what dating is like when you're disabled
We spoke to students, models, artists and activists about their love lives.
Dating ain't easy! Endless awkward exchanges via Tinder and Happn, maybe leading to an even more awkward first date that you either spend watching the clock or trying to read into the other person's every move for some sign that they possibly like you. But what's it like to date if you're disabled and have needs unlike those many people are familiar with? How do you broach the subject? Especially if your disability isn't immediately visible. And your disability doesn't define you, so how do you meet someone who can get that?
We spoke with a group of young creatives who are living with a range of disabilities and chronic illnesses, to learn more about how they navigate romantic relationships and dating apps.
And for more Love Week explorations, click here.
“I’m a 28-year-old blogger, model and activist from Haiti. My goal is to empower young women to embrace and love their bodies and shatter stereotypes about people with disabilities.
I find that most people think those of us living with a disability are undatable or asexual. I wish people would be clever enough to know that we are just like everyone, with a few added hurdles. In New York the dating scene is tough, especially if your goal is to be in a relationship. My experience has been bittersweet; I’ve had great dates but have also had guys stop showing interest once they realise I have a prosthetic leg.
My disability is not something I disclose in my dating app profile, just as I don’t disclose my race, gender or sexual orientation. Some times I include pictures in which my prosthesis is visible, and other times I don’t. I suppose if someone is worried about how their disability will be perceived or is afraid to face rejection because of it, dating apps help create somewhat of a safe space to disclose and get rejected even before meeting up.
"I would like to see further education and depictions of people with disabilities doing everyday things normalised, and not seen as something inspirational."
I remember the first time I went out with a guy, where I didn’t disclose the fact that I had a prosthesis, I finally told him after the second date. Leading up to the big reveal I started getting panic attacks and even had trouble breathing. But when I finally told him, he didn’t make it a big deal.
I would like to see further education and depictions of people with disabilities doing every day things normalised, and not seen as something inspirational. But misconceptions also come from people with disabilities not believing they can achieve something or thinking they are undatable.
Why do we have to play the isolated tech person or the funny friend? It’s okay to show us as parents or love interests without making our disability the centrepiece, because in real life this is us, like everyone else; dating, loving and getting our hearts broken, making bad decisions, doing great things, thriving or failing.”
I’m a native New Yorker from Brooklyn. I’m 21 years old. I model and teach sex education through social media. As someone living with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) complex PTSD, depression and social anxiety, I wish people knew that most days it’s really hard to do most things and just having a small circle of people who are supportive and willing to just come over and chill for a while is crucial. It’s tough for me to motivate myself to get out of bed and shower.
My experience in the dating world with chronic illness hasn’t been easy because I always feel like I’m unloading onto partners if I let them in enough, and there often has to be patience and openness. I tend to be honest about everything on the first date and just navigate things from there.
"I feel we break stigmas by talking about mental illness and disabilities and how they go hand in hand."
I do use dating apps, mostly Tinder. I’m not open about my disability on the platform itself but if I feel I can trust the person and things are going well, I tend to let them know after a few dates that I struggle a lot with daily tasks, that I don’t have a set schedule and that I have to deal with crippling PTSD.
When it comes to looking for a partner, I value patience and open communication most importantly. I feel that those things come from compassion. I really want to grow old with someone and to understand things from their perspective as well. I feel we break stigmas by talking about mental illness and disabilities and how they go hand in hand. Everyone loves to say they have depression and make light of it in memes, but no one likes to say 'I had PTSD panic attacks every time I tried to leave the house last week'. It seems daunting, but it’s real and we need to start talking about it.”
“I’m a 19-year-old artist and writer, born, raised and currently based in New York. Right now, I’m on a gap year before I begin college this fall. I spend a lot of time working on writing/illustrating a comic book that I hope to eventually publish, but the main reason I decided to take time off from school was to learn how to best manage my epilepsy. My seizures only began in the spring of 2016, and I’m still learning a lot about what it means to be differently-abled.
In my personal experience, I would say most – if not all –` partners of mine have been largely nonchalant about my ability, which has both pros and cons. My epilepsy is invisible unless I am literally seizing, and I typically try to first reveal it in a casual, unalarming manner. It can cause difficulties when people forget about it, though. For example, sleep is critical to my wellbeing, and I get exhausted very, very easily. I’ve upset people because I can’t be as available as they’d like, so they think that I’m dubbing them for personal reasons, when in reality I’m just overwhelmingly tired. Some partners get it, and give me a pass. And some people don’t, and just end up irritated that I can’t rendezvous for a late night multiple times a week.
"Though my epilepsy is not my defining characteristic, it is a factor in my life that requires patience to navigate.”
After holding off for so long, I finally downloaded Tinder a few weeks ago. I definitely don’t advertise my epilepsy on it. I’m aware that I sometimes feel insecure about being differently-abled. Even in off-screen relationships I don’t reveal that I am epileptic until we’ve already hung out a few times.
