The First Date: Some Ideas and Advice When Blind or Low Vision

Elizabeth Smiling, Standing in Park

Should I laugh or cry? “You sound nice, but if it’s drunken driving, I don’t want to meet you.”  

This reply came in response to my ad on a dating site, including my mention that I do not drive. I had no idea my attempts to ease into disclosing my blindness would bring that response. Losing no time, I changed the ad, resolving to leave the driving issue till later.  

Suggestions for Safe and Successful Initial Dating 

While applicable to a variety of romantic encounters, the purpose of this article is to offer a few suggestions about safe, successful, and sincere initial dating when you have vision loss, with particular focus on initial online dating.  

The night I met Jeff; I wore a vivid green he said was his favorite color. We met at a fancy restaurant a mile from my apartment, somewhere I could easily walk. I listened as he read the menu, and I ordered. After we had finished over drinks, I accepted his offer to walk me home, or at least part way. I just wanted to talk more.  

We had corresponded for several weeks before meeting, so I thought I had a pretty good feel for my first date. What I hadn’t fully considered, however, was the role my vision loss would play, particularly when it came to the initial impressions I created and the expectations I harbored. A few simple steps on my end could have made things much more comfortable. If I knew then what I know now, I would have altered some of my expectations.  

I figured my date would find me, read the menu, pay the bill, and then, if he asked, maybe we could take a walk. That’s a lot to put on someone who scarcely knew me. 

Months later, Jeff told me how strange it felt to read a menu aloud, something he’d never done before. And while he had no objections to my ordering a pricy cognac, he didn’t join me in this. I had no way of knowing that, historically speaking, drinking had caused some issues in his family. Furthermore, as a heavy smoker, Jeff became so winded that he could hardly make it most of the way towards my residence. 

I Did A Few Things Right 

First, I got to know my online correspondent without hurrying to meet face to face. This involved asking the usual questions regarding family, faith, and interests, as well as investigating whether we had a shared sense of humor and long-term goals like where to live or combining households. Such questions and dialogue apply in nearly any dating situation, whether originating online or in person.  

Second, it was only after I decided Jeff was of potential interest as a partner that I disclosed my vision loss in a phone conversation.  Instead of including a picture with my online ads, I offered a written description of my build, complexion, and other physical traits. Of course, when initially getting to know someone in person, the issue of disclosure is usually not up to a person with visual impairment. Corresponding online, I had the chance to allow potential partners to know me as the international journalist, musician, and philosopher I consider myself to be first and foremost. As someone blind from birth, I was keenly aware of the potential reaction of fear or prejudice often evoked by an immediate disclosure of my disability, along with the vulnerability it could expose to a stranger with less than good intentions. My initial silence on this matter felt liberating, allowing potential dates to see the real me, from the inside out.  

Third, I held several phone calls with Jeff before agreeing to meet. I wanted to feel the tone of his conversation style and whether he was willing to put off immediate interests of seeing me. 

Having said all this, I wish I had done a bit more homework on other issues that created short-term discomfort, and even potential safety concerns. If I had arrived early or visited the restaurant prior to our meeting, I would have been aware of its overall atmosphere, including lighting, seating layout, and restroom facilities. This would have made me less reliant on Jeff as navigator of that experience. 

Though at that time, online menus were rare, they are available now for nearly any restaurant. Even then, if I had taken a sneak preview visit, I could have easily questioned a waiter for a few minutes to get a much better feel for what was available, thus saving the time and potential awkwardness of Jeff reading aloud. A phenomenon I call “sighted guide fatigue” (providing assistance to navigate an environment safely) is common, particularly among people with normal vision whose contact with the blind community is limited. Recognizing their own inexperience as narrator and guide in many circumstances, even well-wishing sighted people can feel a little overwhelmed. Saving a dating partner unnecessary navigation consideration during the first dating experience will cut down on potential anxiety about how to “treat” us and allow them to witness our independence. 

Other Safety Suggestions 

I did the right thing, insisting on meeting Jeff, a stranger, at the restaurant. Planning a taxi ride or walk on your own is a safe option for getting there and back home. Another recommendation, let a friend or family member know your expected return time and notifying that person that everything went all right or having a code word to text if a situation gets uncomfortable.  

In retrospect, my offer to allow Jeff to walk me part way home, though refusing his ride, was still a risky venture. While we parted ways over a block from my residence, he could have readily followed me without my knowledge. If the date had not been one that I wanted to repeat, I wouldn’t have wanted him to find out exactly where I lived.  

Still Together 

Even with all my dating shortcomings, and despite that theoretical DUI hanging over my head, my husband Jeff Sammons and I look forward to sharing our 20th anniversary just 30 days after Valentine’s Day. Oh, and I still wear that bright green he loves, to hear the smile in his voice, echoing that evening when he first recognized a lady strolling along with a white cane in her hand and high hopes in her heart.