Guide Dogs for the Blind’s 75th anniversary year

Guide Dogs for the Blind 2017 Donations Thank YouADA Sign Depot, Inc.:

Thank you for helping to make Guide Dogs for the Blind’s 75th anniversary year so spectacular!

Your support this year helped us provide approximately 300 guide dogs to clients at our two amazing campuses, including training, support, and veterinary care as needed. We broke ground on our brand new Puppy Center, matched specially selected career change dogs with children and young adults who are visually impaired, developed an Orientation and Mobility Immersion Program to assist new and prospective students in preparing for their guide dog partnerships, and continued to train the next generation of amazing guide dogs.

All of our work is supported by private donations from people like you. Because Guide Dogs for the Blind doesn’t receive a penny of government support, your generosity is essential to our success.

Thank you again for being a part of our work, and I look forward to our continued partnership in the future.

Sincerely,

Christine Benninger
President and CEO

Uber Me to My Airbnb? For Wheelchair Users, Not So Fast

Sylvia Longmire
From: NYT DISABILITY NOV. 22, 2017

Sylvia Longmire, a service-disabled veteran who was Ms. Wheelchair USA 2016, blogs at Spin the Globe and is the author of “The View From Down Here,” an accessible-travel photography book.

Whenever I hear someone mention Airbnb, I cringe — on the inside, at least. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with Airbnb, the home-sharing business that has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years and has opened up affordable accommodations to millions of people around the world. The problem is, it hasn’t done so for people like me.

Airbnb is part of something called the sharing economy, an evolving system in which people who own certain things, like homes or cars, rent them out to others when they are not using them. In many cases, travelers can save a significant amount of money by staying at an Airbnb host’s property rather than at a hotel. Uber is another company that is part of the sharing economy. Drivers use their own vehicles to drive people around town. Despite Uber’s sometimes lax regulations and harassment and discrimination scandals, people still love using it and other services like it because of their lower prices and the ease of summoning a vehicle.

There are many companies that are part of this new economy, but for the purposes of accessible travel, Airbnb and Uber are the most relevant. And sadly, wheelchair users are largely being left out of it.

Because Airbnb involves people renting out their private homes, the company lives in a sort of regulatory gray area. Homeowners in the United States who use Airbnb are not required to make their properties comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, although they are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities and those who use service animals. A few years ago, Airbnb gave homeowners the option of describing their properties as wheelchair accessible. But in most cases homeowners who are able-bodied tend to believe “wheelchair accessible” means a wheelchair user can get through the front door — and that’s about it. This puts wheelchair users in the exhausting position of having to contact every Airbnb host who has listed a home as wheelchair friendly in their destination to ask questions about roll-in showers, doorway widths, ramps and other items, over and over again.

While Uber has improved its accessibility options in some areas, it still has a long way to go. In January 2016, Uber began its UberWAV program (WAV for wheelchair accessible vehicle) in Toronto. The company was able to offer the vehicles in limited locations by partnering with paratransit agencies, and Uber says its drivers are certified by the Community Transportation Association of America “in safely driving and assisting people with disabilities.” Despite this program, the company has developed something of a reputation for having drivers who fail to respond to calls from wheelchair users, or who drive right past passengers who have wheelchairs or service animals.

While UberWAV sounds like a great step forward for wheelchair travelers, its availability is so limited that the service is often rendered useless. A CNN article from May 2016 explained: “In San Francisco, where Uber is based, there were consistently zero UberWAV vehicles available. In Los Angeles and Portland, there were zero to one cars available, with wait times between 25 and 45 minutes.”

UberWAV is also not as cheap as its fellow Uber ride services, and in some cases, the rates are astronomical. A wheelchair traveler, John Morris, wrote in his WheelchairTravel.org blog in March 2016, that when wheelchair users request an accessible Uber in Washington, “the company is only connecting you with one of the local cab companies.” He noted: “You won’t get Uber’s discounted rate — you’ll instead pay the city’s standard cab fare. Oh, and they’re collecting a $2 booking fee to boot.”

So where does this leave wheelchair users who want to take advantage of the savings and convenience that the sharing economy offers?

