Glasgow group for people with learning disabilities is going from strength to strength

A friendship and dating agency run by and for adults with learning disabilities is going from strength to strength.

Dates-n-Mates Scotland has been at work for more than a decade, connecting people and forging important, long-lasting relationships. 

The agency first opened its doors on June 19, 2008, when the Glasgow branch was launched, and from there, the organisation has only grown.  

Shortly after the Glasgow opening, the agency expanded to Aberdeen, Renfrewshire and Falkirk, with Stirling and Clackmannanshire being added to the list earlier this year.

Each branch is led by a small, dedicated team which includes directors with a lived experience of learning disabilities and supportive volunteers. 

The agency was created as a project of C-Change - an organisation that provides both creative and flexible personalised support for people with learning difficulties. 

The project was founded as a way for people with learning disabilities to take part in social events within their community, to help reduce social isolation and loneliness.

Rebecca Wilson, community engagement and events planner at Dates-n-Mates in Glasgow, said: “It is people’s right to live life free of discrimination, to develop friendships and relationships of their choosing, to love and be loved.” 

Both Ms Wilson and Mairi McNiven, community and events coordinator, said Dates-n-Mates was created in response to feedback from C-Change service users, who said that they wanted a safe space to socialise, meet new people, and explore intimate and personal relationships.” 

Ms Wilson said: “To become a member of Dates-n-Mates Glasgow, people must fill out an application form which tells us a bit more about them, including basic information as well as whether they are interested in friendship, dating or both. 

“We require two references to vouch for the applicant and confirm they are over the age of 18 and have a learning disability; one can be a friend or a family member and the other must be a professional reference such as a GP, learning disability nurse, social worker, or care manager.

“Once we receive the application, we check the references and then either organise a meeting with the new member or give them a call to let them know they are now officially a member, to get to know them a bit better and find out what events they would like to go to that month.” 

As well as friendship matching, the organisation also oversees date chaperoning and training workshops.

Ms Wilson noted: “Our workshops aim to enhance our members’ knowledge, confidence and wellbeing.

“The majority of our events are run in-person and take place within the Glasgow area. We have on average 12 social events a month, including meals out, cinema trips, crazy golf, day trips and much more.”

There are also five big open events throughout the year, including the recent We’ve Got Talent Show which was held at the city’s Grand Ole Opry last month.

Ms Wilson said: “It was a brilliant night with so many amazing contestants and a fantastic audience.

“This is where we can see who gets along and might potentially benefit from a one-to-one meeting. Alternatively, members will come to us after the events and tell us who they would like to be matched with. 

“Once we have spoken to both parties and they agree they want to have a match, we organise a one-to-one that can take place wherever they want.

“One of our staff members will attend the match and ensure that members are comfortable and to help get the chat started if needed.

“We then do a phone call with the members to find out how they got on and if they wish to meet up again.” 

Since coming into fruition, Dates-n-Mates has been doing extremely well - with 142 active members in the Glasgow branch alone.

Ms Wilson said: “We have found the agency to be hugely successful. 

“It’s great to see so many people benefiting from what our organisation offers and seeing people gaining confidence and self-esteem from attending our events. That’s what it’s all about.”

However, even with so many members already, the agency isn't ready to stop there. 

Ms Wilson added: “We are constantly expanding our agency, as developing friendships and relationships is everyone's human right. We aim to reach as many adults with learning disabilities as we can. 

“There is a need for Dates-n-Mates in other areas of the UK, but it comes down to funding.”

Many Dates-n-Mates members have gone on to be friends for life.

Ms Wilson said: “Two of our members - Mary and Jackie - made friends through Dates-n-Mates and frequently meet each other out for coffee, shopping trips and walks.

“[We’ve also] had a few engagements.

“Over the years we have had a lot of couples formed through the agency and inevitably some of these relationships haven't worked out. This is a part of life and Dates-n-Mates are there to help members through the entire process.”