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The Short Version: For those who are medically, physically, or mentally disabled, life can be both challenging and lonely. Members of the disabled community who are also single can find it’s tougher for them to find a long-term, loving life partner. Traditional methods of dating, such as speed dating or even most online platforms aren’t designed for those with such unique challenges — but SoulfulEncounters.com is different. The site can help disabled users find friendship, resources, and the relationships they desire. Soulful Encounters also acts as an online support community, filled with chat rooms and like-minded users who can provide advice, guidance, and hope.
According to a study by the National Service Inclusion Project, nearly 20% of the US population — or about 48.9 million people — has a disability. And those in the disabled community face many challenges. Perhaps the person needs a wheelchair or is unable to perform certain functions for themselves each day. Or maybe they have difficulty hearing, seeing, communicating clearly, walking up stairs or other activities that keep them from living an independent life.
Whether present at birth or the result of an accident, disabilities affect nearly 30% of American families. And while many elements of everyday living can be challenging for those with a disability, finding love can be much more of a challenge.
That’s why Louise Maxwell founded SoulfulEncounters.com, a dating platform that does more than introduce people — it develops a sense of community for those living with a disability. Her site is also an online forum where people can find friends, receive prayers, and find the professional support they need to make their lives easier. And it provides a bit of fun while searching for a special partner.
“I find people with challenges are very loving individuals. They have bigger challenges than I have, and they’re asking me how I manage,” said Louise, who is also disabled. “The website is for the medically disabled and differently abled. We say that no border exists in the hearts of the disabled, and that’s really true. There is no hierarchy within them. They just want to connect with people.”
After a 21-year career working in medical offices and helping those with medical disabilities, Louise found herself disabled after a car accident and complications from her surgery. She was housebound and depressed, unsure of what she was going to do with her life.
Right around the same time, her son got into online dating.
She realized that many people were using dating platforms as a way to find and connect with others who are like them. Then, a light bulb went off in Louise’s head. Her idea was to create a site specifically for members of the disabled community. And instead of just dating opportunities, she could also offer a place for people like herself to reach out to others, feel less lonely, and ask for assistance.
It was slow going at the beginning, it was slow because, while Louise knew what she wanted out of the site, she wasn’t as tech-savvy. So she searched for someone who could help her build out the site.
“One person out of 10 answered me, and he listened to my story. He is a very busy programmer from Boston, and he virtually let some of his work go and finished my site because he was inspired by what I was trying to do,” Louise said.
All the people on her site are real — and Louise knows that because, even in the early days, scammers were creating fake profiles and she started receiving complaints. Now, she allows members to join for free if they send her their phone number so she can call and verify they are who they say they are. Or, users can pay a nominal, one-time fee.
“Sometimes I call people, and they think I am the scammer, and they hang up on me,” she laughed. “That’s why my site has grown more organically, but they’re all real people.”
Unlike many other platforms, Soulful Encounters is a great place to find a date — and much more. Louise considers it a community of people who are disabled, or who are parents, siblings, or loved ones of disabled people. Many also happen to be single. Users can meet other singles and talk about their lives, form bonds, and, perhaps, meet up.
She also has an active Facebook page filled with invitations to fun events happening around the nation to encourage members to interact with each other.
Many health service professionals are members of the site and frequently provide advice or other support to those struggling with specific concerns.
“There was one man who was bipolar and he was dizzy and having fainting spells, and we managed to get him medications. First, we helped him find a place to get assessed for depression, but the assessment center was so far from his house that he had to sell something to buy a bus ticket, that’s how poor he was,” Louise said. “I call them ‘The forgotten ones,’ because that’s what they often seem like when they join our community.”
“We have a lot of people who are depressed because of their condition. If they were born with a disability, they were bullied, or if they were disabled later in life, they are depressed because it happened. I try to find what their gifts are and give them little jobs on the site to help them build their self-esteem.” — Louise Maxwell, Founder of SoulfulEncounters.com
But they aren’t forgotten when they become members of Soulful Encounters.
“We have a lot of people who are depressed because of their condition. If they were born with a disability, they were bullied, or if they were disabled later in life, they are depressed because it happened,” Louise said. “I try to find what their gifts are and give them little jobs on the site to help them build their self-esteem.”
Louise told the story of a 21-year-old with a mental illness who recently joined the site. The man said people were mean to him and that he didn’t know how to talk to people. But Louise had some encouraging words for him about his place in the Soulful Encounters community.
“I told him, ‘We love you because you’re so open, and it’s wonderful to be open. It helps us, too, when you’re open,'” she said. “He loved that, and it’s just our way of building him up. Mainly, we try to help each other.”
Soulful Encounters makes setting up a profile page fun because it’s a mix of a dating site and a social media platform. Members can decorate their pages to show off their unique personalities, and post blogs that discuss their lives in a way that’s relatable.
If members aren’t proficient at typing or uploading photos, Louise or other members of the site are happy to help create a profile page for new members.
“People coming on the site are often not very good with computers. For people who weren’t very technical, or if they have a problem with their hands, I will often type up their profile for them, and I even add their picture if they email it to me,” she said.
Along with the live chat rooms, there is also a spiritual corner where people can ask for prayers and a prayer team will get on the job.
Soulful Encounters Radio is a station that is run by members. Louise said there’s a counselor who has a call-in radio show, as well as many first-time DJs who may take a little convincing to get on the air.
“On Tuesdays, we have a DJ, who, when she joined was very bitter, but she hung in there. She said she wanted to help,” Louise said. “I thought she had a beautiful voice. She said, ‘I’ll do anything but DJ,’ but I talked her into it and she loves it now.”
Some users come to Soulful Encounters to find daters who share their outlook on life while others want to find a community where they feel accepted and lifted up. But for all of those members, Louise is working to raise money so she can build an even more welcoming site.
First, she hopes to expand the private messaging functions of the site. She also hopes to include more fun activities and games because she finds that the community aspect is very important to the lives of her members.
“A lot of disabled individuals are very lonely and many are not great at going out on their own. Also, a lot of them are housebound, like I was for a while,” she said. “Many users just live in our chat room. Even if no one is there, they are waiting for someone to come in. It would be nice to make it better for them.”
She’s planning on advertising the sites and its communal and dating benefits and continuing to provide members with the help they deserve.
“I just think that us all pulling together and trying to help someone is what really makes the platform unique. We are a life-asserting online community,” Louise said. “We try to infuse our members with hope and purpose. That’s why I try to build them up.”