Fortunately, some smart entrepreneurs have realized the huge need for accessible accommodations around the world. In June 2015, Srin Madipalli and Martyn Sibley introduced Accomable, which is essentially an international Airbnb-style service for wheelchair users. The site vets submissions from homeowners around the world who want to rent their accessible homes. Airbnb itself took a huge step toward improving its meager inventory of truly accessible properties by recently purchasing Accomable. The company will add Accomable’s 1,100 listings to its existing inventory of more than four million homes. It will also work with Accomable’s staff to add features so homeowners can detail in their listings whether their homes have stairs or an elevator, doorways and accessible bathrooms.

Airbnb is also trying to train existing homeowners to be more aware of what accessible really means by working with the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers to help hosts more accurately describe accessibility features at their listings. This is all very promising — but changes will take considerable time.

As for transportation, Uber claims it is starting up UberWAV models in cities across the United States and partnering with commercial wheelchair-accessible vehicle providers to extend its reach. But in June, Equal Rights Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, filed a lawsuit against Uber for not making its service accessible for disabled customers in Washington. In July, the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, along with other disability rights groups, sued Uber, arguing that the company violates New York City human rights laws because it doesn’t have enough wheelchair-accessible cars available.

It’s encouraging that some companies are taking steps in the right direction to accommodate wheelchair travelers, albeit after being pushed. For now, it seems that unless we create our own spaces in the sharing economy, we are doomed to be largely left out of it.

 

‘Disabled Airbnb’ bought by Airbnb

Srin Madipalli says struggling to cope with inappropriate accommodation was "humiliating and embarrassing" A London firm sparked by two disabled people’s frustration at hotels’ inaccurate information on accessibility has been bought by Airbnb.

Accomable was founded by two friends with spinal muscular atrophy in 2015.

Former corporate lawyer Srin Madipalli came up with the idea after he quit his job to travel the world and found it difficult to find appropriate hotels.

“You’d turn up to places and the shower was tiny or there was a step to get in. It’s just really humiliating,” he says.

He persuaded childhood friend Martyn Sibley to join him, and together they created a website aimed at making it easier for disabled people to travel.

Like Airbnb, home owners are able to rent out rooms or entire properties via the website which only shows places which have step-free access and detailed information on accessibility adaptations.

‘We can do more’

Airbnb said Accomable would now be wound down over the next few months, with the listings incorporated into its own website,

It said that the firm’s founders and most of its seven-person staff would stay on and help Airbnb improve the accuracy of its accessibility listings.

“While we have rules that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and an Open Doors policy that helps ensure everyone can find a place to stay, it’s clear that we can do more to effectively serve people with disabilities,” Airbnb said.

The rental website said it was already working on new “accessibility needs” checklists for hosts.

Airbnb didn’t say how much it had paid for Accomable, but Mr Madipalli said the sale would enable it to finally meet customers’ demands.

He said up until now the website had not had enough cash or staff, meaning it could only fulfil about 5 to 10% of booking requests.

“We see the need every day, which is why we wanted to team up with a bigger player,” Mr Madipalli said.

And the other change, Mr Madipalli said was that he would now start using Airbnb himself.

Up until now the lack of wheelchair-accessible rentals had stopped him.

“But I look forward to trying it out,” he says.

A Blind Runner Takes on the New York Marathon

As Simon Wheatcroft walked onto the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to start the New York City Marathon, he could sense other runners moving around him but could see them only as one smudged shape.

His vision had severely deteriorated by age 17 from a rare genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. As a teenager, he developed night blindness. His peripheral vision eroded. For a while, he could still read and recognize faces. Now 35, he could detect little more than changes in light and darkness. Everything appeared as a snowy grayness.

He was an experienced marathon runner, but each training session brought uncertainty. While training unassisted in the summer of 2016, Wheatcroft rammed into a burned-out car on his training path in Doncaster, England, three hours north of London. He needed stitches in his arm and wondered whether it was worth it to keep running.

Even now, Wheatcroft remained torn. He had a wife and two young sons. A wrong step on a training run could lead to severe injury or worse. But he persevered. In a marathon, he felt the same as any other runner. And, as he chased the finish line, he also pursued technology that could help the blind and visually impaired lead more independent lives.

“I love a long shot,” said Wheatcroft, a motivational speaker who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science. “It’s nice to really push against the limits of possibility.”

