Potential and Possibility 2024: Tackling loneliness

People with complex disabilities tell us what needs to change

Over half of people with complex disabilities feel lonely compared to a quarter of the general public.

Source: Potential and Possibility research 2024

Being able to enjoy friendship and connection is crucial to our emotional wellbeing. Unfortunately, disabled people face loneliness and isolation every day. 

Loneliness bears down heavily on disabled people, many of whom face barriers in daily life that make it hard to build and sustain connections. Over the last few years of our research, people with complex disabilities have continued to be twice as likely to report feelings of loneliness than the general population. 55% of people with complex disabilities feel lonely always, often or some of the time compared to 26% of the general public. 

We need to think, ask and include 

For some people with complex disabilities, it can feel like there are fewer opportunities to form meaningful relationships. This is due to a combination of factors, including lack of accessible meeting spaces and leisure activities, poor transport options and anxieties about public attitudes and awareness of disability. 

Emma, who’s vision and hearing are both affected by Rubella syndrome, has encountered these barriers. She’s conscious of the lack of understanding about the needs of people who are deafblind. The barriers Emma’s encountered means that she’s felt left out of normal life. 

A woman stands in front of painted doors. She has her hands in her pockets and is frowning.

“Inclusion is very important for me. Over the years there’s been times when I’ve not felt included or been able to access spaces in my local area and it’s really impacted my mental health. I’ve heard similar stories from friends. It has a big impact and can really make you feel isolated and lonely. 

Sometimes I’ve avoided going to certain areas, pubs, swimming, or even parks as I feel like people will get annoyed with supporting me.” 

Read Emma’s story: Thinking about me, asking me and including me is the first step

Together, we can change things for the better by making our communities more inclusive. We can all play a role in making this happen with simple everyday actions that show disabled people they are welcome and valued

Connections are part of a healthy lifestyle  

How we connect with other people has a big impact on our sense of wellbeing. We know from our research that people with complex disabilities are less happy and significantly more anxious than the general population.

A quarter (26%) of people with complex disabilities described their health as bad or very bad compared to 9% of the general public. 

Sense is committed to supporting people to access lifestyles that will improve their mental health, connecting the people we support with opportunities to build confidence, try new things and make connections within their local community.  

This can vary from facilitating days out for siblings and young carers of disabled people – who are also vulnerable to social isolation – to providing accessible sports activities that give someone a chance to be part of a group.  

Tracey supports Hazel at one of our centres. Hazel’s blind and has complex disabilities, but Tracey knew that enabling her to try adaptive skiing would give Hazel confidence in her own abilities and a way to connect with new people. 

“Because she’s blind and disabled, there have been times in her life when Hazel’s been a bit isolated and maybe hasn’t had opportunities to join in activities. But at Sense we don’t believe anyone should be boxed in by beliefs about ability. 

Hazel needs to try new things. Sport improves confidence, family life, social skills – everything.” 

Read Hazel’s story: Leading Hazel off the side-lines and onto the ski slopes

We believe everyone should be able to take part in life, no matter their disability. We’ll continue to champion accessibility as a key consideration during the design and delivery of our activities, to ensure that they’re inclusive to people with complex disabilities. 

Recognising loneliness 

A young man with glasses on looks towards an older woman and they're both having fun.
Lilias with her son, Fearghas.

Sense has supported Lilias’ son, Fearghas, since he was 18 months old. In his teenage years, Lilias recognised that her son needed friends outside of his professional support network. These “non-negotiable” relationships aren’t the same as friendships, but his opportunities to connect with other people had been limited. With just a small amount of work, he was supported to make connections of his own.   

Lilias shares her advice on how to spot when someone feels lonely, with five common signs of loneliness. She also has some great recommendations for anyone looking to make new friends and grow their network. 

It’s important to be able to spot the signs of loneliness so that we can better reach out to people who might be feeling isolated. Letting someone know that you’re there can really help. 

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 and our own survey. This year we involved 1,279 people with complex disabilities in our research. This year (2024) is the third year we have carried out this research. 

These pages reflect the latest information from our 2024 research, building on our findings from 2023 and 2022. 

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