Exploring support for people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) to find loving relationships

Michelle McCarthy Completed   2019


In the past, institutionalisation (with strict gender segregation) and compulsory sterilization were used to prevent adults with learning disabilities from enjoying opportunities for a full life including social and sexual relationships. Even though, in more recent decades, such practices and ideas have fallen into disrepute, adults with learning disabilities still often find themselves in a position where they are not given the support they need to find, and keep, a partner, despite this being a life goal for many.

Evidence suggests that LGBT+ people with learning disabilities experience particular challenges when it comes to relationships.


This study aimed to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of formal and informal support for adults with learning disabilities to form loving relationships.


The study involved:

  • in-depth semi-structured interviews with 40 people with learning disabilities (using both individual and couple interviews – according to participant preference) to identify what was individually and collectively important to them when it came to relationships and support for relationships;
  • interviews and focus groups with 90 people to generate knowledge about how key stakeholders, including people with learning disabilities, their families, and social care practitioners, understand the key barriers to support;
  • analysis of data from 10 dating agencies.

Resources were developed, in partnership with people with learning disabilities, to raise awareness of the importance of relationships and how they might be supported.


  • It has always been difficult for people with learning disabilities to assert their adult status and engage in loving and sexual relationships with others.
  • People with learning disabilities in this study reported that love, and having a loving relationship, was very important to them, but that they still faced many barriers.
  • Both social care staff and parents of were supportive of adults with learning disabilities having relationships, but were concerned about abuse and exploitation.
  • The under-funding of services is itself a barrier to full participation in adult life.
  • Specialist dating and friendship agencies play a key role. However, LGBT+ people with learning disabilities face more obstacles than most and some agencies struggle to meet their needs.
  • Video resources now exist for people with learning disabilities and social care staff practitioners to assist with developing and maintaining relationships.



Two videos were produced from this study:

  • Love is a wonderful feeling: People with learning disabilities talking about the importance of being supported to have relationships, plus the views of social care staff and parents.
  • Making connections, building confidence. Dating agencies for people with learning disabilities: People talking about the work of specialist dating and friendship agencies for people with learning disabilities and the important role they have in helping people live full adult lives.

Journal papers

Bates C, McCarthy M, Milne Skillman K, Elson N, Forrester-Jones R, Hunt S (2020) “Always trying to walk a bit of a tightrope”: the role of social care staff in supporting adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to develop and maintain loving relationships, British Journal of Learning Disabilities, Published online.

McCarthy M, Milne Skillman K, Elson N, Bates C, Forrester-Jones R, Hunt S (2020) Making connections and building confidence: a study of specialist dating agencies for people with intellectual disabilities, Sexuality and Disability, Published online.