At the blast of a cannon, he set off on Sunday with more than 60 visually impaired marathoners to run New York for the third time. Some runners were tethered to their guides. Others ran as Wheatcroft had previously — shoulder to shoulder with their escorts, relying on touch and oral cues to remain safe. This time, however, he tried something bolder and riskier, attempting to navigate the course with only minimal assistance from three runners who shadowed him.

He did so with the technology of so-called corrective navigation. Race officials said Wheatcroft appeared to be the first runner to use it in New York to negotiate the course’s 26.2 miles, including five bridges, tricky turns, the rolling hills of Central Park and, most challenging, the jockeying of 50,000 other participants.

If the race went according to plan, the friends who accompanied Wheatcroft would intervene only as a last resort to prevent him from colliding with another runner.

“What we really don’t want to do is take someone else out of the race,” he said.

On his left arm, Wheatcroft wore a device that he helped develop with designers from a two-year-old Brooklyn company called WearWorks.

The company’s first product is a wristband — adapted as an armband for Wheatcroft — called a Wayband. It connects via Bluetooth with a smartphone and uses information from Google Maps, OpenStreetMap and proprietary technology to guide wearers to their destination by emitting patterns of vibrations instead of voice commands.

Pulses from the armband were designed to keep Wheatcroft running on Sunday within a virtual corridor, about 20 feet wide, and to help him turn right and left. Four short, rapid vibrations signaled that a left turn was ahead. Two longer vibrations signaled a right turn.

He also wore an ultrasonic sensor on his chest. Two sharp vibrations alerted him to runners crossing his path. No vibrations meant he was free of obstacles. Gentle pulses suggested he was securely cocooned in a pack of runners moving at roughly the same speed.

Also attached to a strap on his chest was an iPhone. On his right arm was a separate GPS device to provide more accurate positioning on the course and to save battery life on the cellphone.

Company officials and Wheatcroft, who has an equity share in WearWorks, say that tactile feedback is less intrusive and more intuitive than oral cues: Vibrations are not vulnerable to being drowned out by loud noises. The visually impaired are freed to use their sense of hearing to listen for approaching vehicles and pedestrians and to more fully engage in their surroundings.

The Wayband technology is not unlike that used by cars to avoid collisions and to park safely, except the sensors employ vibrations instead of beeps.

“It’s 26 miles of reverse parking,” Wheatcroft said with a laugh. “There might be a few dings in the bumper at the end. As long as there’s only paint damage, we’ll be O.K.”

Even for sighted runners in New York, the marathon course is a challenge beyond sheer mileage. It requires running in thick bunches and maneuvering carefully to the side of the road at water stations, where the pavement is wet and littered with paper cups.

Wheatcroft was using new technology that had not been tested in a race. He understood that many things could go wrong. The metal girders of bridges along the course scrambled the digital compass on his iPhone. He worried about other possible navigational glitches caused by Bluetooth interference.

What if someone stopped in front of him to take a selfie? How would he refill his water bottle? Could he remain on course as the race turned off Fifth Avenue and funneled into Central Park at Mile 24, curling around the reservoir, which had seemed to befuddle his GPS on some test runs?

He had used technology, such as Runkeeper, an app that gave his pace and distance with voice commands. But corrective navigation for visually impaired runners was in its infancy. As Sunday’s race approached, Wheatcroft described himself as excited, nervous, a little fearful.

“It’s a complicated course, there’s a lot of people, you can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said. “Reaction times need to be sharp.”

His biggest concern, he said, was correctly interpreting the patterns of vibrations on his arm and chest. If he became confused, he planned to do what marathon runners often did in times of stress: slow down.

Wheatcroft was a seasoned distance runner, having completed the Boston Marathon three times and ultramarathons as long as 83 miles. In 2014, he ran from Boston to New York as a warm-up, then ran the New York City Marathon. He hoped to finish in four and a half hours on Sunday, more than 40 minutes faster than his previous best in New York.

Wheatcroft and Kevin Yoo, one of three founders of WearWorks, had been testing the Wayband technology since April. As with any prototypes, there were advances and setbacks. On Friday afternoon in Central Park, and again Saturday, last-minute refining continued with the chest sensor.

