Supporting adults with learning difficulties to find love and friendship
“Our main outcomes are to increase opportunities for people to make and sustain friendships, including intimate and sexual relationships as well,” explains Hannah Brown, project worker, dates-n-mates.
Everyone has the right to a relationship, she asserts. But for some, the opportunities to forge meaningful relationships are harder to come by.
“We support opportunities for close personal relationships, sustainable ones, ones where people can keep in touch. So they can come here and meet at dates-n-mates, or they can go out for coffee and do other things outside of dates-n-mates as well,” says Brown.
Dates-n-mates, which is funded by the Big Lottery, is run by an organisation called C-Change, which supports “real positive change” in the lives of families and individuals with support needs. Based in Glasgow but open to adults from across Scotland, dates-nmates has been running for three years. While there are similar projects south of the border, dates-n-mates – which, Brown proudly tells me was recently a finalist in the Scottish Social Services Council’s Care Accolade awards in the innovation category – is the first of its kind in Scotland.
“I applied for the role as director of dates-n-mates as I felt that this was something that had been missing in the west of Scotland,” explains John Paul Moffat, director, dates-n-mates.
Like his co-director, Holly, John Paul has a learning disability, and he feels his personal experience means he has something else to offer to the role.
His remit as director is varied, he says, and hugely enjoyable.
“I welcome new members and make sure everyone is having a good time at events. I really enjoy my role as one of the directors of dates-n-mates and I have gained confidence and made more friends.”
Dates-n-mates is a “great opportunity” for people to meet new and old friends, he continues.
“I really enjoy our events and it is great to see our members grow in confidence and meet new people.” He adds that he looks forward to more people finding out about what they do and joining in.
People with learning disabilities and difficulties are at the “heart” of what the member-led organisation does, Brown says. At present, they have around 160 members stretching from as far north as Orkney to Dumfries and Galloway in the Borders, with a few more joining each week.
They’ve had some successful matches already, reports Brown.
“When we first started we did matched dating, like an old-fashioned dating agency. But what we’ve actually realised is the thing that works best is the social events,” says Brown.
“People are much more relaxed in that environment and talk to a lot more people there and meet up through that.”
The project holds three or four events each month, ranging from discos and live music nights, to quizzes, bowling, and film screenings.
For those who may be a little shy to strike up a conversation at one of these events, there is a board where members can leave messages for each other.
“That works really well, particularly for people who might be a wee bit too shy in the first instance to actually go up to speak to somebody but come to the message board and talk to us and we’ll help them write a wee message. People always love going up and getting their messages, so we’ve had a few dates originate from there, which is fantastic.”
If they would like some extra support to help soothe those first-date butterflies, the project also offers chaperone dating.
Brown explains: “One of the team, someone that they know really well, would go along with them just to make sure they’ve got things to talk about, they are nice and comfortable. It is just to take away the nervousness of a first date, which we all know can happen. So we are there for a bit of extra support.”
While there is already a massive market for dating agencies in the UK, dates-n-mates offers something in addition, says Brown.
“We are not instead of those, we are as well as,” she emphasises.
“Some people have come to us and they’ve tried other dating agencies or they’ve tried going out to pubs and clubs and it is not working and coming along here is a great way for people to pick up their self-esteem, try out these things, they are among friends, everybody is really supportive, and then maybe go back out and try these things again as well.”
Their members value these opportunities to meet new people, Brown says, and the more they come along to events, the more their confidence increases and their social skills develop, enabling them to better communicate with people they could have relationships with.
“We are doing something really different here. We are the first one of our kind in Scotland and we want to make sure the message is getting across that for people with learning disabilities, friendship and personal relationships are really important.
“It is a right for everybody and, hopefully, we are giving people the opportunity to be able to build those relationships in a safe and comfortable environment.”