Relationships and socialising

For the 2023 update to our Potential and Possibility research, we asked participants about relationships and their social lives.

Overall, we found that people with complex disabilities are less likely to be lonely than they were in 2022. However, they are still twice as likely to “always” or “often” feel lonely than the general population.

Read on to find out what our participants had to say.


Over two thirds of people with complex disabilities (69%) faced difficulties in being able to socialise. 

The most common reasons people with complex disabilities found it difficult to socialise were:

  • Other people’s attitudes towards them (38%).
  • Additional costs to make activities accessible (30%).
  • Inaccessible locations (29%).

The majority of people with complex disabilities had frequent social contact with family and friends. 82% of people with complex disabilities saw or spoke to family member at least once a week, and 71% saw or spoke to friends at least once a week.  

From our audit of Sense services, we found that socialising was important to people with complex disabilities. Although many did not have any issues socialising, some faced difficulties. These included:

  • A lack of activities.
  • Issues with transport.
  • Wanting more support to be able to socialise (for example, support from social care).

In our survey, many people with complex disabilities shared some of the challenges they face in socialising.  

“It’s difficult to find places that are accessible and support needs with personal care.”

Lauren (completed on her behalf by Melanie)

“I find it very difficult because of my social anxiety and communication difficulties because of being autistic.”

“Not being able to be spontaneous – things always have to be planned and so I miss out on some social occasions.”

“I find socialising very hard. I have no social skills and I cannot pick up on social cues, body language or subtext. It is also hard to make friends when ever friend you’ve ever had has left you.”

“It’s hard as I can’t hear them most of the time and that’s with hearing aids, so I’m embarrassed to keep asking them to repeat what they say so it’s  easier to stay home.”


We found that people with complex disabilities are more likely to be isolated compared to the general population.  

People with complex disabilities were less likely to have people they could call on if they wanted company or to socialise (59%, compared to 92% of the general public).

Similarly, 70% of people with complex disabilities felt if they needed help there were people who would be there for them, compared to 95% of the general public.

Figures for the general public have been taken from the Government’s Community Life Survey.  

“I relate to people in a different way, because I am profoundly deaf, sight impaired, autistic and have a learning disability.”

“As I am non verbal it is very difficult for me, my main care giver is my nana who does everything for me.”

“My family are good at helping me to maintain the few friendships that I have. I would like to be able to see more of my friends in a more independent fashion i.e. have some carer support.”

Sophie (completed by Sharon on her behalf)


We compared people with complex disabilities who felt lonely often, always or some of the time to the general public.  

Over half of people with complex disabilities (53%) felt lonely often, always or some of the time compared to 25% of the general public.

(Figures for the general public were taken from ONS’s Opinions and Lifestyles survey in April 2023.)

“I feel that I have been left behind by a lot of my friends as my life has ground to a halt when my health deteriorated and theirs have all kept moving forward.”

“I would like proper friends but I am not sure what this looks like for me and it’s hard to make friends when you are different.”

About this research

Potential and Possibility is an annual piece of research on the experiences and aspirations of people with complex disabilities. The research involves polling, our own survey and insights from audits of Sense services. This year (2023) is the second year we have carried out this research.  

These pages reflect the latest information from our 2023 research, building on our findings from 2022.

If you have any questions about the research please contact [email protected].