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.
This page presents the latest research and statistics on friendships and socialising for people with a learning disability.
Facts about people with a learning disability and friendship
Friendships are important to people with a learning disability for a number of reasons
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. In turn, this can help to improve social attitudes towards learning disability because positive direct contact with people with a learning disability is an effective way of improving attitudes towards them (Chadwick et al. 2014; Milner and Kelly 2009; Scior and Werner 2015).
Friendships are also important to people with a learning disability, because they 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). Meanwhile, 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).
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).
People with a learning disability have fewer friends than the general population
Children with a learning disability usually have smaller social networks than children without a learning disability.
In addition, their social relationships are not typically as strong or close as those of children without a learning disability (Jahoda and Pownall 2014; Baker et al. 2007). 33% of children with a learning disability say they find it harder than average to make friends in comparison with 9% of children without a learning disability (Emerson and Hatton 2007).
Adults with a learning disability also tend to have smaller and more restricted social networks than adults without a learning disability
Their social networks are often characterised by relationships with people they live with and support staff (Cambridge et al. 2002; McConkey et al. 2003; Mason et al. 2013). 41% of adults with a learning disability do not have more than yearly contact with family members they do not live with (Emerson and Hatton 2008).
People with PMLD are less likely to participate in social and leisure activities than those with a mild, moderate or severe learning disability (Darcy and Dowse 2012; Emerson and Hatton 2008).
In addition, 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).
People with a learning disability are vulnerable to loneliness
For example, a US-based study of over 1000 people with a learning disability living in community settings found that 33.5% of respondents were sometimes lonely, and 16.7% were often lonely (Stancliffe et al. 2007).
Meanwhile, a review of research into loneliness amongst children and adults with a learning disability found that up to 50% of people with a learning disability experience chronic loneliness, compared to around 15-30% of people in the general population (Gilmore and Cuskelly 2014). This suggests that loneliness is a substantial problem amongst people with a learning disability. As in the general population, loneliness has been associated with health risks such as depression and stress amongst people with a learning disability (Lunsky 2003, 2004; Heiman 2001).
33% of children with a learning disability say they find it harder than average to make new friends, compared with 9% for children without a learning disability
50% of people with a learning disability experience chronic loneliness, compared to 15-30% of the general population
41% of adults with a learning disability do not have more than yearly contact with family they do not live with
Learning disability and social integration
Increased physical integration within a community does not necessarily create better lives for people with a learning disability.
It is important to recognise the distinction between social and physical integration. Just because people with a learning disability use public spaces or attend local events, this does not necessarily mean that they make friends there (Cummins and Lau 2003; Ager et al. 2001).
As such, there is a need to focus on improving social or community connectedness, as opposed to only concentrating on the physical integration of people with a learning disability within the wider community (Cummins and Lau 2003; Abbott and McConkey 2006; Ager et al. 2001).
People with a learning disability face a number of barriers to having a social life and forming and maintaining friendships
- There is a lack of accessible social activities or events where people with a learning disability could potentially make and maintain friendships
- 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 needing to change shifts – and not doing so in the community – can result in people with a learning disability having to leave events early
- 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 lack self-confidence or social skills
- 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)
(Jones 2009; Abbott and McConkey 2006; ODI 2014; Milner and Kelly 2009; Cummins and Lau 2003; Calvert 2010; Bates and Davis 2004; Rankin 2012; Reynolds 2002).
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
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