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Business clinic
Supported loving – The importance of relationships

Research suggests that people with learning disabilities do not, generally, have access to loving relationships or awareness of their rights to such relationships. Supported Loving is working to address that. What role can providers play in supporting people to have loving relationships?

Research into adults with learning disabilities published in 2005, highlighted that in the UK only 3% of people with a learning disability live as part of a couple, compared to 70% of the general population.

Dr Claire Bates, Honorary Research Associate at the University of Kent’s Tizard Centre and Quality Analyst at Choice Support, set out to explore the subject for her PhD thesis. She researched how people with learning disabilities find romantic love and form partnerships, what brings them together, and what helps them to maintain relationships.

As part of her research, Claire found that good staff support for people’s relationships made a huge difference to the relationship’s potential success. Her findings also included that people with learning disabilities experience barriers to relationships, that their rights and choices are not always respected and that there’s a climate of risk aversion in areas such as sexual relationships. The research also highlighted the balancing act staff must engage in to ensure that they remain supportive without being controlling or overprotective of individuals in relationships.

Supported Loving

From these findings, Claire set up Supported Loving; a social media campaign to raise awareness of the importance of loving relationships for people with learning disabilities, focusing particularly on the difference that good staff support can make.

The six-month campaign started in February 2017 in order to:

  • Share information far and wide, amongst professionals, people with learning disabilities, their families and staff.
  • Highlight the importance of good support in helping people with learning disabilities develop and maintain loving relationships.
  • Identify what constitutes good and poor support in relationships.

It included:

  • Video and text blogs on the topic of good support in relationships.
  • Sharing stories in words, pictures and films, of good and bad support on Twitter and Facebook.
  • A national network group which meets quarterly.

Claire explained her reasons behind the campaign, ‘I used to work as a support worker myself and when I was doing my PhD research I was reminded that support staff have a difficult job. When they are supporting people to find and maintain relationships they end up taking on many different roles – protector, friend, relationship counsellor, mediator, sexual health adviser…the list goes on.

‘I saw the difficult challenges that staff faced when working with women with learning disabilities who had suffered sexual abuse yet wanted to find a new partner. Staff were providing both emotional support and practical advice on keeping safe. Staff were also the point of contact when something went wrong in a couple’s relationship. For example, one married couple I was speaking to for my PhD separated during the course of my research, and I saw how staff had to support both parties and mediate a separation and possible divorce.’

The campaign was so successful that it has continued beyond the original six months. On Twitter, it has over 1,250 followers and a reach of more than 32,000. It also has a regular podcast of interviews and questions from Twitter.

Supported Loving has also attracted additional money from generous network members at Hft to sponsor more network meetings. Claire continued, ‘We hold network meetings every three months for around 50 people at a time. They book up very quickly. We now have a strong network of people across the country who are able to offer expert advice to members on issues such as supporting positive relationships, including sexual ones, advice on safeguarding and risk management regarding relationships, sexuality, the law surrounding sex and practical training for staff and people with learning disabilities.’

Practical applications

As a result of the work and campaign, two staff within Choice Support were inspired to set up two lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans social groups in the north and south of the country.
Claire has also, along with some people with learning disabilities, participated in a focus group for an online dating site designed for people with Asperger’s, autism and learning disabilities.

On a financial level, Claire’s research showed that when people are in a loving, supportive relationship they can require less paid support. She explained, ‘I know of couples who no longer need paid support to travel independently as their partner can do this with them.’
Role of support workers

For Supported Loving to continue on its path of raising awareness and supporting people to have loving relationships, it needs providers to engage and support workers to have the right attitude, training and support themselves. It also needs to be incorporated into support planning.

Claire continued, ‘The role of support staff is complex as often they are not just supporting the couple or individual but other people who live in a shared home.

