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News from ActionAgainstCruelty

Supporting spiritual aspirations of people with learning disabilities: new collaborative project

Lemos&Crane, Caritas Westminster and St Joseph’s Pastoral Centre are working together to develop insight into the role of spirituality in the lives of adults with a learning disability and practical ways to support adult social care services – both faith-based and non faith-based – to recognise and respond to the spiritual aspirations, beliefs and interests of their service users.

A small but clear body of research confirms the importance of religion and spirituality to people with learning disabilities. When asked, people with learning disabilities are happy to talk about religion and welcome the opportunity to do so. Many express a strong and clear religious identity, differentiating their faith from others and clearly understanding the fundamental concepts underpinning their religion.  People with learning disabilities practice their faith in attending places of worship, prayer (individually and in groups), religious duties and religious festivals.

It is equally clear, however, that support services are not systematically meeting the spiritual needs and aspirations of their service users. Examples of good practice in supporting spiritual inquiry and aspirations tend to be dependent on staff who themselves have religious interests.  There are several reasons why this may have come about. Staff may show a general unwillingness to address the individual emotional lives of people with learning disabilities of which exploration of spirituality is a part. The topic may be deemed too personal or invasive - leading to anxieties around proselytising or coercion. Communication barriers may also prevent the exploration of emotional and spiritual aspects of the lives of people with learning disabilities.  There may be assumptions that ideas about God and religious belief require a higher level of abstract thinking than individuals with learning disabilities are capable of. This phenomenon is not unique to adults with a learning disability. In 2013 Lemos&Crane published Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people which outlines a similar situation in the homelessness sector.

Religious communities might also fall short in accessibility and inclusiveness for adults with learning disabilities. Some might underestimate the abilities of people with learning disabilities to comprehend and participate in religious practices and observance.  Few religious communities seem to go out of their way to involve people with learning disabilities.  Nevertheless the people with learning disabilities who did attend places of worship often got a lot out of the experience of religious services, prayer, the reverent and reflective atmosphere, community spirit and social activities. 

Lemos&Crane’s research has shown that participation and active involvement in community activities is one of the best promoters of emotional well-being and, specifically for people with learning disabilities, a defence against harassment, cruelty and abuse commonly experienced. In 2012, Lemos&Crane published influential research about the experiences of adults with learning disabilities of cruelty, harassment and abuse, Loneliness and CrueltyThis research found that because people were isolated they were prey to exploitation for money or sex – or they were the targets of abuse and cruelty in public. Participation in a community - a group in which one is able to express themselves, forge friendships and celebrate common beliefs – is a great contributor to emotional fulfilment, and a positive defence against isolation and vulnerability; empowering as opposed to limiting.


Lemos&Crane, Caritas Westminster and St Joseph’s pastoral centre are now establishing a practitioner action research group to explore the topic in more depth. The group will be instrumental in conducting research with service users and front line staff into the role that spirituality plays in the lives of service users and barriers to this being met by support staff. On the basis of these findings and the input of the action research group, Lemos&Crane will then develop practical resources and information for adult social care service – both faith-based and non faith-based – in meeting the spiritual needs of their service users.

If you are interested in taking part in the action research group, please take a few minutes to complete a statement of interest form, available here.

For more information about this project, please contact Sarah.

Read more at 



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