed there would be a political and human-rights outcry. So what is different? Fear of being used and hurt, fear of what people think, fear of rejection. Maybe we project our own fears and insecurities about our relationships onto the people we support? Maybe we lack the trust that people without learning disabilities may want to be friends or partners of people with learning disabilities? Perhaps our worry about reciprocity makes us forget that difference as well as similarity can be celebrated and recognised as a strength in relationships.

We need to break down barriers including attitudinal, educational and environmental. We need to provide support to explore sexual identity and build positive relationships through progressive co-produced outcomes from open-minded circles of support that champion holistic personalisation and positive risk-taking.

At Havencare (South West) we use an outcomes framework to encourage progress across life themes including relationships. If a person chooses an outcome in their person-centred support plan (eg, ’in 2017 I would like to have a friend to watch films with’) – we use the Havencare Support Pathway© to plan the possible steps. These include Exploring, Engaging, Establishing, Evolving and Empowering the person in their relationship goals. Person-centred thinking tools (Helen Sanderson Associates) are used to support the planning, doing, and reviewing. Havencare engages with local community partners such as Police Community Support Officers, support groups and training providers to help people stay safe.

Related resources:

British Institute for Learning Disabilities: Information about friendships and relationships

National Development Team for inclusion: Supporting people with learning disabilities to develop sexual and romantic relationships