“Some people haven’t seen another person in months”

Connecting people with learning disabilities, dating project Happily has been busier than ever throughout the pandemic.

Connecting people with learning disabilities, dating project Happily has been busier than ever throughout the pandemic. But it’s meeting a need that’s been pressing for years, says founder Helena Reed. Hammersmith United Charities has funded 10 memberships to support the project.

“My daughter has always felt ‘different to everyone else’, says Alison,* mother of Lucy,* who has a learning disability. “She went through months of non-stop crying – she was so down. It was very sad to see.” Lucy desperately wanted to meet new people and build relationships, but she didn’t have the confidence or skills – and didn’t know where to get help.

According to Helena Reed, founder of Happily, a Hammersmith-based dating and friendship project for people with learning disabilities and autism, new members often talk about this sense of helpless isolation. “Members often feel stuck between two worlds. They don’t want to be stuck in a box labelled ‘learning disabilities’. They just want to feel cool and have fun with their friends.”

Helena knows this first-hand. Her younger sister has learning disabilities, and growing up Helena tried to help her arrange dates and acted as a chaperone. “But it was really hard to find the right environment for my sister to meet people,” says Helena. “The mainstream dating apps just didn’t feel safe or appropriate, and there wasn’t anything tailored to people with a learning disability.”

It’s a common problem: over the age of 25, people with learning disabilities stop getting support from their local authority’s special educational needs system. Many finish college and find they are too old to access free services they had relied on for social interaction. The sudden loss of this network can be devastating.

With 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spending less than 1 hour outside their home on a typical Saturday, research suggests that people with a learning disability are also seven times as likely as their non-disabled peers to be lonely.

“Although there are some amazing charities in each borough supporting adults with learning disabilities,” says Helena, “it can be a small world. If you don’t fancy someone in your local group, you are quite stuck.”

Bringing Happily to life

Seeing a pressing need for something to connect vulnerable young adults – and with her little sister in mind – Helena took the plunge and launched Happily three years ago. The project creates a safe place for making new friends and starting relationships. The focus is on dating, but Happily believes that helping friendships along is just as important. The service operates across nine boroughs in west London, and free annual memberships have been funded for ten people by Hammersmith United Charities.

So how does it work? First of all, the Happily team get to know members, their family and support staff. They find out about the member’s hopes and interests, relationship history and support needs. Practicalities are considered in a social way, like understanding whether members can travel independently, manage money and read menus. Goals are set to revisit later on: “New members often feel nervous; many haven’t had relationships before,” says Helena, “so it’s all about working on confidence.”

After being matched with another like-minded member, they might go to a park or café with a chaperone – although during the pandemic these meetings are usually online. Afterwards, the process is managed by Happily, so no one shares phone numbers until they’ve both decided they want to meet again. “It’s a supported situation where people can have a good time,” says Helena. “It takes the pressure off. Our aim is to remove risk and make sure everyone is safe.”

“If a relationship does develop, we still keep in touch,” says Helena. “Adults with learning disabilities often need support to nurture relationships, and things can change. We help at each stage – with the struggles and the break ups. We’re there for all of it. And if relationships progress to being physical, we make sure they’ve got the right information at the right time,” she says.

For some people, sex education in school can feel like a distant memory. Happily explores this with members in an appropriate way, working with parents and support staff to enable healthy relationships. Collaborating with experts like SASH and Respond, they provide 1:1 support and workshops about sex and relationship, boundaries, consent and sexual health.

Connecting over lockdown

Covid-19 has changed the way Happily provides its services, but the need for human connection is greater than ever. It can be even more difficult for people with learning disabilities to know how to keep in touch when they can’t meet up in person.

“We’re checking in now more than ever,” says Helena. “In the first lockdown, we got in touch with a couple who had been together for a year. They just didn’t know what to do or how to connect. So we got them up and running on Zoom and helped them have a birthday celebration online, which got the ball rolling for them.”

