Article

Frontline Initiative: Supporting Healthy Relationships

Supporting healthy relationships for all: ALL means ALL

Author(s)

Virginia Jahyu, M.A., is an expressive arts therapist and a co-founding therapist of the Trauma to Trust Clinic offered by Vita Community Living Services in Toronto. Virginia is a proud member of the rainbow community. She may be reached through her website www.artstherapy.ca

Luke Lynn, BSc, is a manager of services and supports with Kerry’s Place Autism Services and co-founded sprOUT Toronto. Luke was born female and lives his life as a straight male. He may be reached at luke.lynn@kerrysplace.org

painted stripes on pavement in colors of rainbow

Relationships are a necessary part of healthy living and can deeply impact our lives. Some relationships may add to our enjoyment of life and bring about positive change. Healthy relationships can provide support by helping us: 

  • Develop social skills,
  • Develop communication and conflict resolution strategies,
  • Increase wellbeing,
  • Makes us more resilient in times of stress, and
  • Gives us a sense of belonging or being a part of a community.

We can experience an array of emotions and a combination of both healthy and unhealthy habits or characteristics within a relationship. Identifying and defining what a “healthy” relationship can look like may help with fostering safe(r) spaces for healthy relationships.

There has been a long-standing misconception about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, questioning, two spirited + (LGBTTQQ2S+) relationships not being “a real relationship” and instead being deviant. This is simply not true. We all want and deserve healthy, loving, and safe relationships. LGBTTQQ2S+ folks have and experience healthy relationships in much the same way as heterosexual relationships. Having difficulties or conflicts in the relationship does not necessarily mean that the relationship is unhealthy. It is what we do with the conflict that determines that factor. People in all relationships experience conflict and our role as Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) is to help support the people in our care throughout their relationships, including the conflicts they may face. 

It is important to consider our role in fostering healthy relationships with the people we support and not filling that relationship need for them. DSPs are paid staff whose role is to foster and support all kinds of relationships (family, friends, romantic, intimate) for the people to whom we provide support. To do this role well, you need to consider the components of a healthy relationship.

A healthy relationship is when two or more people develop a connection based on —

  • Mutual respect
  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Support
  • Fairness/eEquality
  • Autonomy
  • Empathy
  • Good communication

All of these things take work, work that may require your support in fostering healthy relationships in the people with disabilities that you support. 

Relationships and people with disabilities who are LGBTTQQS2+

How do people with disabilities who identify as LGBTTQQ2S+ experience relationships in the same and different ways compared to what was described previously? People with disabilities have the same feelings, experience love, and have the same relationship needs as people without disabilities. However, there are some core differences in how people with disabilities who are LGBTTQQ2S+ experience relationships and have opportunities to express healthy sexuality.

People who are LGBTTQQ2S+ are more likely to have been shunned, oppressed, and shamed. They are more likely to experience mental health concerns. The lived experience of people with disabilities is similar. “The history of people with intellectual disabilities and their sexual rights can be described as a combination of neglect, prejudice, disapproval, and misunderstood…and incapable of expressing their sexuality.”  (Richards, et. al. 2009). With this false assumption, people with disabilities are more likely to have learned about relationships differently than people without disabilities. People with disabilities have often come from isolating environments, such as institutions. In these cases, teaching about relationships and creating opportunities to develop healthy relationships was not a priority. In some cases, relationships were not allowed at all, people were punished, and extreme abusive measures were taken if they attempted to have a relationship. “We have caged their bodies, disfigured their genitals, drugged their thoughts. But we have never, ever captured their hearts or controlled their sprits” (Hingsburger, 2010). Therefore, we need to be mindful of where people with disabilities learn about relationships and how this impacts their ability to develop healthy relationships.

People with disabilities “are much less likely to get sex education than your nondisabled peer. You are much more likely to be lied to regarding even really basic sexual information” (Hingsburger, Dalla Nora & Tough, 2010).  They often learn about relationships from non-conventional means such as TV, Youtube, or other social media. The role of the DSP and family members who support people with disabilities who identify as LGBTQS2+ in group homes, semi-independent living settings, and so forth, is then not only to teach about healthy relationships, but also to provide opportunities to create them and practice skills to maintain them.

