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Dating agencies: a chance to find romance for people with learning disabilities

Learning disability nurses might be asked to help a service user looking for love and companionship to apply to a dating agency 

Learning disability nurses might be asked to help a service user looking for love and companionship to apply to a dating agency 

  • Nurses should encourage clients to join but may be asked to provide a reference
  • Some nurses are unsure if they should provide a reference, or what to disclose
  • Agencies have more men than women members, meaning men face long waits for a date
Picture shows a couple with learning disabilities smiling at the camera. Dating agencies for people with learning disabilities aim to help them find not only romance but also friendships that can reduce social isolation.
Picture: iStock

Dating has always had particular challenges for people with learning disabilities, but in the right circumstances it can open the door to new friendships, a better social life and even love and marriage.

In recognition of this, a small but significant number of specialist dating agencies have developed across the UK – and research suggests they are making a difference to the people they serve.

Not only are they supporting people to date and form long-term relationships, but they also help to combat social isolation – an important point for adults with learning disabilities.

Social isolation is a big problem for adults with learning disabilities

Picture of University of Kent learning disabilities professor Michelle McCarthy. The article says dating agencies for people with learning disabilities aim to help them find not only romance but also friendships that can reduce social isolation.
Michelle McCarthy

University of Kent learning disabilities professor Michelle McCarthy, who led Tizard Research Projects' Love Project research, says learning disability nurses should be mindful of the effect of dating agencies, and consider what they can do to encourage and facilitate their use.

‘Historically it has always been difficult for adults with learning disabilities to be able to form relationships of their own choosing, and to have the support they need to find a partner in the first place, but also to maintain a relationship in the longer term,’ says Professor McCarthy.

‘Although these things have got better in recent years, it’s still problematic. All learning disability service providers recognise that social isolation is a big problem for adults with learning disabilities.

‘It’s a big problem not just in terms of romantic relationships but also in terms of friendships and social connections generally. This kind of agency was a response to that. And while they were set up for romance, they were also set up for friendship, which makes them different to mainstream dating agencies, which are often much more focused on one-to-one romantic connections.’

The researchers approached every learning disability dating agency they could find and all but one agreed to take part – nine in England and one in Scotland. They included a large agency in London that had recently closed.

Most agencies encourage the involvement of family carers or support staff

Membership ranges from 40 to 600, and the agencies tend to be part of bigger organisations, usually a provider of learning disability services more broadly.

There are many similarities between them, such as aims and objectives, usually to reduce social isolation by providing safe opportunities for people with learning disabilities to meet others for friendship and romance. None had focused on online dating, feeling it important to offer a personal service.

Safety was a high priority for all of them. Members needed to have suitable references, and chaperones were provided for at least the first date. Most agencies encouraged the involvement of family carers or support staff unless the member preferred not to have it, and many offered educational workshops on topics related to sexuality and relationships.

Main findings of the Love Project research

  • All agencies reported gender imbalance, with far more men than women joining
  • All said they provide personal support before, during and after dates
  • People with learning disabilities reported a great sense of loyalty to and identification with ‘their’ dating agency
  • Most agencies said they had helped bring about long-term relationships, including several marriages and engagements, and one gay blessing
  • Managing expectations was an important theme – helping men with learning disabilities and/or autism to be realistic about partners
  • Most people with learning disabilities were positive about the social events they went to and about support and advice for one-to-one dates

Two videos have been created from the Love Project research exploring loving relationships for people with learning disabilitiesLove is a wonderful feeling and Making connections, building confidence

‘One of the key findings was that all of the agencies, without exception, had far more men with learning disabilities than women joining them,’ says Professor McCarthy. This imbalance meant that men often had to wait a long time for a date. There were also particular challenges for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people and those in rural areas.

Safety and security of members was paramount for all dating agencies, the Love Project research found. This includes requiring references from professionals before anyone is permitted to join – and learning disability nurses, who know a service user well, might well be approached to give such a reference.

40-600

Size of dating agencies by number of members

Confusion over healthcare professionals being asked for references

‘Learning disability nurses might find that they are asked for a reference,’ says Professor McCarthy.

‘A number of agencies said getting these references from professionals could be problematic. Either there were lengthy delays – they just didn’t respond to the request, which would hold up membership for the person with learning disabilities – or the professional people were reluctant to provide a reference. They didn’t know whether they should, or if they did, what they should or shouldn’t disclose. There’s a lot of confusion.’

Agencies reported a broad definition of ‘success’, she says. ‘It might be someone going on a date who wouldn’t have otherwise had a date. They have a romantic life that they wouldn’t have had before. They included people who never actually had a date but met a good friend.

‘Many adults with learning disabilities want to find a partner, have more friends, go on dates... to live a normal life that others take for granted’

‘They included people who developed a social life. Agencies ran a wide range of social events and they included in their definition of success people whose confidence had grown as a result of coming to those.’

Advice and key messages for learning disability nurses

What would be her advice or key messages for learning disability nurses? ‘Be aware that these specialist dating agencies do exist – there are not that many of them, but they do exist, and are dotted about the country, so find out if there is one on your patch.

‘If there is one, you can encourage your clients to consider it and maybe go along and join it. If you’re working in an area where there isn’t one, then maybe talk about that with colleagues and service providers, and consider if there’s any way that these kind of agencies could be set up locally, because they seem to be very helpful in terms of reducing social isolation.

‘And really, just to take on board that many adults with learning disabilities – not all, but many – do want to find a partner, and want to have more friends, and want to go out on dates.

‘They want to live a normal adult life that other people take for granted, and it is part of the role of a learning disability nurse to help people achieve the aims they want in life. That’s not just a place to live, or a job to have. It includes personal and social relationships as well.’


Jennifer Trueland is a health journalist

Find out more

University of Kent, Tizard Research Projects – The Love Project: Exploring support for people with IDD to find loving relationships

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