For many people finding a partner or making new friends is difficult. But for those with learning difficulties insecurity, lack of opportunity, communication difficulties, career worries and negative attitudes often complicate matters further.
This is why dating and friendship service Stars in the Sky was set up in May 2005 with support from Haringey Association for Independent Living (Hail). Lydia Jones is Hail’s employment co-ordinator and is also secretary for Stars in the Sky. She supports Stars in the Sky’s co-directors Lolita Jones and Pauline Geipel who both have learning difficulties.
She says: “People with learning difficulties are making it clear that they want the ability to have intimate relationships. Care providers are in the difficult position of supporting people to attain their goals but making sure people are protected as well.”
The impetus for Stars in the Sky followed research which found that people with learning difficulties wanted to meet others but were concerned about their safety. Several of those interviewed had joined mainstream dating agencies but had had bad experiences, including ridicule and not meeting anyone.
It is estimated that there are on average 750 adults with learning difficulties in each London borough. From the research, Jones thinks that only about 5 per cent will be in a long-term relationship or have a desirable network of friends.
Which is where Stars in the Sky comes in. Those wanting to join fill in an application form, perhaps with the help of their support worker, and then a worker from the organisation meets them for safety reasons.
Jones says: “If we feel there are other issues, for example if their language is sexually inappropriate, we ask for a reference from a care provider. We have also had two people try to join who didn’t have recognised learning difficulties.”
Stars in the Sky emphasises that it is about having fun safely and has a clear safety policy and guidelines for members and carers on its website.
Members pay a £5 annual fee and can attend as many of the daytime and evening events as they want, ranging from meals out, parties and karaoke nights, to trips to the cinema, bowling and museums. Events are affordable through negotiated rates.
Unlike other dating agencies, use of videos and photographs is forbidden. “A lot of people we are supporting have difficulty meeting people without then being judged on their looks straightaway. Plus, it’s a safety thing, they like to be anonymous,” says Jones.
But, like mainstream dating agencies, people are matched for one-to-one dates by the information they give on their application forms. “We consider their age, interests and what they are looking for, but we also have to look at other things like how far they can travel independently, or with support. For example, it’s no good if one lives in north London and the other in south London and they can’t get to each other.
Jones adds: “Most people who apply have moderate learning difficulties. We try to match disability; people don’t want to be with people they see as being more disabled than they are.”
A couple of times they have come across problems when a member has not disclosed that they would have an issue with race or size, but it turned out that they did. “We try to ask more probing questions when meeting prospective members now,” says Jones.
Members either date by being matched up or by meeting someone they like at the social events. Either way, if they decide to go on a date Stars in the Sky organises it for them by finding a place at which they both feel comfortable meeting and providing a worker to discreetly escort them and stay in the background in case of difficulties. If they want to meet again, Stars in the Sky works with their care providers to make sure that happens and to ensure that they know what is going on. The same set-up occurs when members decide to meet for the first time as friends.
Safe sex is another concern. While none of the workers for Stars in the Sky are professionals in this area, the service has basic leaflets for people with learning difficulties on contraception and sexual health to hand out. They also make it clear to members that, if they have any relationship queries, workers will help to find the right person to talk to.
The service now has 124 members, many are now friends and “numerous people have had flings and one-off dates”, says Jones. One relationship has blossomed. Both in their thirties, they have been going out since July. Jones saw them last month and says they are “very much in love”.
What has surprised Jones is the “shocking negative attitudes” from some care providers and care staff who think that people with learning difficulties should abstain from sexual relationships.
As for spending the £15,000 prize money for being the overall winner of Community Care’s
2005 Awards, this is already planned. Part of it will go on training for Geipel and Jones to improve their management skills and their basic accountancy and IT skills. “It’s important for them to be independent and not just figureheads but involved in the work.”
Members and prospective members would like some specialist groups set up, including a Muslim group, one for older people, and a transgender/cross-dressing group. Prize money will be used to run 10 specialist events a year, bring in specialist support staff and provide a safe form of transport to these groups. Money will also go towards staffing hours to cover more events and recruiting more volunteers.
Stars in the Sky seems to sum up government thinking for service users to have independence, well-being and choice as set out in the eponymous adult care green paper. As Jones says: “Stars in the Sky has benefited service users in many ways and reflects the change towards people with learning difficulties having more control of their services.”
For more information go to www.starsinthesky.co.uk