One thing the pandemic has done is bring home the importance of relationships.
Across the board, people have been kept apart, and felt the pain of separation.
One simple innovation I saw was a plastic sheet with sleeves. It allowed loved ones to give and receive a hug, a show of affection that they couldn’t otherwise have done. And yet, at the same time, it still got in the way of an authentic hug. It was a facilitator, and also a barrier to the real thing.
SCLD’s Relationships Matter reports (this link will take you away from our website) the findings of a survey of over 1200 people with learning disabilities. It confirmed that relationships are as important to people with learning disabilities as anyone else. Unfortunately, all similarities end there.
The survey found that only 3% of people were married, compared to 47% of the general population. Only one in five were in a relationship at all.
Moreover, people weren’t able to enjoy relationships as much as they wanted. Around one in five didn’t see their family or friends as much as they would like. Almost a third of people in a relationship did not see their partner as much as they would like.
It’s no surprise that nearly twice as many people with learning disabilities were chronically lonely than in the general population.
Where do support providers fit into this picture? The good news is that people who got enough support were much more likely to see family, friends and/or partners as much as they liked. And they were much less likely to be lonely.
However, of those who said they did get enough support, 18% still didn’t see their family enough, 13% still didn’t see their friends enough, and 27% didn’t see their partner enough. And having enough support did not make it any more likely that someone would be involved in an intimate relationship.
Not only that, but of those who said they did get enough support, nearly half felt lonely occasionally, sometimes or often. So it’s a far from ideal picture.
And this was all pre-lockdown.
It’s dangerous to conclude too much from surveys. However, it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that some support workers and agencies could do a lot more to focus on facilitating the relationships of the people you support.
Not all. I know some people whose workers have supported them every step of the winding way from callow single youth to silver-anniversaried spouse.
From what people have told us, here are a few reasons why that might be:
It’s risky. Burnt fingers and broken hearts and all sorts of other hurt besides can lie the way of pursuing relationships. Any organisation that doesn’t have an active risk enablement policy might shy away.
It’s tricky. Maintaining friendships is hard work, especially if the friend isn’t round the corner. Transport, money, parental concerns can all be barriers that need careful navigation.
It may be unfunded. Some local authorities may not acknowledge the need to develop and maintain friendships in their needs assessment.
So this is a call – not to conversation, because words without deeds are empty – but to conversaction. To discuss openly within and between support organisations some key questions. And then act.
- Do your organisation’s policies, training and development all actively support the primary importance of relationships in the lives of the people you support?
- What can be done to ensure people you support are aware of their rights to freedom of choice surrounding intimate relationships, as well as informed about healthy relationships and sexual health?
- What exemplary practice have you seen that the rest of your organisation could learn from?Relationships are vital for the health and wellbeing of all of us. So the role of the support worker is key.
And the question for each of us is: as I involve myself in the social life of the person I support, am I a facilitator? Or am I a barrier?