Keith Kirkland, another founder of WearWorks, joked about running along the course during the race and calling out, “Anyone have a soldering iron?”

On Sunday, Yoo started his first marathon, hoping to accompany Wheatcroft for as long as he could. The Wayband device was turned off for the first two miles of the race on the ascent and descent of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Too many runners packed together. Too much risk of technological overload.

“Could we ask everyone to be considerate and please not use their cellphones?” Yoo joked before the race.

Crosswinds blowing over the chest sensor gave confusing signals to Wheatcroft on the bridge, but the roadway was wide and he had plenty of open space to run. Neil Bacon, a friend who has often accompanied Wheatcroft, reminded him not to get too exuberant.

“You’re doing 26 miles,” Bacon said. “Don’t go off like it’s a half-marathon.”

At the first water stop, about two and a half miles into the race, a guide for another runner stopped in front of Wheatcroft. His chest sensor was set to alert him when an obstacle was seven feet away. He did not have enough time to stop and clipped the woman from behind, but neither was hurt. At the second water stop, he slowed and moved to the center of the road.

Just after Mile 3, the Wayband device signaled incorrectly that Wheatcroft was headed in the wrong direction. He stopped and walked for a minute, then renewed his pace. Tall and thin, wearing a white cap on his shaved head, he had run four miles without any assistance.

Taking in the aromatic scents of late-morning cooking in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Wheatcroft said, “I could run this thing on smell.”

But he would have to be prepared if his digital compass went haywire later in the race — while on the Pulaski Bridge at the halfway point, the Queensboro Bridge between Miles 15 and 16 or the Willis Avenue Bridge at Mile 20 — and the vibrations from his armband signaled incorrectly that he was veering off course.

“Simon needs to trust himself and utilize his sense of hearing and just go straight,” Yoo said.

Race officials would have preferred that Wheatcroft first experiment with the Wayband technology in a smaller, shorter race. A blind runner, Thomas Panek, had recently run a race assisted only by his guide dog, a yellow Lab named Gus, but the race was five miles through Central Park, not a marathon.

Wheatcroft argued that the New York City Marathon was the perfect place to test corrective navigation in an urban environment. It simulated the way people typically moved through cities, on the street, through crowds.

Given that Wheatcroft was running with two guides who had accompanied him a number of times — Bacon and Andrea Croak, an American — he received the go-ahead from New York Road Runners, which organizes the marathon. Achilles International, which places disabled runners in mainstream races, also approved.

“Anytime you can advance technology and bring it to life for people to be able to enhance themselves, it’s all good,” said Peter Ciaccia, the marathon’s race director.

Technology to assist visually impaired runners had advanced considerably since Marla Runyan of Santa Maria, Calif., the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics, finished fourth at the 2002 New York City Marathon. In that race, a bicyclist was designated to call out her time at each mile and alert her to water stops and hazards on the course.

Later, Runyan said, Nike made a prototype watch for her with a huge display in which each digit was an inch to an inch and a half tall. But the device did not prove reliable enough to wear in a race, she said.

In April, Erich Manser of Littleton, Mass., ran the Boston Marathon using a service for the blind and visually impaired called Aira. Manser wore smart glasses, which streamed video of the course to a guide in Columbus, Ohio, who assisted him with short voice commands such as “runner passing on the right,” “you’re on the yellow line,” “clear path ahead” and “cups” for the litter at water stops.

Runyan, who coordinates athletes with disabilities for the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon there, said, “I think we’re in the early stages of what’s going to eventually be possible,” though she predicted that “it’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Wheatcroft had begun running in 2010. Rock climbing proved an insurmountable task with severely limited sight. It was a difficult time in his life. Mobility was an issue. He seemed to be stuck too often indoors.

“Running was a chance to get out there and do something,” he said.

His first path was a soccer field near his home in north-central England, where the footing was constant and dog-walkers sometimes grew impatient, wrongly assuming that he would see them and move out of the way.

Eventually, Wheatcroft found a three-mile path near the Doncaster-Sheffield Airport that was largely devoid of foot traffic. By trial and error, he memorized the route, learning to avoid signs and posts. Sometimes he found himself crying at the effort and determination needed to keep running day after day.

