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Love Accessibly

A look at the German dating service created exclusively for people with disabilities.

Love Accessibly
Valentin Frimmer

BRUNSWICK — The young woman appears calm and sure of herself. Yet she's about to talk about something very private: love, and how to find it. But Saskia Niemann, who was born blind, remains confident. The 27-year-old is familiar with journalists and has been giving interviews about her life for a while now.

This time the interview is about a very specific subject: using a special dating service for people with disabilities. Niemann is looking for a man, one who is faithful and honest. "To me, those are the most important things in a partnership," she says.

In March, when Niemann signed up with the Schatzkiste ("Treasure Chest") service in Braunschweig, she had to fill out a questionnaire. What type of relationship was she looking for? Where would her dream partner live? What would he look like? What kind of character would he have? Questions like that are pretty standard for dating agencies.

But Schatzkiste, which is supported by the Neuerkerode Evangelical Foundation and a network of volunteers, has some other questions too. For example, Niemann was asked to indicate what kind of disabilities in potential partners were okay for her and what kinds weren't. It's an important question, says Dirk Poppinga, the man behind the dating service idea, because sometimes people have reservations, for example, about possible relationships with mentally disturbed people. "Many people have fears about that," he says.

Schatzkiste has existed for eight months, during which time Poppinga says that two dozen dates have been arranged. In a third of cases, couples met up again after the first date. Friendships have been forged, but so far no couples have formed. "That would be expecting too much," he says.

Poppinga is satisfied with the results. After all, the service is mainly intended to be a safe way for people to meet each other. For people with disabilities, the security factor plays a particularly important role. The first meetings take place in the company of Schatzkiste staffers who can also help their clients deal with possible rejection.

Not an Internet portal

Along with a classic dating service, in which qualified social workers pair people up for dates, there's also an open forum — named Schwatzkiste, a pun in German because schwatzen means to chat. Here, people with disabilities can meet and get to know one other in an unfettered atmosphere. The forum is mostly used by men. So far 55 people have registered, and only 15 of them are women. Poppinga says he's surprised that "it's turned out to be so popular with men."

Specialized dating services like Schatzkiste are a good way to start the search for a partner, says Karl Finke, the state official in charge of issues relating to disabled citizens in the state of Lower Saxony. "I am convinced that people with disabilities have greater problems searching for and choosing a partner," he says. He believes that specialized dating agencies can help defuse anxieties.

Finke would like to see services like Schatzkiste on the Internet, although that's riskier. "People have had very different experiences, positive and negative," he says. Some were emotionally exploited, but others had delightful encounters. "Choosing a partner on the Internet is a little like a lottery," Finke says.

Saskia Niemann isn't interested in looking for a partner online. "That scares me, and I wouldn't try it," she says. You never know who is really behind a web persona. At Schatzkiste, on the other hand, great care is paid to finding a suitable partner, and clients aren't alone in the process. It hasn't worked yet for Niemann, but then again there was Sven at the Schatzkiste get-together. "I liked him," she says.

There are branches of the service in various locations around Germany. Only people with disabilities can register, and as a general rule men outnumber women three to one. There may be a small processing fee on registering, but otherwise the service is free.

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