Friendships are important to people with a learning disability, however people with a learning disability tend to have fewer friends and fewer opportunities for socialising than the general population.

Almost 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spend less than 1 hour outside their home on a typical Saturday (Mencap, 2016). Recent research from Scope has also uncovered that a shocking 85% of young disabled adults from the 18-34 year old age group feel lonely. As a result, over half of working age disabled people who have felt lonely in the past year said they experienced depression (62%) and anxiety (58%); and half (49%) experienced stress ( 2018).

Children with a learning disability usually have smaller social networks than children without a learning disability.

PMLD and social integration

The friendship needs of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) are often ignored, perhaps due to their communication difficulties. However, people with PMLD are capable of forming relationships, making choices and communicating with others through vocalisation or touch (Mansell 2010; Carnaby 2004; Ware 1994).

Why are friendships important to people with a learning disability:

(1) More happiness and confidence: Having an active social life can help people with a learning disability to feel happier, included and valued (Chadwick et al. 2014; Mason et al. 2013).  Having friends can also help people with a learning disability to be more confident and independent, and may encourage them to take part in more social activities in the community.

(2) Reduce loneliness: Friendships also help to reduce loneliness. Loneliness is linked to a number of health risks, such as depression, high blood pressure and higher mortality risk (Windle et al. 2011; Ueno 2005; Gilmore and Cuskelly 2014).  An active social life helps to reduce loneliness and improve people’s mental and physical health (Holder and Coleman 2007; Mason et al. 2013; Chadwick et al. 2014).

(3) Better social networks - Better social networks - In their analysis of the link between social relationships and mortality risk, Holt-Lunstad et al. (2010) found that across 148 studies (involving a total of over 300,000 people) the participants with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival compared to those with weaker social relationships. The magnitude of this effect is greater than that of many well-known mortality risk factors, such as obesity and physical inactivity (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2010).

Why social integration is important?

Just being in a community does not necessarily create better lives for people with a learning disability.

There is an important difference between social and physical integration. Just because people with a learning disability use public spaces or attend local events doesn’t necessarily mean that they make friends or are accepted by their peers (Cummins and Lau 2003; Ager et al. 2001).

What barriers do people with learning disabilities face?

People with a learning disability face a number of barriers to having a social life and forming and maintaining friendships:

Lack of accessible social activities

There is a lack of accessible social activities or events where people with a learning disability could potentially make and maintain friendships. Travelling to and fro events requires accessible transport. Lack of accessible transport can additionally be a hindrance in forming friendships and socialising.

Lack of support

There is a lack of support available to help people with a learning disability to socialise, particularly in the evenings and at weekends. Support workers need to change shifts – and not doing so in the community – can result in people with a learning disability having to leave events early.

Lack of accessible information

There is a lack of accessible or easy-read information about local services and social events, including information about the accessibility of facilities


People with a learning disability may not be able to afford to take part in certain activities or events. As well as entrance fees, a person with a learning disability might have to pay for: Transport to and from the activity or event, A support worker to accompany them, Entrance fees for the support worker accompanying them (although some organisations offer subsidised or free access for support workers)


How can people with learning disabilities make friends?

Read more about how people with a learning disability can make friends through Mencap Gateway clubs and programmes, the Youth Inclusion Hub and the Special Olympics Unified Sports Programme below.


Research references

Here you'll find full referencing for the Mencap research and statistics pages.

Research references

Making friends


Mencap Gateway clubs and programmes

Mencap Gateway Clubs and programmes support people with a learning disability to build and maintain friendships and relationships. They also help people with a learning disability to access social activities and events. In addition, Mencap’s Young Ambassadors programme helps young people with a learning disability to meet new people, make friends, and has given them the opportunity to talk about what friendship means to them.


Find out more

Youth Inclusion Hub

The Youth Inclusion Hub is a partnership project between Mencap Northern Ireland, Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Action Deaf Youth, Disability Sport NI (DSNI), Cedar Foundation, Brain Injury Matters and the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS). It supports, trains and provides resources for staff in youth club settings, so that they can become more inclusive of people with a disability.

Find out more

The Special Olympics Unified Sports Programme

The Special Olympics Unified Sports Programme brought together people with a learning disability with peers with higher sporting abilities (and without a learning disability) in their local community. The participants trained and competed regularly with one another. This led to bonds between participants and helped to improve attitudes towards those with a learning disability.

Find out more

You might also like

Friendship and Relationships Gallery

Friendships and relationships gallery
Read more

Friendships - what we think

People with a learning disability have a right to develop friendships 
Read more