COOPERSBURG, Pa. — Aug. 31, 1985. It's a warm summer day in Reading, Pa., cooled by a gentle breeze; the kind every couple hopes for on their wedding day.
In a Catholic Church, smiling guests are filing down the long, carpeted aisle as powerful organ music fills the sanctuary.
Promptly at 2:30, Wayne Nervik appears at the altar. He looks particularly dashing in his three-piece brown suit; one hardly notices the thick bifocals obscuring his blinking eyes. Then, the wedding march.
And Joanne Shirey, escorted by her father and carried by the electric wheelchair that has been her companion most of the days of her life, heads anxiously toward her husband-to-be, her white gown arranged neatly beneath her crippled body, a wreath of baby's breath encircling her short black hair.
A Bold Move
This day has been planned for nearly a year; dreamed about for a lifetime. And it was possible, the bride and groom say, because of one bold move each made independently the year before.
They joined Handicap Introductions, called HI for short, a Coopersburg computer dating service that for four years has been giving handicapped men and women from all over the country an opportunity to meet and socialize with each other. In a nation with more than 20 million disabled, it is the only service of its kind, currently serving about 600 clients between the ages of 18 and 80 who range from slow learners to Ph.D. recipients and from severely handicapped to people who are not handicapped at all.
Many are looking merely for someone to talk with. Others, like Wayne and Joanne, are looking for a lasting relationship with someone who can see past their handicap.
HI boasts of laying the groundwork for 15 marriages and 23 engagements. Wayne, whose congenital cataracts severely impair his vision, and Joanne, born with cerebral palsy that has left her crippled and hardly able to speak, are among the lucky. They also are the first couple matched through the service to be married, says HI's director Don Gibbons.
Gibbons, an able-bodied divorcee who sports discount store jeans and speaks in a small voice, appears an unlikely matchmaker. A former college professor with a doctorate degree in psychology and a fascination with hypnosis, Gibbons describes his venture into the dating service business as one of "life's little surprises."
Began With Students
He said that HI began in 1983 following a discussion with some disabled students at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales about how difficult it was for them to meet people. Gibbons searched for a dating service catering to the handicapped to refer them to. It was a quick search. Except for a few services serving disabled people in specific communities, there were none.
"So we thought, well, OK, let's start one," Gibbons recalled as he relaxed in the tiny Coopersburg apartment that doubles as HI headquarters.
Gibbons said that he first envisioned the dating service as a campus club, but one local news story later, the so-called club snowballed into a national dating service.
"We didn't have a choice in the matter because the wire services picked up the story, and people were writing in from all over the country," Gibbons said.
While Gibbons was convinced that he had found a business with untapped potential, getting HI off the ground was not an easy task. A dating service needs a large pool of members to be successful and sometimes members won't stick around long enough to wait for that to happen. The dilemma is enhanced when most members are disabled.
"People who have been raised with a handicap have so often been conditioned by parents and teachers to maybe just anticipate a life of secular celibacy," Gibbons said. "And those who have acquired a handicap later in life have perhaps come as a matter of pride to rely on those chance encounters. When they wind up in a wheelchair, you know their pride won't let them join.
"Of those who don't fit either of those two groups and who are willing to join a dating service, many of them have been burned by joining a dating service for the general population, and nobody wants to go out with them because they're handicapped or maybe they get stuck with a creep."
But Gibbons and a friend, Pat Reinhard, plowed ahead. They invested a few hundred dollars and Gibbons charged a $4,500 computer on his VISA card. Soon they had enough members and income to begin advertising. Initially, advertising was limited to publications for the disabled. Now, HI is running about 17 ads a month in publications that include Psychology Today, Philadelphia Magazine and Rolling Stone.
About nine months after starting the dating service, Gibbons, recently divorced and with a hefty insurance settlement from an auto accident to pad the way, quit teaching to plunge into HI full time.
That was four years ago. And since Reinhard left the partnership to pursue a career in computer science two months ago, Gibbons has been wondering how much longer he can continue to run HI without hiring staff.