Financial analyst Bob Johns is mobile in many ways: upwardly, financially, professionally and on the road, in his Toyota Corolla.
The 29-year-old sports fanatic has a master's degree in finance and takes a healthy pleasure in life and in his job with IBM. He says he "lives and dies by the Redskins," likes to go for a drink after work with his friends, and has them over for poker games at his Gaithersburg town house.
But Johns -- whose joints are stiffened by a congenital condition called arthrogryposis and who walks with difficulty -- says that when it comes to dating, "I struggle." He is sometimes paralyzed, he said, not by his limited range of motion but by a more common malady: fear of rejection.
That and other concerns are what led Johns and nearly 100 other people in recent months to a new social service called Dateable. The Chevy Chase-based nonprofit service, the only one of its kind in this area, plays matchmaker for people with disabilities or without them. It is organizing group activities and counseling sessions for clients who want to become more socially active and need help with skills to get into the swim.
Some activists in the movement for mainstreaming disabled people regard Dateable as a step backward into the time of separatism for people with what used to be popularly known as "handicaps." But others with spinal cord injuries, blindness, arthritis or paralysis who say their social lives are in dry dock are eagerly awaiting the organization's planned parties and trips as means of easing their isolation.
The group will hold an introductory party for its members tomorrow at the Women's National Democratic Club.
People with and without physical problems are coming to Dateable "because they really like getting to know somebody heart to heart," said Ellen Stovall, who interviews clients.
"I personally want to try and change the stereotype of what somebody in a wheelchair is like," said Dateable advisory board member Kit Kamien, a Bethesda musician and recording artist who has multiple sclerosis. "I want to be judged not on my disabilities but on my abilities.
"I think people get frightened by the wheelchair," he said. "It's a powerful visual symbol, but it's not a symbol of defeat. It's a tool I use to help me accomplish my goals . . . . Just by climbing into the wheelchair, I don't have to surrender my sexuality, my sensuality, my good sense of humor, or anything."
People sometimes can't see past a wheelchair because of "fear of their own mortality," said Kamien, 35, a fixture on the local rock scene who performs with his band, the Back Room Players.
A Harris Poll conducted several years ago indicated that while life has improved in the last decade for people with disabilities, they are able to take advantage of far fewer social opportunities than other adult Americans.
Washington, a city that attracts large numbers of disabled workers because of its accessible office buildings, is the center of an area believed to have more than 1.5 million single people, who make up half the population, according to several surveys.
While work places may be relatively accessible, many restaurants and theaters are not, advocates for the disabled say. An estimated 4 to 6 percent of the people in the area have some severe disability that limits mobility.
Dateable was organized by Dr. Lucy R. Waletzky, a psychiatrist, and some of the patients at her Medical Illness Counseling Center in Chevy Chase. The patients, who suffer medical and physical disabilities, told her that their central problem was loneliness, Waletzky said, and that in many instances "they would withdraw rather than involve themselves in mainstream social lives."
"The main thing I was hearing from patients was that they . . . weren't able to meet people, either through conventional dating services or through some of the national handicapped dating services that we tried," she said.
Poor self-image may border on a national trauma in an age when advertising sets the standard for good looks. But for disabled people there are sometimes other attitudes to overcome, such as discrimination, fear or impatience, Waletzky said. Waletzky, the daughter of Laurence and Mary French Rockefeller, has struggled with a problem herself: learning disabilities.
Access to mainstream America has long been the goal of activists working on behalf of disabled people, and some of them here and elsewhere have reacted with less than enthusiasm at the news of another specialized dating service. Matching organizations for disabled people have operated recently in New York, California, Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Some activists said they were especially concerned about services that are connected in any way with medical or other so-called caring professions, such as Dateable. Jay Brill, who works for an information clearinghouse on higher education for the disabled, said doctors historically have tended to think that people with disabilities are "not valid adults" and "need to have decisions made for them."
Brill, resource manager for Higher Education and Adult Training for People With Handicaps, said that even though Dateable is soliciting and attracting clients without disabilities, he doesn't consider such specialized dating services appropriate, any more than he likes "special classrooms or not being allowed to ride the bus. It's just the whole gamut . . . of things that tend to separate out people with disabilities."
"There's a real problem with social isolation for many people with disabilities," Brill said. " . . . But there are always opportunities. It's a matter of finding them and taking the initiative . . . . There's a whole new world out there!"
Waletzky's partner in the counseling center, Dr. Stephen Hersh, says that taking the initiative may be easier for more aggressive people.
"Ones who have made it without help are assuming that others can make it without help," Waletzky said. "I don't think it's a correct assumption."
Financial analyst Johns, who contacted several mainstream dating services here, said they dealt with him in varying degrees of honesty. Usually his dates didn't know in advance that he had a disability and tended to be surprised by it, he said. One of those services turned him down, saying, in effect, " 'I'd love to take your money, but I just don't think we have somebody who would be a high-degree likelihood of a good match,' " he recalled. But the representative directed him to Dateable.
The service charges $25 a year for members and interviews each extensively, without relying on a computer to match characteristics. It is not able to accommodate hearing-impaired clients for lack of interpreters, or those with mental illnesses, said Dateable spokeswoman Mary Hoyt, a former press secretary to First Lady Rosalynn Carter. About half of the calls come from suburban Maryland, and the majority are from men, she said. Publicity elsewhere in the country has generated dozens of letters from cities such as Detroit and New York, but Dateable matches people only in this area, Hoyt added.
"I like the idea that this will not be a group of hard-up people forming their own little society," said Vicki Engel, 30, a Bethesda resident who worked as an international programs analyst before she was forced to limit her activities because of back injuries suffered in an accident.
"I am really tired of having to explain myself; why I don't work, for instance," she said. " . . . This group accepts the idea of you not being perfect and not being able to do all the things you want to do -- but that you have a lot to offer."
Ann O'Brien, 30, a Catholic University graduate student, Dateable advisory board member and former cancer patient whose treatment left her partly disabled, said that she has let her medical problems become a barrier at times. While she used to isolate herself, she said, "I really no longer do that. I'm very honest and aboveboard about what's going on with myself. I try to give people credit, that they're not going to reject me because I don't have Christie Brinkley's body."
It's a question, said Lucy Waletzky, of "looking through the disability and finding out who they are."