People with a learning disability have fewer chances to take part in leisure activities or socialise with their peers, and so may have fewer friends.

Research shows that children and teenagers with a learning disability partake in fewer activities and participate less frequently than their peers without a learning disability. They also tend to have fewer friends (Solish et al., 2010; Taheri et al., 2016).


Being physically present in a community does not necessarily mean people with a learning disability feel integrated within the community or accepted by their peers. Social inclusion involves making meaningful connections and participation in fulfilling activities (Cummins and Lau 2003; Overmars-Marx  et al., 2013). Research suggests that 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spend less than 1 hour outside their home on a typical Saturday (Mencap, 2019).

In a  survey by Sense, over half of disabled people reported feeling lonely, rising to over three quarters (77%) for those aged 18-34 (Sense 2017). Loneliness is associated with physical and mental health problems and poorer quality of life (Gilmore & Cuskelly, 2014).

Young woman sat on sofa looking towards camera

PMLD and social inclusion

People with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) have smaller social networks, which consist mainly of family members (Kamstra et al., 2015).

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, touch and non-verbal behaviours such as facial expression and gestures (Mansell 2010; Goldbart & Caton, 2010; Harding et al., 2011). 

Why are friendships important to people with a learning disability?

More happiness and confidence: Having an active social life can help people with a learning disability to feel happier, included and valued (Mason et al. 2013; Chadwick et al. 2014; Wilson et al., 2017).  

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 (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; Gilmore and Cuskelly 2014; Valtorta et al., 2016).

Improved health: Evidence suggests that having more and better quality friendships is associated with better physical health and lower risk of early mortality (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; Ho, 2016; Hojjat et al., 2017)


Leisure is the time we give to freely chosen activities when we are not involved in self-care or work. This can include:

  • Sport and physical activities (gym, swimming, team games)
  • Art and entertainment (theatre, concerts, clubs, films)
  • Countryside recreation (picnic, hiking)
  • Home-based leisure (reading, TV, computer games)
  • Visitor attractions (parks, museums)
  • Eating out (restaurants, cafes, pubs)
  • Social activities (time with friends)

Active participation in leisure activities is associated with improved quality of life and well-being, development of skills, confidence and friendships (Iulian-Doru & Maria 2013; Copestake et al., 2014; Wilson et al., 2017). Positive direct contact through leisure activities can also help to challenge negative attitudes associated with learning disability (Scior & Werner, 2015).

Lower participation in leisure activities

People with a disability take part in fewer leisure activities than people without a disability. 

For example:

  • Adults are recommended to take part in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week (NHS, 2018). The Active Lives Survey found that only 43% of people with a learning disability do at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, compared to 67.4% of people with no disability. 44% of people with a learning disability took part in less than 30 minutes of exercise a week (Sport England, 2018)
  • Adults with a disability or long-standing illness were found to have lower engagement in the arts, heritage sites, museums and galleries (DCMS, 2018) 

What are the barriers for people with a learning disability trying to access leisure activities? 

  • Inaccessible venues and facilities
  • Lack of inclusive activities
  • Lack of support
  • Financial constraints
  • Lack of accessible information
  • Mobility and transport difficulties
  • Negative attitudes towards disability

(Dowling et al.,2012; Copestake et al., 2014; DWP & DCMS, 2015; Shields & Synnot, 2016;, 2019; Wilson et al., 2017; Charnley et al., 2019)

Increasing participation

There are different ways to help include people with a learning disability in leisure activities, and therefore provide them with increased opportunities for forming friendships: 

  1. Awareness training of staff – Training staff to understand the needs to people with a learning disability remains an important component towards improving the experiences of people with learning disabilities. This can lead to better communication and knowledge of how activities can be made accessible and inclusive. 
  2. Easy read information – Providing easy-read information about leisure activities would make information about leisure activities more accessible and hence, more inclusive. This includes ensuring websites are accessible for people with a learning disability.
  3. Transport and mobility – Greater funding for resources and transport would lead to more innovation and better services for people with a learning disability. More accessible transport options can increase opportunities to participate in leisure activities
  4. Improving access of spaces and places – Service providers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled people are not substantially disadvantaged when compared to non-disabled people. People with a disability should be involved in the design of venues and facilities, in order to meet the needs of people with different impairments
  5. Participating in leisure projects – People with a learning disability should be encouraged to participate in leisure projects. Mencap Projects with the aim of improving the inclusion of people with a learning disability in leisure activities are outlined below.  

(Activity Alliance, 2013; Copestake et al., 2014; Pye & Sayce, 2014; Shields & Synnot, 2016; Allcock, 2018; Arts Council England, 2019)


Research references

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

Research references

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 awards, the Youth Inclusion Hub and the Special Olympics Unified Sports Programme below.


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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