How comfortable are we with “online dating” and “people with learning disabilities” in the same sentence? As someone who now spends her life passionately advocating for equality for people with learning disabilities in regards to love and sex, I want to be 100% comfortable with this, but part of me knows how brutal it is out there in the world of online dating. 

"Knowledge is power, and we need to make sure people with learning disabilities have as much power as possible."

There is no denying that we have witnessed a technological revolution surrounding online dating, websites such as Match.Com and e-harmony are now almost archaic compared to mobile apps such as Tinder and Happn. One in five relationships now start online. However, online dating has not been without controversy.

Terms such as ‘catfish’ (pretending to be someone you are not) and ‘ghosting’ (suddenly ceasing all communication with someone you are dating) are now part of everyday language.

In the UK, there have been cases of dating apps such as Plenty of Fish being used to target women in cases of sexual assaults. In my role at Choice Support and as a researcher, I know people with learning disabilities are increasing their online presence, with Facebook seemingly the most popular site.

Dr Claire Bates will be speaking at Learning Disability Today London on November 22. The programme and tickets are available here.

This has led to many organisations developing ‘keeping safe online guidance’ but when Supported Loving asked for online dating guidance via social- nothing. If we are want people with learning disabilities to have the same rights as everyone else, doesn’t that mean experiencing this revolution and becoming part of the digital dating world?

How do we support people to be part of this, while also upholding our duty of care to safeguarding people from abuse?

A company called My Favourite Hello (https://www.myfavouritehello.co.uk/), created by Michelle Watson and Samantha Gerson, think they may have found a solution. My Favourite Hello is an online dating website for people with people with autism and learning disabilities, the creators believe it provides a safe space for individuals to experience online dating. The site was born out of Michelle’s love for her brother with Asperger’s, to help him and people like him navigate the pitfalls of dating.

The site enables people the option to a ‘supported profile’, where they can share this and online conversations with potential dates with a nominated supporter. My Favourite Hello shared the site with the Supported Loving Network (a mixture of people with learning disabilities and professionals). People were interested but unsurprisingly conversations circled back around to risk and safety.

We created some ‘top tips’ to help people to stay safe when dating online.

Top Tips

  • Do not give out too much of your information / images / phone number/ address
  • Make sure the person is genuine 
  • Be honest about yourself 
  • Report anything you are worried about to someone you trust  
  • Take your time and do not rush into things – get to know people 
  • Suggest to Skype/ Facetime before an actual date
  • Meet in a public place 
  • Get to know your privacy setting- if you are speaking on social media (Facebook etc.)
  • Tell someone you trust if you are going on a date: who they are, where you are meeting
  • Read & follow safety advice on a dating website- or ask someone to explain it to you 
  • Don’t send rude pictures and repot it of someone sends them to you 
  • Remember you can block people if you feel uncomfortable 
  • Ask someone to help you to make a good profile- maybe staff or a family member 

Many people with learning disabilities want to be part of online society and online dating can be tricky for anyone. What is clear is whatever site people use, support staff need to ensure they get appropriate support and guidance to help them to stay safe online.

Supported Loving encourages organisations to start thinking and having conversations about online dating with the people they support. Knowledge is power, and we need to make sure people with learning disabilities have as much power as possible.   

Dr Claire Bates will be speaking at Learning Disability Today London on November 22. The programme and tickets are available here.