Dating is always kind of a crap shoot. You put yourself out there with all of your gorgeous flaws, and all of your prior experiences, and all of your expectations, and you see what happens. It’s thrilling, it’s exciting, and it’s nerve-wracking. When you throw disability into the mix, though, it can add another whole layer of personal and societal baggage. But fear not, fellow humans. This little set of guidelines is for my disabled daters.
It’s a date, and you want to put your best version of you out there.
Shower, groom and wear clean clothes. And not just the cleanest ones in the sorta-clean pile on the floor. Choose clothes, makeup and a hairdo that helps enhance the way you want to present yourself and the way you want to feel that night, be it confident, sexy, sassy, smart or unique.
And please, people: clean and freshen up your mobility aids as well. I personally know people who have left dried ketchup stains on their wheelchair spokes for weeks without getting them taken care of. Your chairs, walkers and canes are things you use often, if not every day. You gotta pay attention to them too. So wash your chair cushion if it’s been a while, air-blast the crumbs out of the nooks and crannies in your rollator and get yourself out the door!
We all know that being late for a date is a no-no.
Traffic is a reality for everyone, as are unexpected delays on the subways and trains. Plan some extra travel time, especially if you have any kind of disability that might further affect your arrival time (buses with no working lift, curb cuts blocked by snow, prosthetics that just NOW decide to loosen up every 15 steps, etc.).
You should also plan ahead when it comes to finances. The last thing you want is to get to your destination and find out halfway through dinner that you don’t have enough money to get home (or pay the tab!). If you can, budget enough to cover your travel expenses as well as your dinner and entertainment costs. And you should really do this regardless of who asked whom on the date, or of the particular genders involved.
You get there, you meet your date for the evening, settle in and start to talk. Maybe you told them ahead of time that you have a disability, and maybe you didn’t. At some point, though, the question may be asked (if you don’t put it out there before it is): “what is your disability?”
Each of us have to answer this to our own comfort level, of course. But there are some “do-and-do-nots.” For starters, a diagnosis is not an explanation. Not for dating purposes, anyway. Saying “I have cerebral palsy” is a good way to open the topic, but it shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. T
he question really being asked here is not really “what is your disability?” but “how does your disability affect you?” So be more personal about it. Give a brief idea of where your disability comes from (i.e. I was born with it, I got into an accident, I developed it later in life), what the deal is (i.e. it affects my motor skills, it messes with my vision, it makes it hard for me to be in loud places) and how you deal with it (i.e. I need frequent rests, I drop things easily, I have leg braces).
By the same token, though, don’t let your date become a verbalization of your entire medical history. With any luck, there will come a time to talk to this person about all of your surgeries, treatments, medications, troubles and bathroom issues. But I promise you: that time is not between the fried mozzarella sticks and the chicken piccata.
Answer what you are comfortable answering while also maintaining some empathy for your date, for whom dating someone with a disability might be a strange new experience, and one to which they must become accustomed at their own rate.
Sometimes, it just doesn’t work. For whatever reason. You get together and you enjoy yourself, and when it comes time for a parting kiss, you get a peck or a hug. You call or text, let them know you had a great time, and ask if they would like to do it again sometime. And you get crickets. Nothing, no answer. Or they say “oh maybe yes, I’m kind of busy, let me get back to you.” And nothing. Then you may even hear them say that they enjoyed your company but would rather be friends.
I know lots of people who say that dating with a disability means always wondering how the disability factored into the decisions of their dates. Were they embarrassed or weirded out by being out with me? Are they worried they will have to become my aide, or that my disability will put them in a position where they need to take care of me? Did my disability affect their ability to see me as a romantic or sexual partner? And the answer is: maybe. Or maybe not.
Maybe you remind them of the cousin who made them eat mud, or the girl who teased them in high school. Maybe you’re wearing the same cologne as the guy who broke up with them in college and it’s off-putting. Maybe they didn’t like your shoes. Maybe you love some sports team or actor or political figure that they despise. Don’t assume your disability had to do with it unless you hear otherwise. And even if it did, let it go. Your disability isn’t a compartment of your life; it’s part of the whole. If s/he doesn’t like that part (or any part) right off the bat, the rest is a foregone conclusion.
If you hear nothing else, hear this: You are not broken. You are not damaged goods. You do not need to settle for people that you do not like, do not want or do not feel are good for you. And just like our non-disabled dating counterparts, sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there, or we truly just don’t enjoy the person’s company all that much. Yet if I had a nickel for every well-meaning relative or friend who has advised settling, I’d be a rich woman right now. “Well, I know s/he isn’t what you really wanted, but she’s available and she likes you. Beggars can’t be choosers.” My answer is always: “Oh really? And who dates beggars?” You are not less-than. And you do not have to settle for what you do not want. Respect your own needs and your own desires. Understand that being single is not inherently bad, nor is being with someone inherently good. It is all what you make of it. So make it work.
Good luck out there!
Amy is a medical social worker, disability advocate, mother, wife and caregiver who was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November of 2009. She leads a monthly support group for people with multiple sclerosis and serves on a number of advisory panels. Amy also provides in-services, trainings and presentations on a wide variety of disability-related subjects, focusing primarily on disability etiquette and sexuality issues.
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