Arguably the best part of online dating is the chance to present a highly edited version of yourself to the pool of potential suitors.
When I downloaded Tinder for the first time, after being in a relationship for seven years, I relished the opportunity to ask myself not only “Who am I now?” but also “How do I want to be seen?”
I consulted my sisters for hours on which photos to use. (Should I showcase the blonde hair, my natural brunette shade, my shaved-head phase or the current pink hair? Also is it bad to have my dog in every picture?) I came up with possibly the most generic bio of all time, in which I translated my daily life of watching too much TV in pajamas while sharing cheese with my dog into “Writer, pop culture addict, and dog lover.” I added my first name and age, and behold: My profile was complete.
Not for one second did I consider adding what some might consider a key fact about me: my deafness.
I was diagnosed with severe hearing loss when I entered kindergarten and my teacher realized I couldn’t hear her ringing the bell. To this day, the cause of my hearing loss is unknown. Between lip reading and my residual hearing, I get by well enough to pass as hearing — most of the time.
Occasionally someone will hear my voice and recognize my deaf accent for what it is, rather than inquiring where I’m from. Or they’ll put two and two together when they compliment my hair and I say, “Thanks! I bought it at Target.”
Having an invisible disability is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, strangers are often baffled or insulted by the various misunderstandings that arise, and even my loved ones often forget about my hearing loss and talk to me with their backs turned. On the other hand, I have the privilege of passing through public spaces draped in the invisibility cloak that is afforded to white, able-bodied people.
I also have the option to omit my disability from my online dating profiles, which I did without a second thought. And I wouldn’t be surprised to get some flak for that.
You see, what I consider a disability is considered by many others to be their culture. Whereas I grew up mourning the loss of my hearing, those who grow up Deaf or in the Deaf community often celebrate gaining a language ― American Sign Language is a separate language from English ― as well as an identity. Since I grew up in a hearing family and went to mainstream schools, my deafness felt more like an albatross than like a positive aspect of my identity.
So for me, my decision to exclude my disability in my Tinder profile felt similar to how people don’t rush to reveal their massive student debt on the first date. My sister has asthma and epilepsy, and when I asked her if she would ever put that information in her dating profile, her response was, “I would never throw myself under the bus that early.”
I probably wouldn’t have phrased it so bluntly, but she has a point. If I mentioned my deafness in my Tinder profile, I would have attracted a lot of men with disability fetishes while scaring off potential matches whose first assumption is that they’d need to know how to sign in order to communicate with me.
So I left it out. And for a few weeks, I had a great time chatting with men online in a way that I never could in person. I told them about my dog, my writing, my art, and the music and TV and movies that I like. It felt freeing to be viewed not just as a “normal person,” but the normal person that I see myself as.
Then one Friday night that April, a guy I had been chatting with for a week or so asked me to meet up for a drink. Although I wasn’t in any rush to start going on dates again after my breakup, I had been enjoying our conversations and, well, Jesse was really cute. So I said yes.
There was only one problem. I hadn’t broached the topic of my hearing loss yet, and I didn’t want to meet up in person without him knowing that there was a good reason why I was staring intently at his lips all night. So before I headed out to meet him, I sent him a heads up that I’d be the one with the pink hair and the slight hearing loss. I have perfected downplaying to an art.
The date went surprisingly well, considering that on the way there I was chanting to myself, “It’s just a practice date, it’s just a practice date.” I filled him in on the details of my hearing loss, but we also talked about a lot of other things, made each other laugh, and kissed at the end of the night. I went home feeling very satisfied with the way I had handled things.
I wish I had gathered more data to share with you on this topic, I really do. But my first Tinder date ended up being my last. It’s been two years and Jesse and I are still making each other laugh.
That’s not the end of this story, though.
One night after we had been dating for a few months, we were cuddling in bed when Jesse grew sober and admitted that he had been keeping something from me. I braced myself for the recent divorce, the drug problem, the child support payments, the tickling fetish. I was not prepared for his actual revelation.
“I knew you were deaf before you told me,” he said somewhat sheepishly.
“Wait, what? How?”
Apparently, during one of our online conversations, I had told him about a popular Mad Max video tutorial I had done. Armed with that and my first name, he took to Google and was rewarded with the very first result.
“I watched the video and when I heard you talk, I was like, ‘Oh! She’s deaf,’” he said.
My heart sank. Not only had the entire idea that I would control the disclosure of my deafness been an illusion, but he had found out via the element that I felt most self-conscious about: my voice.
“And then I did some more Googling and I read the article you wrote about what not to do when you meet a deaf person, and I made sure I followed all of it,” he continued.
That explained why he was so easy for me to communicate with on our first date, like I was talking to someone who had known me for years — a concept that means something slightly different to me than it does to hearing people. Suddenly my dismay was softened by a rush of love for this man who went out of his way to accommodate me before he even knew me.
In an ideal world, everyone would be allowed total control over disclosing their disability, whether they embrace it as part of their identity or prefer to keep it private. But we live in a world that’s more complicated than that, where prospective dates and potential employers — a can of worms for another time — can Google you before even meeting you. So is it better to just put it out there in the very beginning?
I don’t know about that, but personally, if I were to go back to online dating at some point (please God, spare me) I would absolutely do it the same way: at least trying to control when and how someone learns about my deafness. After all, it’s not like I often get that chance in everyday life.
However, I also learned that sometimes if you give people the benefit of the doubt, they might end up surprising you. Jesse saw all of me from the beginning — the pink hair and the carefully constructed witty opening line as well as the hearing loss and the shaved-head picture that my sisters vetoed — and he accepted all of it.
It just goes to show that when it comes to the right person, you don’t need to edit yourself.