A picture is worth a thousand words. Just ask Deepa Narasimhan, who is tetraplegic. Her picture on Tinder features her sitting on a wheelchair. She think she looks "very pretty". She is. She is also extremely articulate. Unfortunately, others on the dating site don't think so, and most often, her picture receives swipes to the left.
There are 80 million disabled people in the country, and only 5 per cent get married. They might have great jobs, earn a fat paycheck, be independent and travel all over the world. But when it comes to finding love, they usually draw a blank.
"I've given up on dating," says Narasimhan who has now uninstalled all dating apps from her phone. "Neither am I on any matchmaking websites," she says. "The problem is with Indian men. Every time I have dated somebody, I've been the one who has gone ahead and asked them out. It's never been the other way around."
The men with disability do not have it easy either. Narayanan Balakrishnan (35) works with the Department of Posts. Over the last eight years, he's been looking for love without luck. "I have a good job, and come from a good family but the only issue is that I have a locomotor disability," says Balakrishnan. The disability means that he crawls instead of walks. He was in a relationship with a girl for three years. He thought he had met 'the one'. But when he proposed marriage, trouble started. Not able to convince her parents about the marriage, she moved on, leaving Balakrishnan heartbroken.
It's not that he or his family hasn't attempted setting him up.When left to his family, they were particular that the girl be from the same caste (Iyer). "If I had found someone on my own it would have been different. My family wouldn't have been concerned about caste. But we require more marketing than others. Narrowing down the search based on caste and family background made finding a match unrealistic," he says.
"My only condition is that the person has to love me. I'm ready to accept divorcees with or without children," he says. By finding love, Balakrishnan says he is "not trying to prove" himself to society. "We just want to lead a normal life," he says.
Narasimhan calls dating apps (Tinder specifically) "just pathetic". "I've always put up my complete picture. But the problem on these apps is that most people don't even give you an ear. There are some who are inquisitive about my personal life, but that's about it," she says.
That might change with Loveability, a matchmatching app for the differently-abled. The app (which will have a soft launch in 10 days, and a formal launch on December 1) will not allow profession, financial background and horoscopes to be the judgement criterion. Instead it will focus on details such as medication, instruments used, possibility of cure and level of independence. It's no wonder that the waiting list numbers 4,000.
Neither is it surprising that the app, which was crowd-funded on Wishberry crowd-funding platform, received financial backing from several differently-abled people. While they had targeted an amount of Rs 5 lakh, they ended up receiving Rs 6,15,000 from 143 backers.Balakrishnan contributed Rs 10,000 towards the app in the hope that he finds a partner.
THE GREAT IDEA
In an attempt to be inclusive, the app is also open to non-disabled folk. "You never know where love happens," says Kalyani Khona, the brainchild behind Loveability.
The idea struck her on a solo trip to the Himalayas. Several feet high, she says she wondered how the differently-abled would negotiate these challenges. One thought led to another, and before she knew it, she hit upon the idea of a matchmaking service.
But being able-bodied and with neither her maternal or paternal sides having any differently-abled people, Khona, a Commerce and Economics graduate from Mumbai, knew she was entering a territory where her exposure was limited.
She started off the concept as The Matrimony Project, where she took on a few registrations from the differently-abled to understand the issues that they face. Then, in July 2014, she decided to take it to the next level by starting a boutique matchmaking agency—Wanted Umbrella, where the focus was on the needs of people with disability. In six months, they had 110 members and 1,000 registrations between the ages of 24- 49 years from 20 cities in India.
Khona's research on the internet penetration of disabled people (which they did by studying internet usage habits of 300 disabled people) revealed that 60 per cent of their 300 interviewees spent the most time on the mobile since they had limited options to go out because of inaccessible locations, cafes or cinema houses. That has resulted in the concept being available on an app.And the app is designed in such a way that users themselves can fill in their particulars. For example, this app will also be accessible through screen readers for people with visual impairment.
"What's shocking is that most of the disabled people do not even consider themselves marriageable," Khona says.
Which is true. Vivek Kumar (name changed on request), a software professional suffering from cerebral palsy, says he hasn't explored the idea of dating. "It may be because until now no girl has shown interest in me. And on my part too, I've always been an introvert and have never shared my feelings when they've been there. My disability may have a role to play in it," he says.
He does dream about having a "beautiful and loving partner" but till now "I have made sure they remain dreams". Neither has he let his family look for a suitable partner. That's because he believes that a "relationship should be based on equal terms and not on any sort of compromise." By which he means that either he might expect too much from his partner or she might underestimate him. "To achieve the right balance is a challenge. I agree that compromises do play a huge role in any kind of relation, but being from the disability spectrum, I haven't been able to build any confidence about long-term relationships," he says. This, even though, he admits that he has been living life with a competitive spirit. "But when it comes to sharing a life, I don't think our society has reached the maturity required to include me," he says.
According to Narasimhan, no one wants to take on the responsibility of a differently-abled person. "There's too much negativity associated with it. For instance, my mom's first question if I'm dating someone is if he is ok with it," she says. "Our society hasn't reached a point where they are ready to accept such relationships," she says.
That's probably one of the reasons why Kumar, who has liked two girls so far - his best friend during college and a colleague, hasn't conveyed his feelings to either. "I was unsure of my career in the future and wondered whether I was worthy of having her in my life. Even now, it's the same case," he says.
Similarly, 28-year-old Srinivas Polagoni, a testing engineer, who lives in a PG accommodation in the city, says that right now he's concentrating on his career. Even though he was afflicted with polio at the age of five, Polagoni says he has only wanted to be independent. "I've never had a girlfriend. I haven't even thought about it. It's difficult to find someone who'd be able to understand us.
The first hurdle itself — convincing a girl to be with me - is impossible to cross," he says.
But not everybody is pessimistic. Ashish Lamba (35), a senior accountant at Shree Laxmi Group and a leading name in textiles in Surat, who has backed the app financially, is excited. Lamba, who is hearing-impaired, says he's "elated that this app could be a door to marital bliss". And he knows several others like him are hoping for a mindset change. "Being physically challenged myself, I know how difficult it is to find a right partner for specially-abled persons," he says.
His needs are simple. "Since I am hearing-challenged, having a hearing challenged partner who has the same set of problems will make it difficult to survive. For instance, both of us won't be able to make voice-based conversations over phone. But if the partner has a disability that's different from mine, we can act as a support system to each other," he says.
Going by past experiences, Narasimhan says with much trepidation,"None of these have found me a boy. Let's see." Rainbows are real.