by Sarah Kim
Dating with a disability often comes with unique trials and tribulations. It’s not easy to make a definitive list of advice for dating with a disability, because there is a lot of variation amongst people with disabilities. Although disabilities fall on a wide spectrum, society tends to group all people with disabilities under one category. Some people assume that people with disabilities are asexual, unable to have sex, only have relationships with their family and caregivers, and are solely focused on “recovery.” Many healthcare providers have reinforced these narratives, even telling disabled children that dating wouldn’t be possible for them in the future.
Much of the difficulty people face when dating with a disability is overcoming these stereotypes. Some non-disabled people known as “devotees” have a specific disability fetish in which they hypersexualize and objectify people with disabilities, which can be frustrating and minimizing. Many people with disabilities also fear dating due to the lack of accessible locations to attend a date. As a result of these challenges, people with disabilities tend to start dating much later in life than their non-disabled peers do, and their rate of marriage is half the national average in the U.S., according to The New York Times. Marriage penalties, which punish people with disabilities in the U.S. who get married by stripping them of disability benefits such as Social Security benefits and Medicaid only exacerbate this problem.
As if that isn’t enough to worry about, many multiply-marginalized disabled people experience additional fetishization and harmful behaviors from their potential dates. Writer and advocate Vilissa Thompson says in her blog, “Disabled women of color do date, and have to combat additional struggles when you factor race (and possible racism and fetishization) into our ability to be confident and foster healthy and loving partnerships that respect all of the identities we possess. For me, being Black is just as important as being disabled and female – you cannot ignore one and claim to see the whole me.”
IRL vs. online?
Perhaps the most straightforward way for disabled people to meet potential partners is in person through organic friendships. This method, often referred to as “IRL (in real life) dating”, has been tried and tested, so it carries the benefit of tradition. It is likely still the best way to date while disabled because it avoids many pitfalls associated with online dating, like alienation and have to reveal the disability. But as the work-from-home, remote lifestyle has become so widespread for safety amid the pandemic, more and more people are utilizing online dating to potentially meet someone.
Eight of the largest online dating apps in the U.S. had a 12.6 percent year-over-year increase in monthly active users during the final quarter of 2020. This was the biggest such increase in almost two years, according to data tracker Apptopia. Because of this, there is a high likelihood that one will “match” with a person with a disability as people with disabilities make up about 15 percent of the global population.
To reveal or not to reveal?
The biggest question people with disabilities face on dating apps is when (and how much) to reveal their disability. Some people boldly display the fact that they have a disability in their bios; this strategy comes with the benefit of warding off most of the people for whom a disability would be a dealbreaker. But not all of them, because some people do not read bios, and others tend to rush headlong into dates without thinking about the reality of the disability and then negatively respond on the first meeting. As Elisha Matthews discovered when she put her disability in her profile, she was inundated with inappropriate messages from devotees, sexually harrassing her until she took down the note about her disability.
Other people take issue with the idea that one’s disability should be disclaimed because this implies that it is a bad thing that one has to take responsibility for. These individuals may not perceive their disability as a defining feature of themselves as potential partners. Moreover, revealing a disability too soon tends to put one on the backfoot because it plays into the “grand narrative” that people with disabilities owe the public access to their private lives. This can turn first dates into an interrogation about medical treatments rather than a chance to get to know the individual. On top of being invasive, the interrogation model also doesn’t allow the person with a disability to assess the nondisabled person. This can have adverse effects like concealing that a date is a “devotee” until you have already become emotionally or physically involved.
Disabled mental health professionals weigh in
Does having a disability — or at least revealing it — need to be disclosed on a dating app? This is a crucial aspect of dating while disabled.
Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, a New York City-based therapist specializing in the psychology of dating, who is disabled, wrote in a column that on dating apps, disabilities should be displayed in written form and perhaps visually through pictures. She says that this policy would help prevent a lot of heartache and rejection. The people who would react strongly to a revelation of disability are likely to swipe past a person who is disabled, allowing both parties to avoid the uncomfortable interactions entirely
Dr. Mitchell Tepper, a sexologist who coaches people with disabilities on online dating, and is also disabled, has a different perspective.
“If they’re looking for a relationship, not just an impersonal physical relationship and not just an online chat relationship, then I would disclose something about my disability in my profile. But I would not make it the main point of my profile,” he advises. “I’d have pictures with and without my wheelchair if it’s a visible disability.”
Dr. Tepper tells clients to mention their disability in as few words as possible.
“Less is more these days, so you gotta put a hook to it,” he says. “I tell people not to overshare.”
However, keeping one’s disability a “secret” until meeting in person or until further along in the relationship can distort your expectations. Hiding this information from a date might leave you with someone who might turn out to be “shallow when they find out about your disability,” he explains.
Dating apps for people with disabilities
There are a number of online dating apps and websites that aim to help disabled people to find romantic partners.
Dating4Disabled is a free, online dating website that allows people with disabilities to match with each other, get to know one another then ultimately meet in person. The website has a number of communication features such as forums, a private messaging service and a smart search function. You can also share various disability resources with potential romantic partners.
Disabled Passions is an online social networking community for disabled people to find both prospective romantic partners and friends. In addition to romantic matchmaking and platonic friendships, the website also features games, videos and a library of disability-related resources.
Disclosure is ultimately up to you
Ultimately, there is no “right” way to date with a disability since no disability is the same, and each person deals with theirs differently. There are reasons why you may choose to either conceal or reveal your disability, but it is important to weigh them consciously and be prepared for the associated outcome. The most important thing to remember when dating is to be your authentic self. You deserve to be loved and valued, and the person who is the best fit for you will like and or love you for who you are.
Published: February 14, 2022
Sarah Kim is a freelance writer for WID.