“It’s difficult to reach people and get new members at the moment,” says Helena, “but we know how much need there is. When we do manage to connect with new people, they are desperate for contact. Some haven’t seen another person for months. So we try to link them up with online group socials as quickly as we can. It’s good for people to see some smiley, happy faces on the screen – so suddenly they aren’t sitting at home alone. There are people out there who can give support.”

Life beyond Happily

Happily has been life changing for Lucy. As Helena says: “Before she joined us, Lucy hadn’t really met new people and was very nervous. Through her new experiences her friendship group has grown so much. Now she’s had two relationships, and she’s been to the seaside with her friends. Her mum says that she’s is a different person, and that she’s so much more confident.”

It’s not always an easy journey. “It’s a rollercoster. You want to be there for members as much as possible, so you can get very emotional. If there is a break-up, I feel involved. But sometimes I cry with happiness. It’s such a nice feeling, when someone becomes more confident. I get very touched by the responses of family members,” says Helena.

“I try to take things day by day. But sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about what we’re trying to achieve with Happily. I just threw myself into the project without really considering the scale of what was involved. I was just thinking about my sister being lonely. But she isn’t now.”


Happily – free memberships available now

Happily has free memberships for people over 18 with a learning disability available, and is as active as ever over the pandemic. If you know of anyone the scheme may help, please share.

Happily is particularly keen to reach women with learning disabilities or autism, to keep the gender ratios equal. The team are also searching for LGBT+ members.

Happily supports people living in Brent, Ealing, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Richmond upon Thames, Wandsworth, Hounslow, Westminster and Harrow.

Contact hello@happilydating.co.uk for more information or sign up here

Find out more


*Names have been changed.

Opening our doors to older people in need of a home

We’re inviting older people on a low income and looking for an affordable new home to tour our Almshouses.

Read More ...

“There is a real beauty in humans connecting through music”

Passionate about the “endless possibilities” of disabled and non-disabled artists dancing together, one of our grantees Turtle Key Arts is bringing our community back together again with its integrated dance events this summer.

With life slowly getting back to some sort of normality, many community organisations are relishing the thought of more in-person time with their beneficiaries at last. As Kelly Bray, Turtle Key Arts producer, puts it: “I am so thrilled to get back out there. Most of our projects this year are about getting people back together – they are so desperate to perform again.”

For Turtle Key Arts, creative producers based in Hammersmith and Fulham, that means helping disabled and non-disabled people find expression and connect through dance and music. Dancing can increase physical fitness but can also have other benefits for people with disabilities, like improving motor skills, building friendships and boosting self-esteem. But with 11 million people with a disability in the UK, many find themselves locked out of the world of performing arts. “People with disabilities are often put ‘in a box’ and given little chance of mixing with people creatively,” says Kelly.

Making dance accessible to all is at the heart of Turtle Key Arts’ work; it celebrates the power of ‘integrated dancing’ with both disabled and non-disabled artists. Kelly believes that this kind of dancing creates all kinds of creative and social opportunities. “Our approach is to bring down the barriers. We highlight abilities, rather than disabilities. There is a real beauty in humans connecting and exploring in different ways to music. They might be working with a wheelchair, or crutches – it makes you realise how much people can do. It feels like the possibilities are endless,” she says.

This year the team is bringing back two in-person summer projects, the Joy Festival and the Young Amici Summer School, which are funded by Hammersmith United Charities.

Joy Festival
The Joy Festival is a disability arts festival and is on track to run in real life this year. It’s a celebration of disabled and non-disabled artists through a programme of visual art, music, theatre and dance. The festival includes a week-long programme of integrated performances at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre in September. There will also be 3 big family fun day in August, with dance, circus and art sessions, along with creative workshops in the community.

Joy was founded in 2018, says, Kelly, “because there is just not enough celebration of disabled artists in the borough, and not enough networks for them to connect with others. We really needed to create a community where we can share stuff.”

Young Amici summer school

Another project is the Young Amici Summer School by Amici Dance Theatre Company which Turtle Key Arts produce, is for disabled and non-disabled people between age 11-25. This free summer school in August is for any young people interested in dance and developing their skills in a fun and safe space. The programme aims to deepen young people’s experience of participation in dance and spark curiosity and creativity.

