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Intimate Relationships – Organizational Supports Can Make the Difference!

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership defines intimate relationships as: “sharing ourselves with another person in a way we would not share with others. Intimate relationships include intellectual, social, emotional and physical components. Intimacy is present when people care and feel deeply about each other… Sometimes intimate relationships result in physical affection and sexuality” (2017, p. 58). Not only can social relationships increase people’s quality of life, they can also favorably impact people’s well-being, sense of belonging, self-worth, and stress levels.

Unfortunately, many people with disabilities face limited opportunities to form and maintain intimate relationships. For these reasons, the aim of this study recently conducted by CQL was to explore the intimate relationships of adults with disabilities in its many forms. To do so, we analyzed Personal Outcome Measures® interview data from approximately 1,400 people with disabilities conducted by certified interviewers.

Findings revealed, although the majority of participants (57.4%) had intimate relationships, nearly one-third of participants with intimate relationships (27.8%) were not satisfied with the relationships’ type or scope. In terms of individualized supports provided by organizations to facilitate intimate relationships, only slightly more than half of organizations knew the persons’ preferences for intimate relationships (58.7%), or provided support for participants to pursue, form, and maintain intimate relationships (50.7%). Less than half of organizations assisted participants to explore and evaluate experiences in order to make choices about intimate relationships (49.9%) or addressed barriers to intimate relationships (47.5%).

Finding also revealed a number of disparities in who was most and least likely to receive organizational supports to facilitate intimate relationships. Compared to people who lived in their own homes, people who lived in host family/family foster care were 2.6 times less likely to receive organizational supports for intimate relationships, people in provider owned- or operated-homes were 1.5 times less likely, private ICF/DD 3.1 times less likely, and state operated HCBS group homes 2.2 times less likely. Moreover, the more housemates people had, the less likely they were to receive organizational supports to have intimate relationships.

Probability of Receiving Organizational Supports By Number of Housemates

“Intimate relationships may also hinge on disability service organizations’ commitment to them. Our most important findings were about the role organizations play in inhibiting or supporting the intimate relationships of adults with disabilities… Our findings reveal organizations can play a critical role in promoting the intimate relationships of adults with disabilities. Adults with disabilities are vastly more likely to have intimate relationships and be satisfied with those relationships (i.e., have the outcome present) when organizations understand their preferences for intimate relationships, assist them in exploring choices about intimate relationships, support them while pursuing and maintaining intimate relationships, and address any barriers related to intimate relationships” (Friedman, 2019, p. 52).

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C. (2019). Intimate relationships of people with disabilities. Inclusion, 7(1), 41-56.