Do you remember your worst date? Does the memory of it make you cringe? Mine does. My worst date was with a guy I met on OkCupid. He lived 45 minutes away in the outskirts of town so when we decided to finally meet in person, we picked a Burger King that was halfway between us that I had never been to, but he had. It was a dilapidated building straight out of a horror movie. I’m talking a completely abandoned part of town, flickering lights, half-disassembled cars in the parking lot… It was bad. And unfortunately the guy himself wasn’t much better. He was a musician (which, admittedly is a big part of why I said yes to the date), and during our date, he made me listen to his band’s entire album on his phone. Out loud. At full volume. After it was over, I politely stated that I had an appointment and had to leave in 10 minutes. He then proceeded to go into a diatribe about his ex-girlfriend and how she loved Doctor Who more than she loved him. I excused myself when he was halfway through a sentence about something else about her (I really don’t remember what it was). There was no second date.
Now, that may not be that bad of a date, but it was one of the few dates I actually got asked on in all the years I did online dating. Most of the guys I talked to were polite but dismissive. When online dating, I had to make sure I presented my disability in the right way or risk being verbally assaulted by many of the people I talked to. At 18 I started taking dating more seriously and made an online profile for a couple of dating websites. I didn’t mention my disability because I didn’t see it as an important or necessary thing to mention. It wasn’t really part of my personality, just a trait I had, like brown hair. Boy was I wrong. I got a lot of responses from guys but right when I mentioned my wheelchair, they all either stopped talking to me or worse, yelled at me for “not being honest.” One guy actually called me a “b*tch who was trying to catfish [him],” despite the fact that I had lied about absolutely nothing and I mentioned my wheelchair about 3 days after we started talking. So, yeah. Dating has never been my idea of a good time. And nearly everyone I know with a disability has a story similar to mine.
While online dating can be a minefield of expectations for anyone, disabled or not, people with disabilities can also have a more difficult time dating people that they meet in real life. I didn’t date at all throughout high school or college for this very reason. Guys who met me did not think I was dateable. Much has been said about people with disabilities being wrongfully treated as asexual, aromantic people or infantilized in the modern world, but that sting of rejection is never felt so strongly as when you ask someone out and they are surprised because they genuinely did not think that you could ever date anyone. It’s as if we are seen has pseudo-people, lacking all need for connection and romantic love.
To add to that, dating can be dangerous when you have a disability. After college, I moved back home and my parents were genuinely worried that something would happen to me when I was out on a date with someone. I may be hard to kidnap, but I can’t exactly fight someone off if they’re attacking me. A friend of mine, who we will call Natalie, was kind enough to share her story about a previous relationship in which she was abused.
“He said I was a boring partner because I couldn’t do much sexually – I’m disabled so there’s only so much I can do. He would threaten to never have sex again if I didn’t do favors for him… He told me [he] couldn’t have a life because he was dating me and had to help me. He didn’t invite me to any of the parties that he went to, assuming because he was embarrassed of me… He thought he was a saint for helping me.”
I’ve heard stories like that from most of my friends with disabilities, and I’ve talked before about how abuse is very common in the disability community. An unfortunate fact is that abusers can see us as easy targets and some will start a romantic relationship in the hopes that they can exercise all the power.
And some, surprisingly enough, fetishize people with disabilities. When I first started trying to online date in college, the first thing a good friend told me was to stay away from disability-specific websites and social groups. When I asked her why she told me they were full of devotees, not disabled people. Let me tell you, going down that rabbit hole has been an interesting experience to say the least. I don’t necessarily have an inherent problem with people who prefer those with disabilities as a partner but more often than not (and I’m being generous, I really mean 99% of the time) people with wheelchair fetishes, known as devotees within the community, are known to predatorily objectify people with disabilities. There are even photo sharing websites where people will share candid images that they secretly take of people with disabilities that they see in the real world. I’m not going to link to those websites for obvious reasons. In the end, I know everyone has a preference but everyone, disabled or not disabled, deserves to have their consent respected. For some reason, some people seem to think that that does not apply to people with disabilities.
One thing I think everyone, regardless of ability, dislikes about dating is that at times dating can feel like a meat market. I don’t disagree. One funny experience that I have found out I share with many disabled men and women is that dating prospects always tiptoe around, and then eventually ask directly: “So, like… can you have sex?” Disabled comedians even joke about it. Because how do you really answer? I used to just say no and watch the conversation self-destruct, but then I felt bad for supporting a misconception. But once I would say yes, the conversation topic would always shift that direction. Because if I could have sex, I must have very low standards because no one ever wants to have sex with me, right? So I would totally have sex with whoever was asking, right? That was the mentality of most of the guys who asked that question.
I want to clearly reiterate at this point that I knew about none of this in high school. I was very idealistic and I thought I would meet my Prince Charming at 18, get married at like 20, and start having kids at 24. All of that came crashing down when I started college and took dating more seriously. I even remember a conversation I had with a dear friend of mine when I was 18. we both have similar disabilities and saw a lot of ourselves in each other. She asked me what I wanted out of life and I said, simply, that I just wanted to get married and have kids. “Is that it?” she said. “I love you to death but you really need a Plan B. Most guys don’t want to date girls in wheelchairs.” I remember being stunned at her audacity, but now I truly consider that to be some of the best advice I was ever given. Because it’s true. I can hate it all I want, but it doesn’t make it less true.
Because the older I get, the more I realize I am worth loving. I met my boyfriend about 3 1/2 years ago on OkCupid. Soon after we started talking, I noticed that he was being really friendly and my first thought was “Oh, no. He must have missed the part on my profile where I mentioned my disability. Because he wouldn’t be this friendly towards me if he knew. And he hasn’t asked if I could have sex and we’ve been talking for a few days now.” So when we were making plans to meet up for the first time, I gently pointed out that I use a wheelchair. His response was something like “Yeah, I know… So?” I remember feeling a wave of relief wash over me at the idea that he hadn’t put my disability at the forefront of our conversations and therefore probably wouldn’t put it at the forefront of our potential relationship. And he hasn’t. I’m not going to get gushy on my blog, but it’s been 3 1/2 years and we’re still really happy. In part, I think it’s because he took my lead in discussing my disability and he has always treated it as just another part of life that he has chosen to adapt to because he has chosen to be with me.
And I’m not the only disabled person I know who has found someone who loves them, not in spite of their disability and not because of their disability, but who just loves them. The whole package. I wish and hope for the same for everyone I know. Dating is a really difficult path to travel, but in the end I have found that it’s worth it. Everybody deserves to know that at the end of the day there’s someone who loves them and wants to spend their days with them. No one should be robbed of that life experience.