Perched on a stool and sipping a ‘cold brew, Robert Watson peers through the after-work crowd with his aqua blue eyes, catching the attention of an attractive young woman. Making contact, he flashes a smile and makes small talk. After a little more flirting he starts to think that this time he might end up with a phone number and the promise of a future date.
By any measure, the fact that Watson, now 38, had even gotten into that suburban Baltimore bar several years ago was a bit of a victory. “The bouncers thought I was drunk before I ever walked in,” he says of the jerky way he walks. Once seated, though, his wit and charm would engage most women—until that dreaded moment. “I knew, once I got up to go to the bathroom, they would not be there when I returned,” he says. “I walked like a scarecrow in the wind.”
It wasn’t the beer that accounted for his wobbly gait. The spastic movements are characteristic of the type of cerebral palsy he was born with, moves that had so often frightened away romantic prospects. But after griping about his dating woes to a work colleague in 1987, he returned from lunch one day to find a flyer on his desk. It advertised “A singles group with heart. DateAble.” Though skeptical at first, he finally made the call. He never regretted it.
One of the few nonprofit groups of its kind, DateAble, based in Chevy Chase, Md., provides social contacts for people with physical and mental disabilities. For an initial fee of just $100, its matchmakers build profiles of members, arrange introductions and throw 20 to 30 annual functions that are meant to spark friendship or romance. The company also runs Making Connections, for mentally disabled people, and DateAble International, serving clients via e-mail and telephone. So far, more than 4,000 people have used DateAble, resulting in 250 marriages.
The agency was founded by Lucy Waletzky, 59, a psychiatrist specializing in people with disabilities, after a blind client complained about the frustrations of a conventional dating service. “I knew there had to be a lot of other people where the values of the heart were really what mattered to them,” says Waletzky. One was Maria Robie, who contracted polio as a child and who met her husband, Robert, also a polio survivor, through the service. “People with disabilities have to have opportunities in their careers,” says Maria, 56, a researcher with a pharmaceutical firm. “But they also should have the opportunity to develop completely as human beings. The social and sexual aspects are important.”
Robert Watson couldn’t agree more. Born to Shirley and Russell Watson, owners of an 800-acre farm in Brandywine, Md., Robert did daily chores right alongside his siblings, Rusty, now 43, Connie, 42, and Susan, 33. “Dad used to get really cursed out for letting ‘that poor cripple’ work in the fields,” Watson says. “But I was never treated like I had a disability.” Watson’s outgoing nature helped him find dates, first at Gwynn Park High School, then Salisbury State University and the University of Maryland at Baltimore, where he got a master’s in social work in 1987. “Once I got out of there and started working,” he recalls, “that’s when I started having real problems.”
Knowing he was disillusioned with the singles scene, a coworker at the Maryland parks and planning commission gave him the brochure about DateAble. “I looked at this and I thought, ‘I don’t need to date other people with disabilities,’ ” says Watson. But, still dateless months later, Watson called for an interview.
Within a month he had a phone number for Lynn Robertshaw, 45, a medical technologist who was looking for new friends. “My life was get up, go to work, come home,” she says. After two weeks of calls the pair met at DateAble’s Valentine’s Day party and were mutually smitten. They had a big church wedding in April 1992, the same year Waletzky tapped Watson to be the new director of DateAble because of his dedication to the group and his work as a project coordinator for the United Cerebral Palsy Association. Watson embraces his chance to help others know the joy he felt on his first date with Lynn. When he returned to the dinner table after using the phone, she was still there, smiling. Says Watson: “Who wants to be alone?”
Susan Gray Gose in Chevy Chase