Inspired by Valentine’s Day, we have been thinking a lot about relationships recently. As an Independent Advocacy charity, our thoughts have turned to those people who may find it difficult to make and maintain romantic relationships which some of us may take for granted.

Here at People First we provide advocacy to a diverse range of people, some of whom have learning disabilities. People with learning disabilities want to make and maintain intimate relationships just like anyone else but often they face barriers which prevent or make it more difficult for them to do so.

It is a fact that everyone has a fundamental human right to develop and experience intimate relationships and these rights are supported by law. It’s important, as advocates and as people, that we widen our perspective to become familiar with the challenges faced by others, challenges that have an impact on their lives and happiness. When we understand this experience we can help others to ‘live their best love-life’ as well as be fulfilled throughout their life as a whole.

Let’s take a look at what could prevent people with learning disabilities developing and sustaining intimate relationships:

  • There are some events organised and dating sites for people with learning disabilities but often people don’t have the support or aren’t given the opportunity to attend or to access these.
  • People with learning disabilities are sometimes not treated as adults who have the right to relationships. Family members or staff may make it difficult to meet people which could be due to lack of clear guidance for staff on supporting someone in a relationship or a family member trying to protect their loved one.
  • People with learning disabilities themselves may have limited knowledge about sexuality and keeping safe and may not be given the opportunity to have sex education or to learn about relationships.
  • Friends or housemates could be unsupportive and make it difficult for people to be in a relationship.
  • The person may find it difficult financially to go out on dates and they may find it difficult to get to a venue or to visit a partner.

There are however things that can help people to make and maintain intimate relationships. These include:

  • Learning about sexual education and relationships, boundaries and how to keep safe.
  • Having lots of opportunities to meet people and to form and sustain relationships.
  • Being recognised and respected as adults with rights, the same as everyone else.
  • Having supportive social and community networks such as family, friends, staff, advocate.

As an advocate working with people with learning disabilities I have encountered people who have a boyfriend, girlfriend or fiancée. It is clear and powerful how much happiness positive intimate relationships can bring to people irrespective of whether or not the person has a disability or impairment.  It is also clear that more work is needed to ensure the same rights and opportunities are given to people with learning disabilities and to break down the barriers that continue to exist.

By being aware of the challenges, by being informed and by being a supportive presence, we can do our bit to listen, encourage and empower people to find healthy and respectful relationships.

If you’d like more information about developing and maintaining healthy relationships get in touch. Our self-advocacy groups meet on a regular basis to share experiences and to learn: we cover relationships as part of these groups.