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. It was put to Jean Vanier by a man with a learning disability living in a large institution. 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 attraction of one person to another, not because of what you do but because of who you are.
Recently L'Arche's stance on friendships has been challenged. There are those who sincerely take the view that even the possibility of friendship between 'service users' and 'employees' who are paid to support them is unprofessional and therefore not possible. We would prefer to say it is 'non professional': a mutual choice to go beyond the boundaries of professional relationships of support.
The debate centres on whether it is possible, as we contend, to provide a support service that meets the required professional standards and at the same time to be friends with the people you are supporting.
At policy level this can be seen as an example of the clash between what is referred to as the 'safeguarding agenda' on the one hand and the 'personalisation' agenda on the other. The safeguarding agenda is concerned with keeping vulnerable adults safe – but safe from what? Life is inherently risky. Attempts to eliminate risk completely from people's lives, will potentially also eliminate any possibility of leading a meaningful adult life.
The personalisation agenda is concerned with putting people with learning disabilities in control of their own lives. The messages coming through from people with learning disabilities and their families are clear. They want real, fulfilling friendships – if these friendships overlap with people in professional roles, so be it. Such contact can in fact actively help to keep people safe.
In the long run, we believe that this is good news for L'Arche. Essentially, it is an affirmation of our identity and our mission. People with learning disabilities are still asking that same question. "Will you be my friend?" We hope that L'Arche will continue to offer an authentic “Yes”.