He was not prepared for the unseen car that had caught fire and been abandoned on his route in August 2016. He sliced his right arm. His wife urged him to quit running. What if he had broken his leg or severed an artery? He started to obsess that each time she dropped him off for training “it would be the end.”

One wrong step and he might be hit by a moving car.

“It kept me up at night,” Wheatcroft said.

After a month or so, while delivering a speech in Bangalore, India, Wheatcroft joined a group on a run through the streets “to see if I still had the daring to do it.”

As a father of sons ages 7 and 4, he continues to have doubts about what he is doing. (“It starts to take its toll; it’s dangerous.”) But he is buoyed by the notion that technology that permits him to run could have broader implications in allowing the visually impaired to live their daily lives more freely.

“If we move it forward by me perhaps being a little too risky, it’s all for the greater good,” Wheatcroft said.

He laughed.

“Someone needs to be the first person stupid enough to do it.”

For about 13 to 15 miles on Sunday, Wheatcroft ran mostly unassisted. But things began to go wrong. The digital compass in his iPhone and the redundant one he wore on his arm malfunctioned. His pace slowed to 13 minutes per mile from just over 10 minutes. He struggled to navigate, had two additional collisions and sometimes was essentially shouldered around curves by other runners. At other times, he relied on lines on the road that he could feel with his feet.

The extraordinary concentration required to guide himself “broke me,” Wheatcroft said.

At about Mile 16, the ultrasonic sensor also failed, apparently because of the rain. “We pretty much hit every issue we could potentially hit,” Yoo, the WearWorks founder, said.

For the final 10 miles, Wheatcroft ran as he had in previous marathons, with Bacon and Croak alongside, advising him of turns, potholes, curbs, water stops. He appeared exhausted when he crossed the finish line in 5 hours 17 minutes 40 seconds and put an arm around Bacon’s shoulder for support.

“Awful,” Wheatcroft said when asked how he felt.

A few minutes later, though, he seemed somewhat consoled by the effort.

“Today was always about pushing the technology to its limit,” Wheatcroft said. “We found the limit earlier in the race than we would have liked. But it was lessons learned. We can improve, move forward, make it better. It’s not the end, it’s just a start.”

Volunteers build Miracle League playground for disabled children in Petaluma

Miracle League playground for disabled children in Petaluma
by J.D. MORRIS
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

“My child is not wheelchair bound, but when he was younger, he didn’t have any trunk control, so for him to be safely able to go down a slide or to sit in a swing and hold himself up — that is not something he could physically do,” Richardson said. “All of these fun things that his siblings could do, he was stuck in the sandbox. That’s one of the reasons we were all behind the playground in addition to the ballfield.”

Miracle League playground for disabled children in PetalumaA small army of volunteers on Saturday transformed an unused slice of east Petaluma’s Lucchesi Park into a new playground designed to accommodate children with disabilities, the first step toward building a nearby accessible baseball field that advocates say will be the only one of its kind in Northern California.

More than 200 people spent about six hours constructing the bulk of the accessible playground on the western side of the park next to where the long-awaited baseball diamond is planned to debut next spring.

The playground’s features, based on drawings from local children, will include a play structure with a ramp leading up to it, swings outfitted with plastic harnesses, wheelchair-friendly rubber surfacing and a “cozy dome” where children with autism and others can take a break from the business of playground activity. Similarly, the baseball field — which will be open to adults, too — will be designed for disabled players, with rubberized turf dugouts big enough for wheelchairs.

The $2 million project is spearheaded by Miracle League North Bay, the local branch of a national organization that brings accessible baseball to communities around the country. Petaluma’s baseball diamond has been in the works for about three years, according to Jennifer Richardson, board president of the North Bay chapter.

Richardson, whose middle school-aged son has a disability, said she was “completely dumbfounded” to discover Northern California had no Miracle League field, but hundreds were in place in other parts of the United States, including Southern California. She characterized the playground as an important component of the project, since traditional playgrounds often pose numerous obstacles to disabled children.

“My child is not wheelchair bound, but when he was younger, he didn’t have any trunk control, so for him to be safely able to go down a slide or to sit in a swing and hold himself up — that is not something he could physically do,” Richardson said. “All of these fun things that his siblings could do, he was stuck in the sandbox. That’s one of the reasons we were all behind the playground in addition to the ballfield.”

