More support required for dating agencies for adults with learning disabilities

Dating agencies for adults with learning disabilities are a vital service that help individuals have an active, engaging social life but more are needed across the UK.

This is one of the main findings of a research project led by Dr Michelle McCarthy at the University’s Tizard Centre.

Funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) School for Social Care Research, the team investigated the small number of dating agencies that focus on adults with learning disabilities, how they operate, the successes they have and the issues they face. This research was part of a wider project exploring support for adults with learning disabilities to find loving relationships.

Across the UK there are just a dozen such dating services, with only one covering London and none in counties such as Kent and Cornwall. They are all run as charitable organisations and rely on funding to operate. The researchers profiled 10 of these services, nine in England and one in Scotland, speaking with staff, their users and their families, to inform the findings.

Overall, they found that the agencies play a major role in helping members have an active social life. This ranges from facilitating social events for people to meet one another such as discos, meals and outdoor events, through to direct matchmaking between people for one-to-one dates. All agencies also supported people with learning disabilities by acting as chaperones on initial dates and providing ongoing support and advice if relationships are formed. Furthermore, success is defined differently to a standard dating agency. Members seeing the act of dating itself as a success in itself, while dates that led to friendships, rather than relationships, are also usually seen as a positive outcome.

However, there are challenges running these services. One of main challenges is the gender imbalance of people that use the service, with far more men on the books than women. Dating agency staff felt this was most likely because family and staff carers of women with learning disabilities were more wary of them going on dates, perceiving the risks to be higher for them compared to men. Additionally, most agencies had very few LGBT+ individuals as members and thus it could be very difficult to match them for dates. Some had responded by setting up groups and events especially for LGBT+ people with learning disabilities.

Agencies are mostly run by charities, with little or no direct government funding in this area, despite the benefits it can bring to vulnerable adults. Most of the funding for the agencies came from the Big Lottery Fund, charitable foundations and membership fees.

Dr McCarthy said: ‘Dating agencies for adults with learning disabilities help individuals have a rich, varied and interesting social life. However, there are only a small number of agencies relative to the number of adults that could benefit from them and little funding available. More should be done to ensure there are these sort of dating agencies are available across the country given the huge benefits they can provide.’

A video, featuring interviews with workers from the dating agencies interviewed, has been produced that provides more in-depth insights on these issues and the positive outcomes they offer. The researchers intend to produce papers on the findings in the future.

The other researchers involved in the project were Dr Claire Bates, Nicola Elson, Karen Milne Skillman, Professor Rachel Forrester Jones (now at the University of Bath) and Siobhan Hunt.