Dating is full of potential land mines for anyone. This is especially true for those of us who have disabilities and chronic illnesses.
While this may not be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, the disabled population is growing. According to the CDC, we make up a quarter of all adult Americans as of 2018. The reality is that, between injuries and illnesses, the number of disabled people in the US and abroad is going to continue to increase.
As someone who has been disabled most of my life, every date I’ve gone on and potential partner I’ve talked to has involved a disability dynamic that many people aren’t familiar with experiencing.
Here are some of the things I’ve faced and tips on how to deal with it.
Encountering ableism is never easy. Unfortunately, it seems to be worse online where people feel disconnected from others they’re speaking with. The anonymity can make it easier to treat others with less respect, especially for those of us who deviate from any kind of societal norms.
Often without realizing it, abled people believe that they are entitled to a number of answers around our health. Strangers ask all sorts of questions ranging from polite but misguided all the way up to rude and intrusive. There are some who believe that, as people in a marginalized community, we must use these occasions to educate people. This type of emotional labor is often be expected, regardless of our consent or other factors.
In reality, we have multiple options when this happens – especially on dating apps or websites. We can choose to take that time to educate people. Depending on the situation, that education might range from an answer to a question all the way up to an in-depth conversation. This is usually the way to go if you’re invested in someone and you believe that they will take the time to truly listen to and understand what you’re saying.
On the other hand, if the question is too close to home or the person doesn’t seem to be asking the question in good faith, ignoring and even blocking them may be the way to go.
It’s a hard balance to strike between taking care of yourself and helping others. As someone who has done a lot of education around disability and illness related issues, I used to feel like I had to answer questions at all times. If I didn’t, I didn’t feel like I could call myself an educator. In reality, I just needed to learn how to set boundaries.
It’s okay to avoid educating everyone you meet. You’re the only person who can decide to say when.
You inspire me! (Encountering Inspiration Porn)
Another natural thing that seems to happen in our circles is inspiration porn. Often, abled people – and even other disabled people – will use us living our daily lives as ways to make themselves feel better. In my relationships – both romantic and platonic – I’ve learned that this is a conversation you have to continuously have. If you avoid addressing it, that relationship will always have a touch of inspiration porn to it.
There is no one best way to handle inspiration porn. I tend to use the late Stella Young’s ideas to educate people, which is especially effective as she came up with the term. Other times, I point out that I would never applaud someone who is abled for accomplishing daily tasks, so why are they applauding me? That tends to get them thinking more about what covert discrimination looks like, too, which is what I love most about it.
Thanks to the internet, there are a ton of resources out there to educate people on inspiration porn. Don’t think that because you’re in the position of possibly educating someone that you can’t call on what already exists to help you out.
Worship Me (When People Fetishize Disabilities or are Devotees of Disabled People)
We’re all worthy of a little praise now and then. Hell, for some of us, it’s a kink!
Devotees are people who are attracted to disabled people because we’re disabled. Some are interested in certain conditions or mobility aids. Others think we’re all hot.
As a sex educator, I try to not yuck someone’s yum. I know a lot of people who are in long-term relationships where one partner is abled and a devotee to the disabled partner. If it works for them, I’m thrilled! Still, it can be hard to know what to do if a devotee messages you.
It’s okay to decide that you’d like to meet a devotee! As with any new dates, I would still suggest meeting in public and being smart about having others around.
If you’re uncomfortable for any reason, though, know that it’s perfectly acceptable to block a devotee who messages you. You don’t owe anyone any of your time. First and foremost, you have to remember to take care of your emotional and physical health.
This brings us to the next question – when do you disclose to someone you’re dating that you have a disability?
Personally, I disclose all of my identities on my dating profiles. It’s what I tend to recommend to others, too. I’ve been in a position where I didn’t disclose early and got emotionally invested in a partner only to have them ditch me at the first sign of higher disease activity.
The way I see it, none of us has the energy for that – at least I know I don’t. I’d rather know as soon as possible whether or not someone is going to love and support me for who I am. I need to know that my partners are going to have my back, from going with me to disability events to checking accessibility before we head out on a date.
