- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2000

An ebullient, outgoing guy from Southern Maryland, Robert Watson dated frequently in high school and college. The "real world" changed that.

"I have cerebral palsy, so they think I'm drunk before I walk in the door," he says with characteristic raw humor. "I could be sitting down with a person, but if I went to the bathroom, the young lady wouldn't be there when I'd get back.

"I walk like a scarecrow in the wind. It's kind of funky. I knew I'd lose 'em once I got up, but if I didn't, I'd wet my pants, so I'd lose 'em either way."

Then, in 1987, Mr. Watson's boss gave him a brochure for the then-new organization DateAble, a Chevy Chase, Md., dating service for persons with disabilities.

Mr. Watson and his first match, Lynn Robertshaw, got along famously: They got married in 1992. In fact, Mr. Watson liked the group so much he is executive director.

The nonprofit organization which in 1994 became DateAble International has 200 to 250 members in the Washington area, a total of 600 spread out around the United States and Canada, and "a growing number of people" in Latin America, Europe and Asia.

It's relatively inexpensive compared to other dating services, with membership costing $75 for six months and $125 for a year. Mr. Watson's six-person staff, led by office manager and "matchmaker" Bonnie Bezila, uses a 32-item questionnaire to match people.

Mrs. Bezila says the No. 1 question prospective clients ask is how "successful" DateAble is.

"Success is defined in different ways," she says. "A lot of people don't join with a goal of getting married. If they make one or two friends, it's a success. We've got some people who have never been matched, don't want to be matched, but go to social gatherings and meet people.

"I know there are some circles within the organization where a handful of people see each other outside of DateAble activities."

DateAble also sponsors biweekly support groups and seminars on topics such as sexuality and financial planning. Monthly activities include parties, picnics, dances, trips to Ocean City, Md., and even a Caribbean cruise planned for January 2001.

"This our third [cruise]," Mr. Watson says. "A lot of people who go on cruises have never been away from mom and dad in their life. It's just a freedom issue that is so hard to explain to anyone."

Socializing and getting dates can be tough for the able-bodied, but imagine the challenges faced by a person with a disability. Beyond the obvious issue of appearance not helped by Madison Avenue's idealization of anyone slim, trim and oozing with sexuality people with disabilities sometimes deal with overprotective families.

Isolation also comes into play, whether caused by physical, mental or emotional immobility. Add to that a certain backlash today against the disabled: Resentment from the able-bodied exists over everything from special parking spaces to the need to change societal labeling of the disabled. (One woman notes with amusement that anyone disdaining the terms "crippled" or "handicapped" is now labeled "politically correct.")

Rachel Carbaugh of Fulton, Md., suffers little from isolation. She joined DateAble to expand her network.

"I try to talk to everybody and try to become friends with people," says Rachel, who graduates next year from River Hill High School. "I don't move away from crowds. I'm a people person."

Yet she says she knew something was missing when she was hanging out with her "able-bodied friends." Going out with them, away from school, can be hampered by transportation issues (Rachel uses a wheelchair) and the limits of certain activities.

So she went to DateAble's St. Patrick's Day Dance in March. At the group's annual picnic, held recently in Wheaton Regional Park, Rachel had application in hand.

"I go for the socialization, being around people who deal with the same problems as myself," Rachel says. "I was just thinking this would be a great thing for me to do, to relate with the same type of people and to do a lot more activities. And there are a lot of a different variety of people with different disabilities, not just the same type as myself."

Loehl and Mary Kelly, on the other hand, are among the latest DateAble couples to get married. The tall, handsome Mr. Kelly joined DateAble in the early 1990s purely to find a mate; his pretty, petite and equally outgoing wife joined more recently, with less sense of an urgency. The couple lives in her Alexandria apartment. Mrs. Kelly says with a laugh that she appealed to her husband, a former Annandale resident, because most of his previous dates lived in Maryland.

"I was geographically desirable," she says with a wide grin.

The Kellys are as typical as any couple. When they first started dating, he was more intense; yet Mrs. Kelly, who admits her dating experience was minimal, says Mr. Kelly's confidence and persistence soon convinced her he was "for real." Though still high from their Memorial Day wedding, Mr. Kelly notes that they have their share of fights like any other couple.

DateAble can boast of 18 marriages and "two in the hopper" in its 13 years, but Mr. Watson calls that number "really kind of skewed."

"We have have so many 'live-togethers' and so many long-term relationships that it's unfortunate to have us measured just by the number of marriages," he says.

For Mr. Watson, the bottom line for DateAble is that people with disabilities can turn there for a social life and learn skills that able-bodied people may take for granted.

Mrs. Bezila encourages her clients to look beyond DateAble for opportunities to improve social skills, such as taking classes, with the frank assessment that "it makes you more interesting."

DateAble is not the be-all or the end-all, Mr. Watson warns, and it doesn't have to be.

"Some people get so hung up on life not being complete," he says. "Society will put a burden on you that you won't be able to reach. We've been married eight years, and people are still asking, 'When are you going to have kids?'

"We have 12 nieces and nephews who live within miles of us. We give to their Christmas fund and their college funds. We're happy with that."

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