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At the age of 22, Efrat Eliahu was hospitalized. Unsure of her ailment, the doctors first mistakenly diagnosed cancer, treating her with chemotherapy. A few years later, they realized she actually suffered from a rare, chronic lung disease.
"Many mistakes were made in my diagnosis, and because of wrong treatments, my condition worsened," says Eliahu, who was in a relationship of six months when she got ill the first time. Her boyfriend was supportive the first time she became ill, but much later, family pressure caused their relationship to end.
"After eight years together and in the middle of marriage arrangements, my fianc and I broke up because of my illness. His family told me that any woman in the hospital at the age of 22 should only be there to give birth. Eventually, this was the cause of our break-up."
Newly single and with a terrible sense of self-worth, Eliahu entered the Tel Aviv dating scene. She signed up for JDate and started meeting new people, but as soon as she told a new guy about her illness, he ran away. "I don't look like I'm ill on the outside and people don't see anything wrong with me, so I have to tell them. I got some very insulting reactions, and I started thinking about a better way for people with disabilities to date on-line."
Thus, lovedavka - a social Web site for people with disabilities - was born. "I wanted to create a place on-line where people could tell about themselves freely, and others wouldn't be afraid to find out who they really are. Everyone who comes to the site knows that there is a chance the person they will date has a disability of some kind."
To make it easier for people to describe their mental and physical disabilities, Eliahu created two different flowers, each with seven petals. Those with a mental disability choose a purple flower and those with a physical handicap turquoise. Then they subjectively rate their disability from one to seven - one being the least severe.
"People do not have to tell others they have a disability. They can also choose to say nothing, or they can put an icon of a wheelchair. It's completely up to them." Eliahu explains that most users first come to the site to look around, and as time goes by and they begin to feel more comfortable, they start to fill in their personal profiles.
Eliahu has a background in psychology and holds a master's degree in criminology from the Hebrew University. "I don't think the criminology degree helps me with the Web site," she says softly. "It has nothing to do with disabled criminals."
But her background in psychology helped her work out some sensitive ways to handle personal profiles on-line for the disabled. "I got into psychology because I was unable to physically attend classes the first year due to my debilitating illness, so I took courses in psychology from home through the Open University and found it very interesting," Eliahu explains. After recovering enough to attend courses, she finished her degree at Ben-Gurion University. She then went to the US to complete a certification in polygraph examinations.
Today, she works both as a polygraph examiner and as a handwriting analyst. "People send me samples of their handwriting in the mail, and I can tell them if they are capable of having a long-term relationship."
Three times a week, Eliahu goes to the Herzliya office of lovedavka, which was launched nearly two and a half years ago.
"The whole idea for lovedavka came out a conversation with a friend, but I was certain that a site like it already existed. I couldn't believe it didn't, and as soon as I realized that, I hired someone to do the programming for me. I knew that if I was going to do it, it had to be professional."
On the evening of Rosh Hashana 2004, lovedavka went on-line. "The launch date was extremely symbolic. It was a new beginning for me."
THE FIRST couple to meet on the site and later marry, Ohad and Adi, wed in the summer of 2005. Adi suffers from hearing loss, while Ohad has paralysis that confines him to a wheelchair. Eliahu explains that people with seemingly disproportionate disabilities sometimes end up together because they have a deep understanding of what it's really like to be different from the majority of the population.
"The first time Ohad ever stood was the day he married, and watching him stand under the huppa with the help of a motorized chair was incredibly emotionally," Eliahu says. "Today, they want to start a family of their own and are trying to have children."
Another couple who eventually married told Eliahu that on their first date, he was late because his driver didn't come on time. In his haste to get out of the car and into his wheelchair, he fell. But this didn't bother his date. She didn't run away or make fun of him. "He has a small motorcycle that he is able to drive, and for their wedding, he was the one to give her a lift. It was so beautiful."
Although at least seven couples who met on the site have already married, Eliahu says it is not designed only for people seeking to wed. It is also an important meeting point for those with disabilities who are already married and need support or advice. "We have activities, trips, parties and an on-line magazine. We also have forums where people can ask questions and find other people in similar situations. It's a place where people can socialize, and this is especially important for people confined to wheelchairs who don't have many chances to get out of the house."
In the near future, she plans to increase the number of available activities and start a consulting forum. "The forum will include discussions where people from different sectors - not just doctors - will answer questions and help people," Eliahu says. One example she points to is the fact that some handicapped individuals have never been on a date and do not know how to dress, what to do, what to order at a restaurant. She wants to be able to answer any questions that may arise with a professional staff.
Lovedavka is a non-profit organization, and recently gained additional funding from Spark Networks, an American company that also owns JDate and several other dating and social network Web sites.
"The CEO of Ynet put me in touch with the CEO of Spark Networks in 2005. They loved the idea and wanted to help build the community," says Eliahu. Spark Networks provides professional support, such as technical phone support and PR and marketing, while JDate employees lend a hand with graphic design, programming needs and user interface.
Despite how far the site has come since its inception, Eliahu says that at the outset, she was certain it would be easier.
"Initially I worried about having a separate site for the disabled because I didn't want them to feel like they were in a ghetto. After all, if we are asking for equality, why separate ourselves?"
In the end, lovedavka helped users get past the barrier of looking for friends and mates on-line. "This population had more than just the embarrassment of meeting someone on-line like everyone else. First, they had to overcome their own embarrassment of sharing their disabilities, but now most people realize that neither should be embarrassing."
Ayala, whose story is currently on the home page, is a good example of this flourishing community. Physically handicapped, she tells the story of her childhood, how she was made fun of by the other children, how alone she felt and how even her parents had trouble understanding her. A boy she met in therapy, with whom she was very close, died at 22, deepening her loneliness. But through the encouragement of a friend, she went to study massage therapy and started working. Today, she rents a room in Kiryat Shmona and is looking for someone to share her life with and have children.
"In 10 years, I see myself happily married with two beautiful children," she writes. "And we should all be optimistic and patient, because there is someone for everyone."
Personal stories fill the on-line magazine. People share their experiences on the site, how they have forged friendships and found fulfilling relationships. One that comes to Eliahu's mind is a 30-year-old blind man whose parents recently signed him up for the site. "He had never dated, and he is an only child. His parents were worried about him being left all alone when they die, and now, for the first time, he has started dating," she says.
"I never imagined the site would touch so many lives and get to this point when I started it. It is beyond my wildest dreams."