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Claire Bates, alumna, PhD in Health and Social Care

Claire met an LSBU employee through her work at the charity Choice Support and decided to do a PhD here on improving support to people with learning disabilities

Claire Bates (PhD School of Health and Social Care, 2015) works as a quality analyst for the charity Choice Support and holds a research post at the University of Kent. She recently set up the Supported Loving campaign, which aims to help people with learning disabilities enjoy the kind of loving personal relationships most of us take for granted.

From practical experience to a PhD

“I’ve ended up working with and for people with learning disabilities almost by accident. My masters degree was in psychology and that’s what I planned to do, but while I was studying I started working with Choice Support. Initially I only intended to stay for a year, but the more I got to know the people I was working with the more I was drawn in. They were such great characters, I was really shocked at how easily society talks about these amazingly diverse individuals as if they are one homogeneous group. One of the trustees worked at LSBU, and that led to my decision to do a PhD on improving support to people with learning disabilities.

Unique PhD support group

“My PhD supervisors and the support I got during my studies at LSBU were amazing. Dr Louise Terry and Professor Keith Popple couldn’t have been more positive and helpful – in fact I’m still in touch with both of them. The PhD support group was also incredibly helpful and it’s something I think is unique to LSBU. We met to present our work every term and I also presented my research at the LSBU Summer School. It was good practice and gave me the confidence I needed to speak at conferences. The PhD support group also held practical sessions on topics like research ethics, vivas and preparing literature reviews. I’d been out of academia for a while so this input was really useful

Choosing a research topic

“When I was deciding on my doctoral research topic, I thought about what was really important in my life – top of the list was a loving relationship with my partner. From that point on my research topic came into focus and my final thesis was titled Experience of Partner Selection and Relationships for People with Learning Difficulties. The most overwhelming finding was simply how much skilled support it takes to give this group of people the opportunities and help they need to form loving relationships. It became clear too that it’s not easy to provide the right support. You need to be counsellor, mediator, sexual health advisor – the list goes on…

“Sex and relationships for people with learning disabilities is an under-researched field and one where I felt I could really add something of value. Because of fear around safeguarding and consent issues, many organisations have been slow to discuss and accept the value of personal and sexual relationships in the lives of people with learning disabilities, and there is so much more that could be done to support people to form meaningful bonds with others. Currently only 3% of people with learning disabilities are in relationships, as opposed to around 70% of adults overall. Research in this area can have a real impact on people’s lives and I think co-produced projects, where the ‘subjects’ jointly lead the research, is the way forward. Of course, not all relationships will be perfect, but that’s true for everyone.

I’d like to see people with learning disabilities being able to make mistakes and move on, just as we all do. Without support it simply can’t happen.

- Claire Bates

Supported Loving campaign

“The social media campaign Supported Loving grew out of my research findings and is designed to reach a network of support workers and organisations in the field. It includes a blog and a Facebook community along with a Twitter feed. It’s a way of sharing experiences and highlighting good practice so that support workers can improve their skills and knowledge and help the people in their care to experience fulfilling personal and sexual relationships. It’s particularly valuable in these budget-cutting times, when they may not be able to get specialist sex and relationship training. I’ve published articles in academic journals based on my research, but Supported Loving is about reaching out and sharing information with the people who deliver support.”

Learn more about Supported Loving and see examples of people with learning disabilities whose lives have been changed through loving relationships.