Jolliff, 29, has been blind since birth due to what’s known as Leber Congenital Amaurosis, a hereditary disorder in which most of the rods and cone cells in Jolliff’s retinas never developed. Her world isn’t pitch-black, but weak muscles keep Jolliff’s eyes mostly shut. She can distinguish lights from darks, and her seeing-eye dog helps her navigate the world. Yet her dog can’t help her swipe right or left on Tinder.
What’s it like to date while blind? Forget photo-driven apps like Tinder or Bumble. For Jolliff, such dating platforms are largely incompatible with Voiceover, a screen reading software she uses on her iPhone. They’re also completely image-based, she says, meaning they don’t reflect how she experiences life. Taking pictures “isn’t even something that crosses my mind,” she says.
So Jolliff seeks romance elsewhere. Last fall, Jolliff signed up for eHarmony and OkCupid. “I want the ‘deeper’ connection that sites like eHarmony and to an extent, OkCupid, can bring,” Jolliff says. “I like being able to see how much effort a guy is willing to put into crafting his profile: Is he really serious about finding someone?”
Finding someone online has never been more popular. Last year, Pew Research Center reported that 15 percent of American adults have used online dating sites or mobile apps. And in some ways, online dating levels the playing field for people with disabilities. “When you’re at a bar, as a blind woman, you’re not making the eye contact and catching the guy across the room,” Jolliff says. “With online dating … you’re getting what everyone else is getting. Say on OkCupid — everyone is reading that same profile.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s popular — or even easy — to date online while blind. Both Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel, two popular dating apps, have done little to accommodate the blind or visually impaired community.
Tinder’s vice president of global communications branding, Rosette Pambakian, declined to comment for this article, saying she didn’t think it “makes sense” to include Tinder in a story about visually impaired daters. Rumors circulated in 2015 that Tinder may incorporate video features in people’s profiles, which could help blind daters, but the idea hasn’t come to life yet.
Dawoon Kang, chief operating officer of Coffee Meets Bagel, said she hadn’t given blind or visual impairments much consideration. “To be very honest, I haven’t thought that much about how some people might be excluded from being able to enjoy Coffee Meets Bagel,” Kwang said. But she’s open to it. “The more dynamic we can make the app, the more inclusive we can get,” Kang says.
In general, there is limited knowledge and studies on the experiences of dating with a disability. “We have no advice to give people who want to do online dating who have a disability,” says Elizabeth Mazur, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Greater Allegheny. “We can’t tell you whether you will be more successful at Match.com versus Dating4Disabled. Will you do better disclosing [your disability] immediately, do you put it in a photo, or do you wait?”
That question of disclosure is incredibly controversial in the blind community. Telling a potential date too early risks scaring them away before they understand the nuances of the disability. Telling them too late can be seen as deceptive.
“Should we be telling guys flat-out that we are blind in our profiles?” Jolliff asks. “My stance is no, because then a lot of them scroll by immediately, thinking that I’m going to be a ‘burden.’ I like to let them get to know me a little first, but tell them before we go on our first date.”
Jolliff says she usually looks for an opening — for example, if someone mentions something about driving — and peppers it with humor. Then she drops what she and her friends call “the blind bomb,” saying something like, “Well, you wouldn’t want me doing that!”
The reactions vary, she says. In some cases, men are receptive to dating but then cut ties quickly. Jolliff knows she can never prove that someone is bowing out because of her disability, but some of the excuses — “my dog died” or a job opportunity that will take a few months to sort out — seem flimsy.
Overall, Jolliff has been pleasantly surprised with how potential love interests respond to her disability. As for the actual date, Jolliff likes to keep some form of control. She prefers to go to coffee shops or lounges, particularly places she knows. When someone picks an unfamiliar restaurant, Jolliff will research the restaurant’s location and the surrounding area. She’ll use her screen reader to look up the menu online in case there isn’t a Braille menu available. She’ll arrive at the restaurant early to orient herself with where the door handle to the restaurant is located or what the layout of her table is like — small things to keep her date from thinking she is incompetent or needy.
“I have heard from people that they don’t want to take care of us, and I am like, ‘Oh, hell no, that is not me at all. I have a job, a master’s degree, and I live alone. You don’t need to take care of me,” Jolliff says.
Yet one thing she does need help with: Making the first move. She’s had dates where, despite great conversation, men have told her she never gave them any indication that she wanted something more. But since Jolliff can’t read a date’s body language, she tells her dates that they have to make the first move.
“I tell them … don’t paw all over me, but there is a way you can let me know that you want to move things further than friends, so just make that move. I will let you know if I don’t want it.”
Jolliff does prefer to date sighted people, she says, another contentious question in the blindness community. Some prefer to date others who are blind, while others prefer to date people who are sighted. There are plenty of couples who are blind and have loving, complete relationships, Jolliff says. But she says that dating someone sighted presents more opportunities for fun, freedom and spontaneity, taking the focus off her blindness and enabling her to just enjoy life.
“Dating as a blind woman is not all that dissimilar to dating as someone who is sighted,” Jolliff says. “I’m just an almost-30-something wanting to find someone with whom I can share the rest of my life.”