The significance of social support and close relationships for people with learning disabilities

Lippold, Tessa (2000). The significance of social support and close relationships for people with learning disabilities. PhD thesis The Open University.



Background and aims:

The social and personal relationships of people with learning disabilities were explored, including the characteristics of their social networks, the extent of social integration and the availability of social support. It was hypothesised that people with learning disabilities would be less socially integrated, have more restricted social networks and more limited. social support than a comparison group of people with physical disabilities.

Design and participants:

A mixed methodology was employed. In the-first part of the study participants were 30 people with learning disabilities, a nominated carer for each of the 30 participants and a comparison group of 17 people with physical disabilities. The second part of the investigation consisted of semi-structured interviews with 6 of the people with learning disabilities.


Measures used included-the Life Experiences Checklist, the Circles task, the Social Support Self Report, the Functional Support Inventory and the Social Circles Questionnaire. The author devised a semi-structured interview to assess understanding of different kinds of relationships. Transcripts were analysed using content analysis.


Levels of integration were better than expected in all areas apart from relationships. Participants reported a mean social network size of 11.7, significantly lower than the comparison group. The networks of people with learning disabilities were largely composed of family or friends with learning disabilities whereas non-disabled friends made up the majority of the network for the comparison group. There were few differences between the groups in terms a of perceived social support. Themes identified from the interview data included the provision of emotional support by friends and betrayal of trust in romantic relationships.


The findings indicate that- people with learning disabilities may be functionally but not fully socially integrated within the community, thereby lacking opportunities to experience a wide range of relationships. Directions for future research are suggested.

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