By D’Arcee Neal
I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles related to disability and dating recently and they tend to present you with these epic checklists that most able-bodied people aren’t going to sift through, because much like two people on a first date, no one likes to play 20 questions. So I’m going to try to boil it down to what is essential, in my opinion.
Last summer I was at dinner with a married couple who both used wheelchairs and I decided to ask them about relationships. I asked them very candidly if they found it difficult to be in relationships before they found each other. I was interested to see how different genders would answer that question. The husband replied almost immediately, “Oh I had no trouble at all. I had so many dates in college I had to tell them to go away.” When I turned to his wife, she took several seconds to answer.
“It was hard. Very hard,” she said. “I never really realized how difficult until I was graduating from college, but I guess men are different that way.”
Whether you’re a man or a woman with a disability does have an effect on your dating experience. Based on what I’ve seen and been told, women tend to put physicality lower on the scale of attractive traits when looking for a potential partner whereas men are much more attuned to what a woman’s body is like. It may not top the list of what they’re looking for, but for most guys, it’s a major factor
As a gay man I can only speak to the experiences that I have had, and certainly not for all people with disabilities, but I also think that the type of disability you have alters the perceptions of the people you’re attempting to woo. While some may argue that dating with any disability at all levels the playing field in regards to the degree of difficulty, I argue against that. I think we tend to believe that what we see is what we get, at least at first glance, and a visible, physical disability can put the brakes on a relationship before it even gets started.
In the world of online dating, when crafting a profile you are given the opportunity to present to the world the face of your choosing, and with less visible disabilities, it is your decision to withhold that information until a better time. This could be for better or for worse, depending on the severity of the disability. At first glance, people will immediately begin creating perceptions of what they think you are like. I do it. You do it. It’s what we do.
But I think this is the crux of what makes dating with a disability so difficult. I would like to believe that people are generally accepting of the majority of people with disabilities as far as friendships go, but once you move into the realm of more intimate, romantic intentions, that person is suddenly confronted with their own personal comfort level at having to include the person with the disability into their lives, from the routine issues like transportation, to the far more personal idea of sex. In the gay community, I believe that many people are not ready to handle the idea of something outside of the norm of what they already expect.
Take the ubiquitous statement “I enjoy long walks on the beach” as a measure of compatibility. People without disabilities may think, “Could we walk in the park? Maybe you like hiking or camping instead?” That’s still in the realm of compatible since those options are about sharing some sort of physical activity with one another. When dealing with wheelchair users, that idea is immediately fractured because rolling in sand (or up a mountainside) is a cumbersome and energy-sapping endeavor that leaves you looking sweaty and ridiculous. When first setting up an account or updating information, many people with disabilities (myself included) struggle with the idea of including that information. It’s nice to be honest and upfront with people, but come on, it’s also nice to be noticed and taken at least halfway seriously before you start in on what could potentially be the mood-killer.
So how then, to handle these pitfalls? I’m not going to say that I’m a guru of information and that what I suggest is a fix-all approach, but in my experience, there are some things that can make for better dating regardless of disability:
- Decide how important your disability is to you before publishing information online. Don’t let others dictate how to see yourself. If to you, it’s a minor inconvenience, then treat it as such. It’s nobody’s business but yours until you choose.
- Align yourself with people whom you have basic ideals in common with. If getting around is a hassle to you, trying to date someone who likes to audition for American Ninja every weekend probably isn’t going to work out well. This seems like a basic thing to say, but for people with disabilities, the basics get even more basic when it comes to things like walking.
- Know your comfort level. Sometimes a lunch can be just that. Sometimes it can be more, and if all your wanting is dessert (both metaphorically and actual) then make sure that information is made apparent.
- Being single can be amazing, if you let it. You deserve the person that is ready for YOU, not the other way around. Most of the time people with disabilities can’t alter their circumstances anyway, so either let the person you want to date appreciate your uniqueness, or find someone that will. There’s nothing worse than being shoehorned into a situation and praying it will fit.
- Last but not least, understand that not everyone is ready for your awesomeness. This is a very hard lesson and it’s one that I feel like people with disabilities get more than our fair share of heartache. Dating someone with a disability is the same as dating someone without one, with a few modifications and a lot of understanding. Some people are okay and ready to learn. Some aren’t and you can’t force someone into a place they’re not ready to go.
Is dating people with disabilities harder? Yes, but only because the world is unaccustomed to it. The world is full of billions of individuals and each of them deserves to find their share of happiness. With body shaming, ableism, gender biases, homophobia and mass media reflecting so many idealized images these days, it’s a wonder anyone manages to find their significant other. But they do, and sometimes they have disabilities and life goes on. Sometimes they’re passed over for that prettier, thinner, able-bodied face. It’s up to you to own that knowledge and then to use it. You’re awesome, now let them know it.