Throughout the week, young people can pick and choose which classes they join and then take part in improvised dancing with props. The idea, says Kelly, is for dancers to use their ability as their strength. Then the dancers share their piece at the end of the week. Pastoral care is part of the creative process, so there are chill out spaces and experts who can support where needed.

The positive impact on young disabled people in this creative environment is striking, says Kelly: “I remember a young person who had learning disabilities – they were so nervous and thought everyone was judging them. Now they are doing solos and making friends so easily. It’s lovely to watch – they just enter the room so confidently and start dancing. One of our dancers says that taking part is the most free she’s ever felt.”

More information

Read More ...

7 ways to improve your visual storytelling 

Want to make a film about the amazing work your community organisation does? Keep some of these visual storytelling ideas in mind to make your message unforgettable. 

By Carolyn Defrin, artist and Hammersmith United Charities collaborator. 


  1. Be specific
    Charities often have a similar remit to each other, working within the broad themes of ‘care’, ‘community’ and ’support’. To stand out from other organisations, consider a particular aspect of your work to bring the broader theme to life in an original way. 

    ‘The power of bicycles’ is a specific, meaningful story which shows how the project impacts many lives more broadly: watch here

  2. Be personal

    A great way to get specific is by telling personal stories from your staff, the people you serve, or both. This can be through an interview or someone telling a story. These stories open your audience up to emotional connection, allowing you to humanise your work.

    ‘An introduction to StoryCorps’ is a conversation between the founder and his young nephew that shows how you can be personal, emotional and humorous while clearly telling the story of your organisation: watch here

  3. Experiment with content

    How we tell stories visually doesn’t always have to be literal, especially when subject matter might be difficult (in the context of charitable work). Seeing a bird’s eye view of cakes being made or a close-up of a child’s green-painted hand – these images and perspectives invite us in emotionally, personally and memorably and enable us to engage with complex content in a new way.

    West London Death Cafe’s short film focuses on making cakes. This choice offers an unexpected and welcoming view of a charity focused on bringing people together to discuss a delicate subject: watch here 

  4. Consider all the senses 

    When we talk about film, we usually think of just sight and sound. But what about texture – how can you suggest how something feels to the touch? How can you suggest taste and smell, too? 

    ‘At home with: Carolyn Defrin’ is a short film demonstrating how close-ups of food can create a multi-sensory experience. Through opportunities to look at the texture of cabbage, hear the boiling of water and see the bright purple, orange and green vegetables together, we can be immersed in a new view of the story of migration being told: watch here

  5. Play with different points of view 

    Different camera angles and points of view will help you convey different emotions. For example, what might bird’s eye view or worm’s eye view help communicate? How might you share a perspective from a chair, or a building, or a specific person? 

    ‘Suspending Home’ is a film made by artist Khaled Barakeh that reflects on a project he made called On the Ropes where he suspended his studio as a way to reflect the groundlessness he felt as a migrant artist. He films from many different points of view to help capture this feeling: watch here

  6. Still photos can be just as effective

    You don’t always need live action footage – still photographs can offer a powerful tool in your film. When combined dynamically with thoughtful voice over, text, and/or music they can have just as much impact. 

    ‘Universality’ is a simple and effective use of pictures and voiceover: watch here

  7. Consider who is telling the story

    Consider who is telling the story of what you do. Can you engage those you serve to tell their own stories or offer their own points of view? Is there value in staff sharing their personal perspective on the work? Always stay mindful to the ways you ask those you serve to share their stories. 

    ‘Real Heroes’ is a great example by Rainbow Collective of children sharing their view of heroes during the pandemic. Through their voices, drawings, and music, we get to know their perspectives through a fully
    dimensional and creative lens: 
    watch here 


Find out more

Artist Carolyn Defrin worked with Hammersmith United Charities on our film project community@hammersmith, which provided a free workshop for local community organisations to learn about visual storytelling and filmmaking. Read about community@hammersmith. 


Read More ...
View More