Relationships matter for people with learning disabilities – anyone who has been keeping an eye on the SCLD website and social media channels over the last month can be in no doubt of that.
Whoever we are and wherever we come from, we all share a need for human connection, whether that be through our families, friends, romantic relationships, or through our community – such as our neighbours and colleagues. Yet not everybody has the same access to these relationships; people with learning disabilities often face barriers to the different types of relationships that make up many people’s day-to-day lives.
For example, if you have grown up away from your local community in a long-stay hospital, a care home, or supported living setting, or you haven’t attended a mainstream school, you might be less likely to have friends from your community. If you haven’t had the opportunity to take part in employment you won’t have relationships with colleagues. Perhaps people who care for and about you have fears about you being vulnerable, and therefore you don’t have the opportunity to form romantic relationships.
All these factors might mean that a person with a learning disability doesn’t get the chance to have the same relationships with neighbours, friends, or a potential partner as other people.
Luckily, there are organisations who work hard to make sure as many people with a learning disability as possible have the chance to have relationships in their life. dates-n-mates is Scotland’s national dating and friendship agency run by and for adults with learning disabilities. SCLD caught up with John Paul Moffat, National Director of dates-n-mates Scotland, and Sarah Paterson, Director of dates-n-mates Aberdeen to find out more…
Hi John-Paul and Sarah – thanks for joining SCLD today. Can I start off by asking how dates-n-mates started?
John Paul (JP) – Sure, yeah – back in 2007-8 there was a documentary on TV about a dating agency for people with learning disabilities in London – ‘Stars in the Sky’ it was called and there were plans to open an agency in Leeds and Wakefield, so then the question was – why not start something in Scotland? So, I asked around about what would be a good name, ‘dates-n-mates’ came up as a suggestion and the rest is history really… Before I knew it, we were putting on a launch event for over 300 people at Hampden Park in June 2008! Since then we’ve expanded across Scotland – there’s now a dates-n-mates in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Renfrewshire, and Falkirk.
Sounds like your idea really took off! Why do you think there is a need for the service that dates-n-mates provides?
JP – Around the time that dates-n-mates launched I would hear from people a lot that barriers needed to be broken down. I heard a lot of stories about people [with learning disabilities] missing out… like people from the older generation and parents had worries about people going out and mixing. There were a lot of what I thought were outdated attitudes around.
Sarah – There is a definite need to increase people’s confidence and independence. Everyone has a right to form friendships and find love. But to do these things you need to have the opportunity to form relationships – it’s about choice.
And that’s where dates-n-mates comes in! How does dates-n-mates give people the opportunity to meet others?
JP – Loads! [laughs] We promote our service through the dates-n-mates website and social media channels, we give presentations and have information stands in colleges and at support services, we advertise in newsletters, we host information evenings and induction nights – we try to spread the word as much as we can. People often get to know us through word of mouth – they’ll phone us and say, “someone I know came to one of your events – can I join?”
Sarah – We hold lots of different types of events for our members – everything from themed parties, quizzes, karaoke, games nights – you name it!
JP – Most of our events are for our members, but we also host ‘open events’ where people who aren’t members can come along and find out what we’re all about.
Sounds like lots of fun! Do you both have a favourite event that you’ve held in the past?
JP – For me it has to be launch events, especially the launch of dates-n-mates itself back in 2008. The atmosphere at Hampden Park was amazing!
Sarah – When I started at dates-n-mates Aberdeen I did a speech in front of 150 people at Aberdeen Town Hall to launch the service. I was so nervous!! My mum, dad and nana were all there to watch me – it was a very special day. My confidence has definitely increased since starting at dates-n-mates.
JP – As well as the launch events I always find it’s the special moments that I really enjoy as well, like when someone who was in long-stay residential care meets someone at one of our events that they haven’t seen in twenty-five years! That’s special.
It is indeed. As you know, SCLD has put out our Relationships Matter report which explores the inequalities experienced by some people with learning disabilities when it comes to relationships – dates-n-mates has been involved in campaigning on the right to relationships haven’t you?
JP – Yeah, we worked as the lead partner organisation as part of ‘The Life I Want’ workstream. We produced a Relationships Charter that sets out what people with learning disabilities’ human rights are when it comes to relationships. We ran a campaign to get organisations to sign up – it was very successful.
Sarah – It’s about getting people’s voices out there and the Charter was a good way of doing that.
It sounds like dates-n-mates is playing a key role in breaking down barriers to relationships for people with learning disabilities. What does the future hold for dates-n-mates?
JP – In these circumstances [with Coronavirus pandemic] it’s difficult to say! But we’re doing lots of virtual events and activities on social media. I think if we keep in regular contact with the membership we’ll continue to thrive – and I know the day will come when we can throw open the doors to each other again.
Sarah – Yeah, we have a virtual Halloween party coming up – on Friday 30th [October]. We’re encouraging people to get dressed up – it will be lots of fun! We’ve adapted a lot of what we do to make sure that our members stay connected during the pandemic. I’ve created a presentation on self-care which gives advice on how to de-stress at home, and how to be productive when you need to be during the pandemic. When I speak to members now, they tell me they’re really fed-up and bored, so I thought a presentation like this would be helpful. And of course, all our events continue to happen – just online.
JP – A dates-n-mates wedding would be good too – we’ve had a few engagements, but I haven’t got my top hat out yet!
A dates-n-mates wedding – now that would be an event worth waiting out a pandemic for! One final question for you – what would you like to see change for people with learning disabilities when it comes to relationships?
JP – Opportunity is a big thing – give people the support they need and don’t hold people with learning disabilities back when it comes to relationships.
Sarah – People and organisations need to create more opportunities for people to meet and socialise – just like we do at dates-n-mates.
Thanks to both of you for your time today, and here’s to a future where people with learning disabilities have an equal opportunity to form relationships.
Become a member
If you’re interested in becoming a member of dates-n-mates, you can phone: 0141 427 2957/ mobile: 07765 246 336 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Membership costs £5 per month or £60 annually. National membership is £90.