Mutual relationships and friendships continue to be at the heart of L’Arche.

“Will you be my friend?” This was the question that started L’Arche. A man with an intellectual disability, living in a large institution addressed this question to Jean Vanier. Jean, seeking an authentic way to say ‘yes’, invited some people from this institution to come and live with him, and so L’Arche began. Friendships continue to be at the heart of L’Arche – friendships that transcend the categories into which we all too easily put people; assistant, person with a learning disability, committee member, etc. Friendships don’t recognise these distinctions because friendships are relationships based on the mutual affection of one person to another, not because of what you do but because of who you are.

Some people have challenged L’Arches’ position on friendships. There are those who take the view that friendship between ‘service users’ and ’employees’ who are paid to support them is “unprofessional” and therefore should not be encouraged. We would prefer to say it is not “unprofessional”: rather, it is a mutual choice to go beyond the boundaries of professional relationships of support. Part of the debate relies on whether it is possible, as we contend, to provide a support service that meets the required professional standards and at the same time be friends with the people you are supporting. This allows for an environment of friendship to flourish and creates gives people sense of mutual belonging.

At policy level this can be seen as an example of the clash between what is referred to as the ‘professionalism’ and ‘duty of care’; on the one hand the ‘person centred care’ agenda. The ‘professionalism’ agenda refers to being with people with an intellectual disability only on the basis of your paid role or occupation. Indeed it can also refer to other attributes however the interpersonal ethic is keeping and maintain an emotional and social distance with the people you work with. The ‘duty of care’ agenda is concerned with keeping vulnerable adults safe and giving aspect of the service the highest priority. Of course in L’Arche we have checks and balances to minimize foreseeable risks. Nevertheless, life is inherently risky and although we attempt to eliminate risk there is a balance known as the ‘dignity of risk’ which, we support to enable people to lead meaningful and fulfilled adult lives.

The ‘person centered’ agenda, (and indeed L’Arche’s rasion d’etre) is concerned with putting people with intellectual disabilities in control of their own lives. The messages coming through from our experience of living and sharing our lives with people with intellectual disabilities and their families are clear. When we complete personal plans the constant theme from people is a desire for real, fulfilling friendships with people with and people without intellectual disabilities. While many in our Communities have robust friendships, if some of these friendships overlap with people in professional roles, so be it, our experience is that it gives our Core Members a greater sense of self esteem and purpose.