The dating world is awash with difficult situations. Like this one: what’s a man to do if he is consistently upstaged by his own wingman? No modern gent wishes to be accompanied into the dating game by a total chick magnet who is sure to hog all the female attention, right?
Wrong. Take Cornishman Stu, 42, as an example. His wingman is guide dog Brett, whose enviable ability to attract the adoration of people of all stripes is a boon, not a hindrance.
“The dog helps a lot”, confirms Stu, who will appear on Channel 4’s flagship dating programme First Dates this evening. “He’s a pretty good judge of character. They’re very sensitive creatures and they pick up on personality, so he’ll come over and give me a nudge as if to say, ‘it’s time to move on now, Stu. I’m not getting a good vibe off this one.’”
It was not ever thus. Stu lost his sight 13 years ago, when an operation intended to prevent his pre-existing glaucoma (a condition impacting the optic nerve) from getting any worse caused unintended damage. “I was doing a boring admin desk-based job, ticking along doing the 9-5 thing really down in Cornwall, then my life got turned upside down.”
A period of adjustment followed, during which he retreated from the world, becoming a “bit of a recluse”. He and his then girlfriend made the “very brave decision” to end their relationship but remain friends, which Stu recalls in a positive light. “Losing your sight is a very tough thing to deal with and that impacted the relationship. She moved out at that stage, which allowed me to stand on my own two feet a little bit and not have to rely on other people.”
After a period of adjustment, Stu was feeling happier with his physical shape and, perhaps more significantly, no longer had to wear thick glasses. He felt more confident than ever. “From a woman’s perspective – and I’m only assuming here – confidence and self-assurance can be attractive traits. That facilitated my entry into the dating world again”, he adds.
Things have worked out well from there. “The experiences I’ve had have been really refreshing and brought home to me that the dating scene is full of some really nice people”, he says. “It’s not that frightening. The more you do it the more you realise human beings are quite nice to each other! Things like disability can be irrelevant if you find somebody attractive. It’s not that relevant sometimes when love comes into play.”
For Stu, finding somebody attractive still has a physical dimension. “If they’re 6’2, that doesn’t really do it for me unfortunately because I’m only 5’9. A taller woman doesn’t really do it for me. I have a physical type in spite of the fact I can’t see women.”
Ultimately though, personality trumps looks. “I don’t go in for the whole fake tan, dare I say it, Essex types”, he says. “I like more creative, intelligent [women]. I have had relationship with redhead and women with dark hair. I do have a type, but it’s more her personality that’s the attractive thing.”
Whether you agree that there’s a connection between hair colour and personality, it’s clear that for Stu, the most important thing is a love interest’s interests. “Dates sometimes ask, ‘do you want to touch my face now?’ There’s an expectation there. I’d rather just give them a quick hug because I try and keep it a bit more organic. I don’t want the fact they are on a date with a blind person to be at the centre of it. I would like to think my defining trait is my personality, my interests and who I am, so I want that to shine through.”
That said, Stu is equally mindful not to ignore the topic or treat it as though it is off the table. It’s a matter of finding a balance. “It’s inevitable”, he says. “I’m walking round with a giant labrador, and if I’m meeting someone on a first date going in a café or a bar, I need to grab hold of their arm and they need to tell me where to go to sit down and things like that. You wouldn’t normally grab someone’s arm or hold on to them within the first five minutes of meeting somebody.”
One of the biggest misconceptions Stu tends to face concerns people’s understanding of how he operates online. “I get a lot of questions asking how I have messaged people. Most of what I do is online dating, and the first time I messaged someone they asked ‘how can you send me a message if you can’t see?’ I gave an explanation about screen readers, computers and how technology has sufficiently advanced to allow me to interpret screens.
“I had one experience where I chatted to a woman for a day or two on Messenger and just mentioned my blindness. I said, ‘I’ll meet you in town and you’ll recognise me because I’ll have a giant labrador with me.’ She agreed, but when I got down there and she went, ‘oh, you were telling the truth!’ She thought I was joking and I’d made this up as some elaborate joke. She had come to the date thinking I was pulling her leg. It was okay in the end. We just met up for an hour and had a coffee.”
The technology Stu uses to access the internet generally is the same that allows him to operate online. Some dating services are less useful than others using the tech. Tinder, for example, where most judgments are made based on a picture alone, leaves Stu to judge solely from the text in the bios of those who make the effort to write a line or two. But he’s still had a couple of fun dates from using the platform.
“It’s just a technology I use to access the internet in general. It’s the same technology that just interprets the written word on the screen – a bit like a drunk Steven Hawking jibbering away to me in the background. If I ever get a few rude messages sent to me, it can be quite amusing having a bit of a risqué message read out in a very robotic voice.”
For Stu, as for so many people, technology has opened up a lot of opportunities in the dating world. “In the flesh, if I’m out with a white stick or a dog, people will look at me with certain preconceptions, even if they are not knowingly judging me. It can be tricky to get past that initial hurdle of ‘oh, right, he’s a disabled, blind person’. Online, it’s up to me when I reveal that information about whether I’m blind or not, so it’s much more empowering.”
Believing in transparency, Stu tends to let his date know about his blindness ahead of a date, except in situations like his appearance on First Dates where neither party know anything about their company for the evening. But it’s not the most important thing. “A date is just two people really connecting and – without getting too ‘hippyish’ – that transcends looks, disability or anything like that.”