Support workers are key to helping learning disabled people form fruitful and safe relationships

There's a fine line between respecting privacy and preventing harm but knowing when to cross it is vital in all care settings, writes Anna Galliford

By Anna Galliford, CEO of charity FitzRoy

Making friends, dating and forming long-term, meaningful relationships is just as important for adults with learning disabilities as it is for anyone else. Yet, a lack of awareness and understanding of this amongst the media and general public can lead to the view that people with learning disabilities don’t need relationships.

Far from being an ‘added bonus’, building and sustaining meaningful bonds, whether they are friendships or romantic relationships, is an important need and a fundamental right. The chance to explore friendships and meaningful relationships has a dramatic impact on a person’s quality of life, emotional support network and daily activities, and can result in better health and mental wellbeing.

Support workers have an important role to play in countering prejudice and helping people with learning disabilities to develop significant relationships. By taking time to understand how people communicate, listening to and understanding them, social care workers can help people to live happier, more fulfilling lives characterised by independence, social interests, friendships and relationships. They see first-hand how people can suffer from isolation and frustration when they’re not given the right opportunities.

This is part of a much wider issue: the right to choose how to live, and the lack of choice and individuality that still affects the 1.14 million people living with learning disabilities in England. However, improving opportunities to meet, socialise with, get to know and build lasting, meaningful relationships with others is an important step and one that support workers can have a huge impact on.

Duty of care 

It is often tricky for support workers to know how far they can, or even should, be involved in monitoring the new friendships and relationships those in their care are forming. The line between respecting privacy and failing to prevent harm is a fine line, and knowing when to cross it is vital in all care settings.

To deal with these issues, all organisations with a duty of care should provide appropriate training and support for social workers and support workers in how to navigate this blurred line and ensure that people’s rights are fully protected. With regards to identifying potential threats, there should be clear guidelines and training given to carers and families on how to spot ‘false friends’ or possibly exploitative situations, and how they can be prevented or sensitively handled if they should arise.

Time for change 

Increasing independence for adults with learning disabilities relies on longer-term care planning, promoting a better quality of life at all levels of the social care system and changing public perceptions. The shift away from institutionalised care settings towards more independent living arrangements has helped this and encourages greater social interactions. Yet, this is still only happening on a small scale and hasn’t gained the political support it needs.

As part of this shift, it’s vital for support workers to understand their wider role in aiding people with learning disabilities to form and sustain fruitful and safe relationships, knowing when to raise the alarm when needed but also when to simply respect their need to form and develop relationships without the added pressure of public stigma.

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