Dating While Mobility-Impaired

Valentine’s Day post! Going to start this off by saying that I’m a big fan of Valentine’s Day. It’s a holiday where I have an excuse to send Palentine/Galentine cards and drink hot chocolate/eat chocolate. Also, after Valentine’s Day, chocolate goes on sale (which means discount chocolate the whole week leading up to my birthday!). So thank you, Saint Valentin, for your painful martyrdom, and Hallmark, for capitalizing on that martyrdom in a strange and gluttonous way.

That said, Valentine’s Day is also a day marketed towards couples and relationships. I’ve mentioned my annoyance at those Ad Council ads that assume only my family is capable of loving me and accepting me as a person. Obviously this is a lie because I’m pretty sure my friends think I’m a person. But Valentine’s Day will, unfortunately, remind all single people like myself that we are single, and that somehow our value requires a romantic partner for validation. This is another lie, but a great way to segue into the not-discussed-nearly-enough topic of disability and dating.

The stereotypes about dating with a disability are just that. At their core, they are untrue. I know people with disabilities who are happily married, in healthy relationships, or who are single yet optimistic. I’ve been brainwashed by Disney from a young age, so I fall into the “single yet optimistic” category. The media does a terrible job of depicting individuals with disabilities in healthy romantic relationships, in part because they’re just so darn busy telling able-bodied people how inspirational people with disabilities are. I guess we’re just too inspirational to date.

As a result, people are in general very misinformed when it comes to disability and relationships. When I was first injured, a well-intentioned family member asked my parents how I would ever get married (quite honestly, at that point I just wanted to sit up without falling over, but okay, we had different priorities). During lunch one day, with no context, a boy in my high school asked me if I could have sex (which, I’m sorry, if you have to ask that question, then you clearly lack imagination). Some are under the impression that dating someone with a disability means becoming their personal care attendant (PCA) as well as their partner, but the search for a PCA is entirely distinct from the search for a partner. My dad recently said that he was impressed I haven’t lowered my standards in spite of my injury, as if I somehow deserved less because I currently use a wheelchair. (Fun fact: after I moved into my dorm in Cambridge last year, one of my floormates said I looked like I had high standards. I guess I just give off that impression.)

Some tried to put a positive spin on my impairment. Friends told me that my wheelchair was jerk-repellent. After all, why would a jerk date someone in a wheelchair? This reasoning, although it means to be supportive, is problematic because it assumes that my chair magically wards off terrible matches, so whoever still finds me attractive after seeing my mobility-impaired state must be a wonderful human being.

False. My chair has the potential to attract guys who:

  1. Are devs (short for devotees), who are individuals that have a disability fetish. This is beyond creepy, and the main reason why I avoid dating sites.
  2. Want to seem super liberal for “being able to see past my disability”: I had a coffee date with a guy who asked me out five minutes after I complimented his Super Mario Bros.-themed t-shirt. He spent an uncomfortable amount of time during the date talking about how liberal his college was and how it would’ve been great for me because their dorms had ramps (which, that’s nice?). As you can imagine, there was no second date.
  3. Enjoy having power over someone (see the link in my previous entry about women with disabilities and abusive relationships).
  4. Want to cheat on their girlfriend: I met a guy in England last year who seemed really nice and said I was attractive (which I hear so rarely that this should’ve been a red flag), so we hung out a few times. Six weeks later, he mentioned his girlfriend for the first time, and that he wasn’t feeling so great about that relationship, but didn’t want to terminate it. I stopped speaking to him, because seriously? Not cool.
  5. Want to appear as a “nice guy” or “are afraid of hurting my feelings” even though they aren’t interested: This is a long story that I will attempt to simplify as best as I can. Some of my experiences with relationships have had a clear pre-injury/post-injury difference. One guy who liked me prior to my injury said he was still interested after I got hurt. But then he dated other girls behind my back and apologized whenever I found out. He did this for four years and I still thought the world of him because he said he was interested. When I finally brought myself to stop speaking to him, I tried flirting with other guys and was consistently shut down. My self-esteem had never been lower, and I wished I could start talking again to the guy who hurt me, because that sounded better than being alone. My high school and some college experiences had convinced me that until I regained the ability to walk, I would be considered unattractive and not worthy of any companionship beyond friendship. My wheelchair, I concluded, was a dealbreaker.

I’m writing this not to illicit pity, but to illustrate how I thought my disability was preventing me from being in a relationship. As with most things pertaining to my disability, however, the issue is not my disability, but society’s perception of my disability. As I mentioned last entry, the media rarely portrays women with disabilities as valuable or desirable. I’ve felt the effects of said media every time I’ve talked to a guy and felt an “I can do better” vibe. And believe me, it’s a vibe. In addition to the guy who strung me along because he was afraid of hurting my feelings, there was the guy who said he was interested in me pre-injury, but then decided I was more like a sister to him post-injury. Rude.

So what’s a wheelchair-using lady to do when society has deemed you “not good enough” simply for using your mobility device to get around? There are a variety of ways to deal with this. You can use dating apps, hang out with large groups of friends and friends of friends, or keep doing things to put your lovely self out there until someone gets woke and realizes that you’re managing your disability (and your life) pretty darn well, and that any negative notions associated with your disability are utterly ridiculous because you are such a badass. It sounds like a time-consuming strategy, but it’s what able-bodied people do, although they haven’t exactly figured out dating either. My approach is to meet people through friends (because, as I said earlier, terrified of dating apps and the potential devotees that may use them), and then to have a backup plan where I live by myself, but close to the people I care about, and have an Old English sheep dog named Beowoof. Beowoof and I are best friends. And maybe adopt a kid, because I have to pass on my love of sports, baked goods, and Doctor Who to someone.

For those who think that a disability is a legitimate dealbreaker, here is what having a disability (specifically a mobility impairment) makes difficult: traveling by plane (because there is no guarantee the wheelchair will survive the flight), staying in a hotel (because “wheelchair accessible room” doesn’t always mean it’s accessible), buying a house/apartment together (because there will be inevitable remodeling issues), traveling around a city (because potentially inaccessible public transit), and getting into certain buildings (because stairs). In any case, the person with a disability will have plans for dealing with pretty much anything that comes up, because they’ve lived in their bodies a long time and generally know how to handle daily obstacles.

Quite honestly, if you are dating someone with a disability, you will mostly learn that having a disability makes many life activities difficult, and you’ll respect your partner all the more for handling things with a balance of patience, righteous fury, and a weird sense of humor when life throws them a curveball. You will be confused at how the handicapped entrance to anywhere is somewhere remote and sketchy, where the sidewalk is in desperate need of repair. You will be impressed by how well your disabled partner can manage without your help (although your partner will always enjoy your company). You will call your partner inspirational and mean it, and they will roll their eyes at you for using the “I” word. And you will feel like a jerk for anytime you thought the wheelchair was a dealbreaker.

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