People with learning disabilities need more emotional and practical support to make and keep friendships


Friendships and relationships are usually the things that most people will say are important to them in describing their quality of life. Many people with learning disabilities however have very limited opportunities to meet and make friends. The people in their social networks may be family members, or people who are paid to support them.

This Irish study by the inclusive research network, a group of 21 researchers with learning disabilities, 12 supporters, and 7 university researchers, looked at what people thought about relationships and supports.

The network ran sixteen focus groups with people with learning disabilities involving 97 adults (52 women and 45 men) from across the country.

In the focus groups people were asked to comment on

  • what makes a good friend?
  • what they thought about having a boyfriend or a girlfriend,
  • what supports they might need to have friends, a boyfriend or a girlfriend

They found that people had a wide range of experiences and views on relationships and the support needed to make and keep them.

The people taking part in the focus groups said they needed more support from friends, family, and services staff to develop new relationships and to keep their existing ones.

They said they needed more emotional support, particularly around their embarrassment about wanting a boyfriend or girlfriend.

They also wanted changes to service systems such as more accessible transport, their own housing so they can invite friends to visit and changes to the law. In particular they talked about the nature of the laws concerning sexuality and learning disability in the Republic of Ireland, and how the research team believes these laws need to be changed.

Relationships of people with learning disabilities in Ireland, Bane, G. et al., in British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40: 109–122.

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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