The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

March 22, 2008

disABILITY: Make people focus on personality

It all started back in September. I was sitting on the floor of my living room with one of my female friends, moping around and exchanging stories of prior man troubles we both had experienced.

Somehow we ended up migrating to the computer and browsed some profiles of men on a few popular dating websites. Neither of us signed up for any of the dating services at the time. We just agreed that men weren't worth the trouble and we abandoned the effort. But that wasn't to say that the gears didn't begin spinning around in my head the next day, and the next day after that, and the whole next week after that.

I was taking classes at the time, up at the State University College at Oneonta, so I inevitably found the concept of browsing the websites to be a brilliant new procrastination technique for those times when homework was calling my name.

It didn't take long before I jumped right in, paying the subscription fee to use the full features of eHarmony.

Since photos of people mean squat to me, I was gauging my interest in people by what they wrote in their profiles. I was pretty disgusted at how most profiles said the same exact things as every other profile. The lack of originality was unbelievable. I also found it ironic how some people claimed to have a lively personality and wonderful sense of humor but had a profile drier than a bad case of cotton mouth.

Somehow, though, that didn't stop me from faithfully getting on the website every single day. I held out hope and was determined to find the minority of men who could translate their personality into words.

With persistence, I did end up finding and conversing with some really interesting people. It was not only fun, but captivating.

I never said anything right away about my blindness to anyone, though.

At one point I uploaded a new profile picture to the website. It was one that a friend of mine said looked particularly nice.

The only problem, which I didn't realize until a week later, was that the photo showed me with cane in hand.

I had thought it pretty peculiar that all communications with people promptly stopped right after I uploaded that new photo. I was totally clueless, wondering what the deal was.

It wasn't until nearly a week later that one person wrote me back and said he didn't know if he felt comfortable dating a person who was visually impaired.

I was kind of shocked, but I also knew I shouldn't be. Our world chugs steadily along either of two tracks and the tracks are called "physical features" and "stereotypes." Neither serves me particularly well in any way, if I'm in the photo hanging onto a white cane, like I was.

I knew all of that, of course; it was the reason I wasn't interested in disclosing anything about my blindness to anyone too soon in conversation.

So, I immediately pulled the picture off the site and decided not to put any picture up at all. I wanted to see if that would force people to look at my profile and judge my personality rather than any physical features at all.

In some cases it turned people off, although in other cases it did work. I was faced with the fact, however, that I'd need to put pictures back up so those who did have interest could have some idea of who I was, other than a bunch of words on a computer screen.

I only put the "safe" pictures up, though; meaning the ones without my cane showing in them. And things started going smoothly again.

Since that time, I've been asked by several people why I don't disclose my blindness right away. It must be weird to realize that I am indeed comfortable with my disability and yet I hesitate saying something about it to people I meet online.

The reason I don't has nothing to do with my acceptance of my blindness; it does, however, have a lot to do with other people's interpretation of language.

No matter how politically correct or incorrect words such as disability, blind and visually impaired are, they do conjure up very specific things in people's minds.

Just because I see my disability as a feature, just as normal as my brown hair, brown eyes and athletic build, doesn't mean other people see it the same way.

Admittedly, I do string people along for a little while. I do it for as long as it takes for me to convey the scope of my personality and intellect to them. I try to work quickly and also do it fairly subtly so I am not just sounding full of myself. I have made the mistake of laying it on too thick, too quickly before, but I've also learned my lesson about that.

My intent isn't to mess with people's minds; it's to make sure a person has plenty of reasons to believe blindness is the nonissue that it is. My hope is that person will see it like I do, as just a characteristic of mine, rather than a major concern.

I recently met a man online, through a different site. It was actually just a general social networking website this time. He's from the area where I plan to go to med school. I strung him along like all the rest. He ended up swallowing the news I was blind just fine when that had to happen. And, of course, a couple weekends ago I made a visit to the area, and he got to experience his first blind, blind date, whatever that means.

So, is it cruel or unethical to play the game strategically? I think not. I am learning to play strategically, but still play by the rules, also. There's nothing wrong with lifting people over their own mental barriers to see what is on the other side.

Kate Pavlacka, a graduate of the State University College at Oneonta, has been totally blind for 11 years.