‘During my research interviews numerous participants discussed their housemates’ jealousy about relationships, and how staff had to mediate the ensuing conflict. And what is already a demanding task is made harder, as we know that in times of austerity, relationship and sexuality training is a luxury that many support providers cannot afford. To make love a reality for everyone, there needs to be good quality training for staff, we need a workforce that is prepared and has the right attitude and organisations who are willing to facilitate this.

‘Organisations need to start seeing the real social value in relationships and what they can offer to people rather than the risks.’

Over to the experts…
How can the sector embrace Supported Loving? What barriers are there? How can it be incorporated into support planning?
Isolation is a big barrier

Looking for love can be difficult, especially if you have a learning disability and are isolated.
If you do find love, it can be a big thing for a person to be in love with someone and this may be happening for the first time.

Good support can help people with learning disabilities understand relationships, what is good and what is bad, what to do when things are rocky, what to do if a relationship ends, and how to develop a relationship further.

If a person is there to support a person with a learning disability on their terms, we agree with that.

There can be many barriers to finding love for people with learning disabilities and there is a big difference in living independently to supported living.

Not everyone is supported by their staff. We know of instances where staff can be controlling, including time constraints on people’s routines, like a 10.00pm curfew, staff getting in the way of relationships, and uncertainty and confusion about what to do if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Isolation is a big barrier and we know first-hand about the issues people have looking for love and forming relationships online; financial abuse, psychological abuse, and emotional abuse.

We think that Supported Loving is a brilliant campaign and we want to encourage more work in this area.

Supported Loving goes hand-in-hand with supported decision-making and we would like to see more training, resources, and information for support staff in organisations to help realise the value in loving relationships for people with learning disabilities.
Shaun Webster MBE, International Project Worker, CHANGE 

The time is right

Politicians, policy-makers, managers and all professionals generally hate talking about love and sex.

In our own lives, few would fail to notice that love must be central to everything we do.
Without love we cannot flourish, without love we cannot stay sane, without love we frequently suffer and die before our time.

But it’s hard to talk about love – and it’s especially hard to talk about sex. In this context the Supported Loving campaign has crashed through several taboos and its success tells us that the time is right.

One reason that people are hesitant to talk about things like love and sex is that people think you can’t have a right to something that we don’t know how to give someone. Public services are stuck in the zone of giver of gifts – and when there is no gift to give, the system falls silent.

Instead of thinking about how to give people love, we must think about how to help people find love. This requires active support and education, but it also means taking down the barriers that the system puts in people’s way.

To tackle these issues seriously we need a rights-based approach, one that recognises that love is something we have a right to and that how we empower people to develop lives of meaning, citizenship and love challenges our assumption about power and relationships.
We are taking the first steps on a journey that could reshape the very foundations of the social care service system forever.
Simon Duffy Director, Centre for Welfare Reform 

We must identify ways to evolve

For the sector and providers to fully embrace Supported Loving, we must be honest about our intention to provide person-centred support that always revolves around the needs and wishes of the individual. We, as providers, should give people the opportunity to safely explore and experience love, intimacy and relationships if they wish to. If we are not doing this, then we are not providing person-centred support.

The challenge of embracing Supported Loving is supporting staff to manage the intricate balance between safeguarding and enabling positive risk taking. To do this we must revisit our training, policies, and procedures across the sector and ensure that staff are fully supported in their endeavours to enable and support people with learning disabilities to experience loving relationships. This is particularly important with regards to challenging the taboos surrounding sexual intimacy for those with different abilities.

Providers need to identify the ways in which they can evolve their organisations to embrace Supported Loving. At Walsingham Support for example, we have set up a working group from all aspects of the business, from recruitment, induction and training to quality assurance processes, personalisation, and service delivery. Providers should be focusing on how these can be improved to ultimately support every individual to explore loving relationships if they so wish. It is only through this collaborative approach across all facets of the organisation, that supporting people to make friends and find love can become truly person centred.

Mick Burgess Director of Operations and Development (England), Walsingham Support

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