For disability service, a chance to play Cupid

IT started as a way for one mother to have a break from caring for her disabled daughter, and two decades on Impact Social Services has touched the lives of thousands of people.

Impact, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, started as a respite service for carers of people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Its programs have expanded to include mental health and home support that helps up to 600 people a year.

But the organisation has become best known for its Social Impact program, where clients with an intellectual disability learn about dating, relationships and love.

"It evolved from a lot of our client groups saying, 'I want a boyfriend, I want a girlfriend, I want to feel what love is, I want to be able to touch someone, I want to understand how that feels,"' Impact's chief executive Dianne Holbery said.

Ms Holbery said that until the program was developed, parents of disabled adults often pretended their children did not have romantic feelings.

"For parents and agencies where they live in group homes, it's an area that's too hard to deal with. Parents don't want their children to know what it's like to feel love and have sex. They don't want the risk of them having children with another disability. So it's often out of sight, out of mind."

She said the program taught participants how to approach relationships.

"It sets people up to explore within the safety of not being hurt, not being let down, not being abused, because they're quite vulnerable.

"It gives people all the skills that they need before sending them out into the community and having a bit of a crack at it."

Ms Holbery said that while parents remained hesitant and apprehensive about the program, the attitude of many had changed.

"They realise it's something that they've shut their loved ones away from.

"People within the community need local services that they can access, that they can feel a part of, that they can actually engage with their community. Places like Social Impact are the stepping stones to getting people re-engaged with their communities independently."

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