Pam Bebbington met her husband, Mike, through a personal ad in her local paper. She’s been married for 21 years, and appreciates having a soulmate. “Relationships are important because they give you a life companion,” she says. “You can share things and cuddle up.”

But Bebbington, a consultant at self-advocacy charity My Life My Choice (MLMC), says many of her learning disabled peers struggle with relationships. “Finding the right person is hard. Parents and carers can get in the way and curfews [such as in supported housing], money and travelling all make it difficult.” She says care staff must “allow people to have a relationship and encourage them to do so”.

This is the aim behind the nationwide Supported Loving campaign MLMC is involved in, which offers practical advice on enabling people’s intimate and emotional lives. Research has shown that young people with a learning disability lack accessible sex education resources and only 3% of people with a learning disability live as a couple, compared with 70% of the general population.

Supported Loving originally began two years ago as a social media campaign. Since then it has grown according to demand, offering good practice resources developed by support organisations and people with learning disabilities, some of whom feature in videos used in training.

Claire Bates, Supported Loving founder, says the campaign’s ultimate aim is mandatory training in sex and relationships.

She believes supporting someone’s emotional and intimate needs should be par for the course in social care. “This shouldn’t be [in] the ‘too difficult’ pile,” she says. “People with learning disabilities are often so far away from having a sexual partner, they need support to meet someone first. We need to help people have meaningful friendships and from that will come a sexual relationship, if they want one.”

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Supported Loving’s latest development is an online toolkit contributed to by a range of organisations, including family planning associations, care providers, specialist dating agencies, and staff working in relationship and sex education. There is practical advice on topics including contraception, sexual health, masturbation, online dating, LGBT relationships and sex workers.

There are also plans to publish a charter promoting the relationship rights of learning disabled people, which MLMC, Supported Loving and social inclusion charity National Development Team for Inclusion are developing.

One of the toolkit’s guides outlines how relationship support should be a vital part of a care professional’s role. The tips and examples, contributed by training organisation Paradigm, suggest staff receive face-to-face guidance on how to have conversations about and support people in exploring sexuality, love and relationships. There must be clear policies around relationships rather than incorporating this issue into safeguarding training. Staff must also not assume people lack the capacity to form loving bonds or have sexual relationships.

Such online guidance is available alongside quarterly meetings that take place across the country. These aim to discuss issues and share best practice on everything from sexual abuse to online dating, with participants including people with learning disabilities or autism, family members and professionals working in social care and health.

Supported Loving is also complemented by research at the Tizard Centre University of Kent (Bates is the project’s honorary research associate). Michelle McCarthy, the professor leading the work, says of social attitudes: “Historically we didn’t expect people with learning disabilities to have rich, emotional lives – as if they were somehow ‘other’, and if they were physically cared for that was enough. That attitude hasn’t entirely gone.”

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McCarthy’s project, which included four advisers with learning disabilities, explored the views of 40 learning disabled adults and 40 family carers and support staff. The research has yet to be published but emerging findings illustrate the very specific barriers created by social care services. These include a lack of one-to-one support, restrictions about overnight visitors and safeguarding concerns.

McCarthy explains: “The way services are structured and run is that they themselves can be barriers to people. So if you’ve only got only a few staff you can’t offer people one-to-one support to go and meet someone to have a date.”

The comments from learning disabled people gathered by McCarthy and her researchers underline just how vital it is to achieve progress in this area. When asked about why relationships are important, one learning disabled participant replied: “Sometimes I get lonely and I think if I’ve got somebody who I could trust it would make me happier.”

As Bates says: “It is people’s human right to have a relationship. It shouldn’t be a ‘nice to have’, but something that adds value to people’s lives. We are social animals; if you don’t see someone in that way, then you don’t see them as human.”



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