Miracle League is developing the playground in partnership with KaBOOM, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that brings play activities to low-income communities. KaBOOM gathered input on the Lucchesi playground from around 20 children through Miracle League North Bay and a city of Petaluma summer program, according to project manager Amy Larson.

Children were asked to draw their “dream playgrounds,” and their ideas informed the final design, Larson said.

“It might just look like a regular playground, but it’s designed so thoughtfully with kids with disabilities in mind that it’s able to give them access and also still be engaging for (other) kids that don’t have those same disabilities,” Larson said. “The hope is that kids come out here and they can play with their brothers and sisters and with all of their friends.”

Also partnering in the playground project is Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which sent about 50 volunteers to help build the facility Saturday. PG&E and KaBOOM, which partnered to fund the Petaluma playground, built 13 previous playgrounds together, officials said.

Miracle League chose Petaluma for the project because of its proximity to Highway 101 and Highway 37, with an estimated 50,000 children living less than 40 miles from the site, according to Richardson. And within Petaluma, Lucchesi Park was seen as the ideal spot, given its existing baseball diamonds and Little League operations, ease of access, proximity to school and lower-income neighborhoods and the ample space afforded by the spacious park.

Shirley Liu-Pascquia was among the dozens of Petaluma residents who helped build the playground Saturday. She was motivated to come out to support her community and because her daughter is a schoolmate of one of the Miracle League board members’ children, who has a disability.

“We’re very blessed to be a part of this,” she said. “It just gives everybody the same opportunity to be able to have the same experience.”

While most of the playground was put in place Saturday, the rubber surface and a shade structure will await installation, so the area might not open for two weeks or longer, Richardson said.

Miracle League North Bay still needs to complete fundraising for the baseball field but Richardson was confident the group would reach its goal. A fundraiser is planned for 4:30 p.m. Monday at Brewsters Beer Garden and Restaurant in Petaluma.

The 10 Best Cities for People With Disabilities

The 10 Best Cities for People With Disabilities
By David Oliver
US News

The 10 Best Cities for People With DisabilitiesFinding a place to live is often a difficult decision – and when you have a disability, it’s only more so.

WalletHub’s latest ranking, “2017’s Best & Worst Cities for People with Disabilities,” gives people with mobility limitations and/or intellectual disabilities guidance on disability-friendly locales. One in 5 Americans has a disability, per Social Security Administration statistics, while 1 in 10 has one considered severe.

The organization ranked the 150 most populated cities based on 28 disability-friendly indicators. These indicators were spread across the categories of economy, quality of life and health care.

WalletHub pointed out that even though disability benefits can increase due to inflation, many who have disabilities help offset costs themselves with an employment paycheck and also seek relief through low cost of living. Additionally, given the high cost of U.S. health care, health care management can add up and become expensive.

One of the metrics studied was employment rate. The highest employment rates for people with disabilities can be found in Fremont, California, followed by St. Petersburg, Florida, Laredo, Texas, Corpus Christi, Texas and Reno, Nevada. The lowest employment rates are in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Brownsville, Texas, Yonkers, New York, Newark, New Jersey and Cape Coral, Florida

 

Playing the Online Dating Game, in a Wheelchair

NY Times

Playing the Online Dating Game, in a Wheelchair by Emily LadauThe first time I forayed into online dating, I let my wheelchair show just a little in my photos. The good guys, I hoped, would be so taken by my clever profile and witty banter that they’d be able to look beyond my disability, if they even noticed it at all.

I eagerly began swiping, quickly matching with an attractive man whose profile picture showed him sporting an enormous iguana on his shoulder. Thinking that would make for an easy conversation starter, I messaged him. A few minutes later, he replied, but instead of responding to my reptilian inquiry, he asked, “Are you in a wheelchair?”

I kept my answer simple and told him that yes, I do use a wheelchair, but I was much more interested in the back story of the iguana. Unfortunately, he wasn’t interested at all, messaging back only to say: “Sorry. The wheelchair’s a deal-breaker for me.”

His blunt reply stung, but the feeling was nothing new. Because I was born with my disability — Larsen syndrome, a genetic joint and muscle disorder — I’d already gathered a pile of romantic rejections seemingly big enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool by the time I downloaded Tinder. This particular rejection, however, unleashed a wave of panic within me.

