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  4. Friendships and adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities in England disability policy

Friendships and adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities in England disability policy

An image of Rachel Hughes smiling at the camera

Rachel Parry Hughes, PhD Student
Cambridge Intellectual and Development Disabilities Research Group
07507 278055

My presentation is about how friendship and people who have profound and multiple learning disabilities have been written about in Government disability policy documents since 2001. We usually think of friendship as one of the good things in life. Some people think it is particularly important for people who have profound disabilities. There isn't much research on friendship and people who have profound disabilities. But it seems that most people who have profound disabilities hardly see friends at all.

In the first big policy document about people with learning disabilities, Valuing People, there was a lot of writing about citizenship and rights. There was not much writing about friendship. In the second big policy document, Valuing People Now, there is more writing about friendship. For example, there is a story about friendship in the life of a young man who has profound disabilities. There is also writing about friendship in documents written about the policy of personalisation. But the way the words are put together in the policy documents is interesting. It makes me think that policymakers are not really sure if it is possible for people who have profound disabilities to be 'friends'.

I think the definition of friendship is a problem for policymakers, and perhaps for other people too. Sociologists have asked people living in England today what they think friendship is. People often say it is about 2 things: 1) choice and 2) give and take (reciprocity). These are things which it might be harder for people who have profound disabilities to do. Or it might just be difficult for others to believe they can do them. Either way, this could make it harder to talk about people who have profound disabilities as 'friends'.

The 'choice and reciprocity definition' is not the only definition of friendship there is. In different countries and at different times in history, people have defined friendship differently. Do we need to rethink the common definition of friendship in England today? Would this make it easier to talk about adults who have profound disabilities as 'friends'? Or is it OK not to use 'friends' and to use other words to talk about people who have profound disabilities and their personal relationships (e.g. people I care about)? We need to think carefully about how we can best communicate the value of the personal relationships people with profound disabilities are involved in.

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About the Group

If you woud like to get in touch with the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group, please contact:

Liz Tilley 
Chair of the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group
School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
MK7 6AA

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