information for transformational people

Learning 246Good practice for spiritual development with people with learning disabilities 

From report by Caritas Westminster, St Joseph’s Pastoral Centre and Lemos&Crane

Caritas Westminster, St Joseph’s Pastoral Centre and Lemos&Crane have been researching what practical steps could be taken to ensure that the spiritual aspirations of people with learning disabilities are met by support services – both faith-based and non faith-based.  

Lemos&Crane have worked with a group of practitioners from a range of adult social care and other support organisations (including Community Integrated Care, Alabare, L'Arche, Livability, Camphill, the Judith Trust and others) to understand better the attitudes and aspirations of people with learning disabilities, as well as parents, careers and support staff, on spirituality. Their report, 'Looking Together: Spiritual beliefs and aspirations of people with learning disabilities' was published in February 2017.

Drawing on 57 interviews with parents, carers, support staff and people with learning disabilities the report considers:

  1. Is spirituality important?
  2. Supporting the whole person
  3. Barriers to a full religious or spiritual life
  4. Towards a framework for policy and practice

Is spirituality important?
Many respondents expressed clear and heartfelt spiritual beliefs. These are evidently important as part of their identities and their way of seeing the world. Some people felt their spirituality was personal and private, others greatly valued the expression of shared beliefs and participating with others to express their faith in a community. The beliefs of people with learning disabilities also affect those around them, making them more open-minded and tolerant of the complexity of individual identities beyond simple labels, such as ‘learning disabilities’.

As well as spiritual beliefs, religious practices were also important for many respondents, including attending churches or synagogues, meeting other people of like mind, visiting religious places and celebrating religious festivals. Religious beliefs and practice can also enhance people’s feelings of fulfilment with their lives as well as being a source of consolation in times of trouble or upset. There may be communication difficulties of course for some people with learning disabilities. These issues should not however be seen as a bar either to spiritual belief or participation. Many people with learning disabilities expressed a desire to know more and learn about spirituality and religion.

One of the most important ways of expressing and sharing religious beliefs is through observing rites of passage over the life course, for example welcoming and naming new-born babies, transitions to adulthood, weddings and funerals. Participating in these rites of passage, both for themselves and for their nearest and dearest is an important need for people with learning disabilities. Though they may be excluded from these experiences by a misplaced urge to protect their feelings from pain and loss, it is a significant form of exclusion from some of life’s most important experiences.

People with learning disabilities also saw religious teaching as a form of moral guidance in the world. They also valued the feelings of fellowship and sharing that were to be gained from being part of faith communities. Religion was also seen by many as an important and inextricable part of their family life and a bond they shared with the rest of their family. Faith communities are also an important wellspring for friends and friendship, particularly friendship in times when consolation is needed.

Supporting the whole person
Many respondents, whether family members, support staff or service users themselves, felt that support staff had an obligation to help people meet their aspirations for spiritual belief and participation, regardless of the views of the support staff about religion or spirituality. This was seen as part of people’s right to choice and independence. Religious education was also an important need.

Barriers to a full religious or spiritual life
People with learning disabilities experience barriers to living a full religious life, however. There are practical obstacles associated with physical or intellectual limitations. Some people do not enjoy sufficient independence to participate fully without support. People have also encountered intolerant or inflexible attitudes and practices on the part of faith communities, which are experienced understandably as unwelcoming and excluding. Staff beliefs can also be a barrier, not only for reasons of intolerance or indifference, but also as a result of a lack of confidence or hesitancy around issues which may be very profound for the individual but seem impenetrable or confusing to staff. There are also risks that need to be guarded against through professional practice, including inappropriate efforts to influence the beliefs or behaviour of an individual by a staff or family member – either to proselytise for certain religious beliefs or to be aggressively intolerant of religious beliefs. The risk management frameworks within professional organisations will need to take account of and mitigate against these risks.

Towards a framework for good practice
A framework for good practice on working with people with learning disabilities and spiritualiy would include:
1.  A policy framework that recognises the potential benefits of spirituality to enrich the lives of people with learning disabilities. These include:

  • meditation, mindfulness and prayer
  • moral guidance, charity and giving
  • strengthening identity, belonging and community
  • fostering a sense of beauty and self-transcendence
  • meaning and fulfilment
  • consolation in times of loss.

2.  Equality policies and practices that recognise the benefits of valuing and celebrating religious diversity as well as preventing discrimination on grounds of religion.
3.  Training, supervision, peer support and discussion groups for staff who feel unsure about handling issues of spirituality and religious belief.
4.  Accurate record-keeping and information on religious identities and spiritual needs of service users.
5.  Person-centred and support planning methodologies that recognise the importance of spirituality and religious beliefs and practices of service users.
6.  Risk assessment and management methodologies that recognise the risks of proselytising or exerting unwanted or over-weaning influence, without simply debarring all discussion of religious and spiritual matters as a ‘can of worms’ or ‘too hot to handle.’
7.  Good knowledge of and strong links with faith communities in the locality of the service.
8.  Opportunities to observe rites of passage and ensuring that the religious aspects of major life events and transitions are fully accessible for example, christening, baptism or naming ceremonies for children, transition to adulthood, moving into independent housing, celebrating partnerships and weddings, family bereavement or the death of friends.
9.  Attendance at religious worship and faith communities with a sympathetic supporter if necessary.
10.  Religious education and instruction as well as discussion groups for services users who are interested.
11.  Opportunities and peaceful places for private prayer, shared prayer and meditation.
12.  Welcoming and encouraging the presence of religious objects which are meaningful to individual service users in their private spaces.

The report of this research can be downloaded here.

Retweet about this article:



From report by Caritas Westminster, St Joseph’s Pa, 06/03/2017

To submit a story or to publicise an event please contact us. Sign up for email here.