DATING INDEPENDENCE Service helps disabled find companionship


"Hello, DateAble. Bonnie speaking, may I help you?"

Sound like just another dating service? Keep listening: "You're looking for someone who likes animals because you have a guide dog? That would be important," said Bonnie Goerner, office administrator and matchmaker.

This is DateAble: a nonprofit dating service based in Chevy Chase, Montgomery County, that specializes in helping people with disabilities find either friends or romantic interests.

Nondisabled people are welcome to join, too.

A Baltimore chapter of DateAble announced its creation yesterday with a recruitment booth in Patterson Park at the Festival for Independent Living.

The gathering was the eighth annual fund-raiser for the Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities integrate into mainstream society.

The Baltimore chapter is DateAble's third.

The other chapter is in San Antonio, Texas.

"I think it's hard in the single world for anybody, and it's harder when someone uses a wheelchair or crutches," said Marcelle Meisel, executive director of the emerging Baltimore chapter, as she passed out pamphlets and flagged down potential recruits.

"Let's face it, the average person isn't going to walk up to a person in a wheelchair and ask him out," she said.

Many festival participants said the concept behind DateAble seemed a good one.

"There are a lot of people out there who just don't know how to meet people," said Patrick Burns, a 27-year-old from Bel Air who signed up for the Baltimore chapter.

He was at the festival to play wheelchair tennis in an exhibition game. Next month, he's off to San Antonio to swim competitively in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Founded six years ago by psychiatrist Lucy R. Waletzky, the Chevy Chase chapter of DateAble has about 200 members. For $75 for the first year and $25 annually after that, participants may be matched as many times as they wish. About 40 events are sponsored yearly, from beach or ski weekends to brunches or dances.

Ms. Meisel, who uses a wheelchair, said Baltimore-sponsored activities will include skiing and canoeing, parties and brunches. The first event will be an Aug. 13 open house.

DateAble members may have disabilities ranging from multiple sclerosis or blindness to narcolepsy or severe depression. The largest single category of people, however, is the nondisabled -- about 55, Dr. Waletzky said.

"A lot of these people have had disabled members in their families and they're comfortable with that. Or, they're just interested in meeting interesting people," she said.

Although type of disability is considered, matches are made according to individual likes and dislikes.

The blind woman, for example, is looking for someone with integrity who loves animals and is an accomplished conversationalist, Ms. Goerner said.

But, she added, "She's blind, so she relies heavily on conversations. Someone with speech problems probably wouldn't be a good match."

The goals of the organization, however, reach beyond simply arranging romances.

Dr. Waletzky was inspired to found the organization when she realized that among many of her disabled clients, loneliness was devastating.

The reasons for their social isolation ran the gamut from lack of transportation to shyness. And "the loneliness from people not looking at them, but seeing only their disability was often much worse for the disabled person than the disability," Dr. Waletzky said.

Because social isolation can be prevalent among the disabled, DateAble offers a bimonthly support group for any whose social skills are rusty to ease entry into the complicated world of dating.

In this, the organization may provide an invaluable service to many disabled people, say both professionals and people who are disabled.

"Some people have been so secluded and have had so few social experiences that it really hinders many aspects of their lives," said Mitzi Bernard, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Southern Maryland. "Whether a person has friends to talk to makes a big difference in how happy he is."

Some critics of the dating service have raised the point that by specializing in services for the disabled, DateAble perpetuates segregation of the disabled.

But, "It's not taking people who are out having fun and putting them into groups," said Ms. Meisel. More often, "It's taking people who are isolated in apartments and houses and getting them out there doing something."

Besides, the dating service might pay off, said Robert Watson, who has cerebral palsy and has been the executive director of the Chevy Chase chapter of DateAble for 14 months.

He should know.

In 1987, within two months of joining DateAble as a member, he met the woman who is now his wife.

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