A few months before my initial swipes, I’d gone through a messy breakup with a man I dated for over two years. I truly believed he was the person I’d marry, and that I’d never have to worry about rejection again. When I found myself newly single, I turned to online dating in the hopes of easing my fears that no one else would ever accept me as I am, that lightning doesn’t strike twice.

Not one to be deterred, I persevered, downloading every possible dating app and creating accounts on various dating sites. But I became skittish about revealing my disability, because in an already shallow dating culture, I believed my wheelchair would cause most men to write me off without a second thought. So I decided to hide my disability completely. I cropped my wheelchair out of my photos. I eliminated any mention of it in my profiles. In this virtual world, I could pretend my disability didn’t exist.

I kept up with this facade for a while, messaging matches who were none the wiser. Once I thought I’d spoken with a guy long enough to establish his interest, I’d choose a moment to strike, telling him about my disability. I’d send a long-winded explanation divulging my wheelchair use, reminding him that it didn’t make me any less of person and ending with reassurance that he could ask me questions, should he have any.

After dropping the “wheelchair bomb,” I’d have to brace myself for their reactions, which were always a mixed bag, often ranging from indifference to ghosting. Occasionally, I’d receive an accepting response.

One man that I connected with on Coffee Meets Bagel was incredibly apologetic when I first told him about my wheelchair, as though it was the most tragic thing he’d ever heard. I shut that down by explaining that my disability is part of who I am and it’s nothing to be sorry for. I ended up going on one date with him, and then another. For the second date, my bagel suggested a painting night (a social event that involves paintbrushes, canvases, acrylics and, usually, wine) since I’d told him how much I enjoy them. He found a Groupon and I researched a location, picking out a restaurant in New York City that was supposed to be wheelchair accessible.

As it turned out, the restaurant was accessible, but the painting class was happening in a room upstairs. So, we spent our entire date sitting directly below the painters, eating dinner and making strained conversation with wine-fueled laughter and painting instruction in the background. I was mortified. Following that disaster, I promised my date I’d get his money back. As soon as the company refunded our tickets, I never heard from him again.

It was painful to realize that the hard part isn’t over once someone learns that I’m disabled. Going on dates with me can be a crash course on disability, and I recognize that’s not always easy for non-disabled people to process. But I wasn’t helping the situation by keeping the existence of my disability concealed, springing it upon people only when I thought it felt right. In retrospect, this served only to contribute to the stigma I usually work so hard to fight.

I felt like a hypocrite. In every other area of my life, my disability is front and center. I write and speak endlessly about being a proud, unapologetic disabled woman. It is part of my identity, shaping everything I do and everything I value. But in the online dating world, my disability was my secret shame.

So I decided it was time for a change. I started gradually, making references to my disability throughout my profile, then adding photos in which my wheelchair is clearly visible. I tried to keep things light and humorous. For instance, OKCupid asks users to list six things they can’t live without; one of mine is “the invention of the wheel.”

Still, I found myself having to make sure that potential matches had actually picked up on the trail of clues I’d left. I grew tired of feeling like I needed to deceive men into being interested because society instilled in me that my disability makes me undesirable. Finally, I took the leap I’d been so afraid to make, opening up about disability to strangers whom I hoped would appreciate my honesty and perhaps send me a message.

Prominently in my profile, I wrote: “I’d like to be very upfront about the fact that I use a wheelchair. My disability is part of my identity and I’m a loud, proud disability rights activist, but there is so much more that defines me (you know, like the stuff I’ve got in my profile). I realize some people are hesitant to date a human who experiences the world sitting down. But I’d like to think you’ll keep reading and dive a little deeper. And you’re welcome to ask questions, should you have any.”

Once I added that paragraph, I felt liberated, relieved that anyone I spoke to would have a clearer picture of me. There have been plenty of matches that haven’t worked out, and whether that’s actually because of my disability, I’ll never know. But I had a nearly yearlong relationship with a man I met through OKCupid, so I know it’s possible for lightning to strike again. My dating life remains a comedy of errors, and I still struggle every day with the feeling that my disability means I won’t find love, but at least I’m being true to myself. I’m putting myself out there — my whole self — and it feels good to be proud of who I am.