A client’s relationships are likely to have an enormous influence on their lives. Along with their access to appropriate and secure housing, relationships are amongst the most important issues to be aware of in working with a person who has an intellectual disability. It is important for counsellors to work with an understanding of the people in a client’s life, realising that relationships have the potential to protect and support as well as to harm and place a client at risk. Some helpful questions to ask might include:

  • Who is in the client’s life?
  • What potential does the client have to develop supportive relationships? 
  • What about family of origin? (the family of origin is a source of support for some people, but not for others) 
  • Are the relationships the client has safe ones? What opportunities and/or risks do they present? 

Most people have one significant adult person in their life, and it is important to gain an understanding of these relationships where possible – to identify the potential for support as well as for harm. It is also important to identify exploitative relationships, which might exist under the guise of seemingly ‘normal’ friendships or family relationships which take place out of public view and feature a style of coercion and control that takes advantage of a person’s desire for friendship and togetherness.

For some people with intellectual disability, difficulties with understanding the complicated and abstract nature of intimacy and relationships can contribute to difficulty in day-to-day life and cause vulnerability to exploitation. In addition, the sexuality of people with intellectual disability tends to be both marginalised and regulated. This has both historical and contemporary causes, which are closely related to the eugenics arguments that were prevalent early this century, to the fears associated with the increased rights of people with intellectual disability and to prevailing attitudes towards people with intellectual disability (Johnson et al., 2001, p. 21). The prevailing views about people with disabilities having sexual relationships can force people to conduct their sexual lives in secret, increasing their risk of abuse and exploitation (Johnson et al., 2001).

The experience at WWILD suggests that people with intellectual disability require in-depth engagement and education about the more abstract concepts of relationships and intimacy. For example, support workers may need to explore:

  • What are public and private spaces? 
  • What is the difference between friends and romantic relationships? 
  • What makes a family? 
  • How do you know what you are feeling? 
  • How do you know what others are feeling? 
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