By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

At first glance, it may seem like just another set of niche online dating sites. After all, Catholics and Jews have them. Swingers have them. Even Ivy League graduates have them. And now, deaf people have them. But there’s something a little more important about these new services that are attracting thousands of single deaf people seeking companionship and love, experts say.

There's nothing new about the Internet being a connection tool for geographically disconnected niches. But the recent explosion of online dating — about 17 million people at least peeked at a dating site last year, according to estimates — has created a cottage industry of smaller sites hoping to draft off the success of market monster Match.com.

Two small but growing sites devoted to dating for the deaf, both founded by children of deaf parents, now offer non-hearing singles their own place on the Internet to find love.

Web site developer Christiaan Marais wasn’t considering a new career when he started Deafdates.com. He was thinking about his divorced father.

“He was trying to get back into the dating scene,” Marais said. “We were talking about online dating, and I said, ‘You should try one of these sites.’ ” His father was reluctant, Marais said, because it’s hard to find other deaf users on the larger dating sites.

“I started doing research and I realized there’s a really big need for the deaf community to have this service. ... Why not have there be a place where I know that every person in here is at least deaf, hard-of-hearing, or can hear but has a vested interest in the deaf community.”

In the first four months of operation, some 1,000 users have signed up — including Marais’ dad, who is still single, but now actively dating. Currently, Deafdates.com is free, but Marais plans to start charging a small membership fee in the future to support additional features and Web hosting costs. “I’m doing it as a hobby,” Marais, a full-time computer security specialist, said.

DeafMatchInternational.com is the older of the two sites, but not by much; it launched in 2001. Founder Paul Haines says the site has nearly 4,000 members, including about 1,000 who pay $20 a month to be “deluxe” members. Already, he said, three couples credit DeafMatchInternational with their weddings. And every day, Haines said, he gets e-mail from happy users who have made new connections thanks to his site.

“A lot of deaf people around the country are quite lonely. There are not many people they can be friends with that are deaf,” he said, particularly if they live outside big cities.

Comfortable with technology
The site is run as a second business by Haines, who’s first job is UnitedTTY.com, a firm that sells assistive technologies to the deaf community. Online dating is a natural fit for the deaf, he said.

“They are so used to being able to communicate by typing when they talk to someone on the phone,” he said. “The Net just allows them a different way of communicating.”

Estimates of the size of the deaf community vary wildly — both Haines and Marais say there are between 20 and 25 million people in the United States who face some kind of hearing loss. The number of people fluent in American Sign Language is much smaller, however, fewer than 1 million people nationwide, according to Robert Pollard, director of the Deaf Wellness Center at the University of Rochester.

Haines said members of his site include the completely deaf, aging singles who are losing their hearing — even sign language interpreters who can hear but are looking for relationships with people immersed in deaf culture. Perhaps 100 of his users can hear, he said.

But deaf-hearing relationships are apparently the exception rather than the rule, according to anecdotal evidence. (Demographic statistics on the deaf community are hard to come by; the deaf cannot easily respond to random telephone polls and they are not identified in census data.)

Jamie Berke, who runs the About.com forum on deafness issues, got divorced after her deaf-hearing marriage didn’t succeed. She likes the niche sites, citing the difficulty for single deaf people to find each other.

She considered trying the larger dating sites after her divorce, Berke said, but decided they wouldn’t work for her.

“I did look on those hoping to find deaf partners, but of course deafness is not one of the selection criteria ... so I turned to the deaf dating sites.”

Despite the challenges of using a larger dating site, many deaf folks are doing it anyway.

By coincidence, Match.com “vice president of romance” Trish McDermott formerly worked as an American Sign Language interpreter, making her well-versed in the issues surrounding deaf culture. She said her site does all it can to be inclusive. While there is no selection criteria where users can identify themselves as deaf, members can mention a desire for deaf partners in their personal description. Full-text search was recently added to the service, making it easy to find anyone who mentions “deaf” or “American Sign Language” in their personal ad. McDermott said she had no way to know how many personals had been placed by deaf people on Match.com, but a search of the site yielded thousands of entries.

Still, McDermott said, there is certainly a place for the niche sites.

“The upside of dating services is you don’t need to join to look around. You can search profiles and see what you come up with,” she said. If you find several matches, you can subscribe; if you don’t, you can move on. “For everyone out there, shopping around makes a lot of sense.”

‘A language minority'
Any Web site that helps deaf people find each other — and love — can be extremely important, said Patricia Murphy, director of the disabilities studies program at the University of Toledo.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to not even know anybody else who has your experience, how lonely and isolating that would be? Any way we can increase direct connection between deaf people is a good thing,” she said.

And the need to connect goes beyond shared experiences, said Pollard, of the University of Rochester. Those who communicate with American Sign Language are quite literally using a different language, one that is as distinct from English as French. And with that distinct language comes a distinct culture.

“It’s better to think of sign language users as you would think of a language minority rather than a disability group,” Pollard said.

So, just as members of any non-English speaking minority group are drawn together, so are deaf people.

“It’s not like deaf people want to be with other deaf people because they want to talk about being deaf. A deaf person often wants to date another deaf person because they share the same language, and therefore can talk about anything,” Pollard said.

The language barrier is even more of a challenge for the deaf than for members of other language minorities, who usually share their language with family members, and often live in neighborhoods where others speak their language.

In contrast, nearly 95 percent of all deaf children are born to hearing parents; generally, it takes effort for sign language people to find each other. This quest to find other American Sign Language speakers makes deaf culture tight-knit, giving it a sense of community that is likely deeper than other disability groups, Pollard said. It also makes the group particularly well-suited for its own dating Web sites.

“People who are blind don’t have these same issues. They can share the English language with persons who do and do not share blindness,” he said.

Is text limiting?
Pollard noted a limitation in DeafDate.com and and DeafMatchInternational.com, which rely on text-based communication. Profoundly deaf people can’t learn English by ear, so their writing skills vary, he said, and the average deaf high school graduate can only read and write English on a fourth-grade level.

“In fact, many people I know don’t bother to write at all, it’s just too hard,” he said. “People who will do this are people typing in a second language.”

Sites which allow video conferencing might have much better luck, he said, because they would allow American Sign Language users to converse in their primary language.

Still, Burke, for one, likes the idea of deaf dating sites precisely because of the focus on text. Many deaf people are as familiar with typing as talking, she said.

“Communication through text messages [such as e-mail and instant messaging] has been a staple of communication for the deaf for years,” she said. “In fact, instant messaging is what brought me and my roommate back together after not having seen each other for years.”

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