Happily ever after
Equipping people with learning disabilities with the confidence to make friends and build relationships
Hammersmith 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, says Helena. “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.”
“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.
Find out more
*Names have been changed.