Tips to teach and foster healthy relationships for people you support who are LGBTTQQS2+

We asked for help in creating this list from a person who has an intellectual disability. This person currently receives supports in a group home and also identifies as LGBTTQQ2S+. He said, “What makes the best staff is a staff that makes it easy for me to be a part of LGBT activities and don’t have a problem with supporting me to go.”  He shared a part of his story: “When I first came out I felt more comfortable talking to female staff…but now I feel comfortable to talk with male staff, too. I know that even though they are not LGBT, they support my lifestyle and don’t judge me. This makes is easier to ask questions about relationships.”

We also asked Kimberley Beattie, a DSP who has worked for Vita Community Living Services for 20 years, how she provides supports to people in the LGBTTQQS2+ community. Kimberley says, “It’s simple. Everyone has the right to be who they want to be, love who they want to love and express themselves how they choose to.  My job is to listen and provide supports with who they want to be, not who I want them to be.”

These conversations gave us many things to consider in supporting healthy relationships and supporting people with disabilities who are LGBTTQQ2S+. There was more than can be discussed in this article, however, here are some things to consider when supporting someone in the development of healthy relationships —

  1. The role of the DSP is to provide care to improve quality of life and ensure basic needs are met. This includes helping to facilitate and support healthy relationships.
  2. Recognize that your own personal opinions, religious beliefs, upbringing, and culture may impact the way you support people with disabilities who are LGBTTQQS2+. The best way to make sure that personal biases do not interfere with person-centered supports is to recognize when they differ from those of the person you support. These need to be put aside in order to meet the responsibilities of your role.
  3. Every human being needs relationships. How these needs are fulfilled does not necessarily mean through sexual intimacy only. Healthy relationships can be experienced by common interests, companionship, and physical closeness.
  4. Promote a culture of inclusiveness and respect through using language that is inclusive and non-binary. This may include respecting non-binary gender identities and a mindfulness in using terms such as boyfriend or girlfriend, wife or husband. Also, not assuming that a monogamous relationship is the preferred type of “coupling.”
  5. Promote an LGBTTQQS2+ positive inclusive environment. Ways to achieve this are through posting LGBTTQQS2+ event flyers, having LGBTTQQS2+ positive TV programs, stickers of LGBTTQQS2+ pride.
  6. Provide wide ranges of experiences. Go to events or areas that are inclusive for all and specifically for diverse relationships (LGBTTQQ2S+ Pride festivals, dances, events etc.).
  7. Create an atmosphere where is it safe to ask questions and have discussions about relationships. A DSP can start the discussion about relationships and show openness to support all relationships in order to normalize the conversation. Support their needs to feel safe. It needs to be open and honest. It needs to acknowledge the person’s lived experiences.

“People may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou) This is true for how we make a person we support feel in all relationships. A healthy relationship should be a safe space where someone feels free to be themselves. All relationships – LGBTTQQ2S+ or otherwise – should reflect that. People of all sexual and gender identities deserve safe and healthy relationships. You as the DSP have the ability, power, and honor to help people we support experience “All means All” in developing healthy relationships.

References

  • Evans, R. L. (1971). In Richard Evans’ Quote Book (p. 244). Salt Lake City, UT: Publishers Press.

  • Hingsburger, D. (2006). A witness to courage. Impact, 23(2), 24–25. Retrieved from https://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/232/20.html

  • Hingsburger, D., Dalla Nora, M., & Tough, S. (2010). The key: A community approach to assessment, treatment and support for people with intellectual disabilities who sexually offend. Toronto, ON: Diverse City Press.

  • Richards, D., Miodrag, N., Watson, S. L., Feldman, M., Aunos, M., Cox-Lindenbaum, D., & Griffiths, D. (n.d.). Sexuality and human rights of persons with intellectual disabilities. In Challenges to the human rights of people with intellectual disabilities (pp. 184–218). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.