Do You Have a Lift, Bro? (Discussing Your Accessibility Needs)
As you can imagine, with scent and chemical sensitivities, dating can be a major landmine. I weed out 97% of anyone I’d even consider dating by talking about my accessibility needs. Some people just won’t part with their aftershave and perfume – even for one date.
As I said, I tend to list my main disability-related issues in my dating profiles. My Tinder profile literally reads “seeks makeout pal who doesn’t bathe in smells I’m allergic to.” Sure, it’s led to people swiping left on me without reading more, but it’s also led to some great conversations. I’ve been able to educate a few people on a dating app which is just wild to me.
Not everyone feels comfortable listing accessibility needs on their dating profile – and that’s okay. It takes some experimentation to figure out what the right style is for you. For example, I only list my biggest need because there just isn’t space to discuss everything. I try to feel people out when we’re messaging back and forth, though, and will share more about my disabilities and needs as we build up a rapport. For me, it’s a part of getting to know someone new – even just as friends – so I try to treat it like any other thing you’d talk about with someone you’ve newly met. The accessibility issues I encounter will always be there and, if you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with the program.
Plus, with a lot of dating apps, you can never be sure if someone actually read your profile or just swiped because of your pictures – or because they’re horny.
When you’re speaking with someone about your accessibility needs, remember that you always get to back out of anything if you feel the need. Consent is key in dating, and that includes giving your consent to spending time with someone based on how safe you may feel around them.
It can be really hard to assert your needs and speak up for them, but one thing that can help is to pick the place that you meet someone in. Make sure that you know it’ll be accessible for you. Remember that, above all, you’re the expert in your own body and you know what’s best for you. Don’t let fears of wanting to nab this potential partner allow you to compromise your health and wellbeing.
One of the things that I loathe when picking spots to meet up in? LGBTQ+ spaces are notoriously inaccessible, making it even harder to go out on dates in our spaces. Yes, disabled queer people exist, and we like to go dancing, too. The hardest part of knowing many queer spaces aren’t accessible is feeling like I’m not allowed to be both disabled and queer openly. That makes it hard to meet people in, say, a club like my peers might.
Of course, that also means being able to know I’ll be safe just out and about.
The reality is that those of us who are disabled are several times more likely to experience violence, sexual assault, and even hate crimes. As with other groups, the number of hate crimes against people with disabilities have gone up immensely in recent years. From 2016 to 2017, there was a 65% increase in such violence.
Hell, even our morning commutes can be dangerous. Dr. Amy Kavanagh has started a movement to document her journeys with well-meaning abled people who don’t ask before trying to help. Kavanagh is blind and has almost been shoved onto train tracks by people deciding they can just grab her, so she started the hashtag #justaskdontgrab to start a conversation.
If you’re looking for ways to stay safe, consider the following:
Sometimes speaking up is hard and impossible to do. What can you use to get attention if you’re in danger? Can you carry a whistle in a spot where you’ll be able to easily access it in a time of crisis? Can you utilize phone apps to keep friends and family aware of your schedule?
Do you feel safe carrying self-defense items? Depending on your comfort level and local laws, this could be something as simple as pepper spray or as complicated as getting a concealed carry license for a handgun.
Is It Even Worth It?
Research over the last decade has suggested that marriages and long-term relationships tend to fail for cishet couples when the wife falls ill. Naturally, they haven’t even thought about studying divorce or break-up rates among LGBTQ+ couples. Is it even worth dating if you know there’s a high likelihood that your relationship will eventually fail?
Of course, one alternative is to ditch the so-called ‘relationship escalator.’ We often believe that a long-term monogamous relationship will lead to marriage. That doesn’t have to be the case. Our relationships can exist to bring us joy and support without being goal-oriented.
Like any abled person, we can also choose to be polyamorous. It may not always be easy, but it isn’t for any person. Personally, I find being polyamorous allows me more opportunities to receive the support that is so vital for me to live my best and healthiest life.
Kirsten Schultz is a world-renowned queer and disabled writer, activist, and sex educator. They hold an MS in Healthcare Administration from Utica College. You can learn more about them and their work at chronicsex.org and on Twitter @chronicsexchat.