In my experience with dating (and honestly, just existing) as a differently-abled person, I tend to meet two types of people: the ones that entirely disregard my diagnosis, or the ones who care far too much. I am a very independent person, and my ideal partner should not try to act as my nurse or protector. At the same time, they need to be conscious of my physical needs and understand that even though my epilepsy is not my defining characteristic, it is a factor in my life that requires patience to navigate.”
“My name is Aaron Philip. I am a 17-year-old non-binary trans femme/GNC (gender non-conforming) girl living in the Bronx with my father and my brother, but hailing from the small island of Antigua in the Caribbean. I have cerebral palsy, and I therefore get around in a motorised wheelchair. I’m currently working as a freelance model, but my goal is to get signed and to become successful in both high fashion and retail – with the intention of providing representation and space for trans and disabled bodies in the industry.
"Trying to pursue romantic relationships while being physically disabled and trans is difficult and feels impossible at times."
I’ve had many partners, but I don’t have much experience with dating as yet, being that I’m a full-time high school student and working a lot, so I don’t feel as if I have the time to go out and date much. Trying to pursue romantic relationships while being physically disabled and trans is difficult and feels impossible at times. In my experience, people tend to infantilise disabled folk and put us into narratives/positions where we can never be seen as love interests because of the fact that we are so often seen as the butt of jokes and so forth.
I used to use online dating apps a lot for jokes and fun, but I would find myself getting harassed on these apps for being openly disabled and trans. I’ve been banned and deleted from dating apps for existing as a black, physically disabled trans girl within these predominantly cisgender, heteronormative, white, able-bodied spaces. I believe that app developers should take the time to monitor behaviours being exhibited towards queer users in these spaces, and make an effort to provide resources and facilitate a safe space for us as well.”
“I’m an 18-year-old activist, writer, artist and student. I currently live in Orange County, California and have lived in quite a few places in southern California throughout my childhood. I am moving to Boston this fall to go to Simmons College to study political science and journalism. I am disabled and unashamed of that. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and a few comorbidities. I am very open about my disability and illness on social media. It has taken a long time to get there but I really, truly am proud of who I am.
I’ve never used dating apps but am currently in a relationship. I never hid my disability – that would be quite difficult as I use a wheelchair almost full-time, have a feeding tube and a central line. This has never been an issue with my current partner. We didn’t even talk that much about it at first. After we had gotten a bit closer I explained my illness and disability. That was that. She does not put ableist societal expectations on me or our relationship, finds me absolutely beautiful, is never scared off by the medical stuff, and is always there to lend a hand when I need it but never oversteps.
"I am lovable and I am worthy and I am beautiful and I am valid. I am also disabled and chronically ill."
This was not the case during previous relationships. I had partners who were manipulative and abusive in regards to my illness and disability, partners who simply did not see me as anything more than a charity case, and partners who were toxic to be around.
I have found, as a queer, disabled woman, that the expectation of a boy coming and saving me from my tragic disabled life was put on me. When I came out, people invalidated my identity, saying that I was only gay because no boy would ever love a sick girl. But that is not the truth. I am lovable and I am worthy and I am beautiful and I am valid. I am also disabled and chronically ill. That does not negate any of those other things.
T. Sydney Bergeron Mikus
“I’m a non-binary writer, creator, and organiser from Pennsylvania. I have late-stage neurological Lyme, Bartonella, and Ehrlichia, which are all tick-borne diseases. I lived in NYC the last five years, but recently moved back to Lancaster to live with my mum while I focus on treatment.
I don't really date. It's just not something I'm interested in, in part because I identify with asexuality. Sex has never been an important aspect of my relationships. In fact, I’ve never even kissed anyone. I care more about fostering sisterhood and siblinghood.
"It’s unfortunate that it falls on marginalised communities to speak up about our experiences to promote change, but I do believe that’s key to inspiring adaptations in how our society functions to include us in the ways we need and deserve.”
I usually bring up my illnesses in the first conversation when meeting a new person. It’s important to me that people are educated about tick-borne diseases. My illnesses inherently affect all my relationships, because my functioning and needs are different than people who aren’t chronically ill, so I like people to be aware. I have neurological and physical symptoms that fluctuate on the daily. For example, I used to simply tell people that I have a poor memory and I’ll likely forget their names, but that was met with well-meaning jokes that they were bad at names too. Now I tell them that I have neurological Lyme disease, which depletes my memory and cognitive functioning.
Sometimes I worry that talking about it will negatively affect me, in that potential friends won’t want to accommodate my needs. I’m passing, in terms of my gender, sexuality, and disability, so I could very easily keep quiet about my tick-borne diseases, but then I’d be perpetuating an ableist society. It’s unfortunate that it falls on marginalised communities to speak up about our experiences to promote change, but I do believe that’s key to inspiring adaptations in how our society functions to include us in the ways we need and deserve.”
Editor's Note: the title of this article was updated to use the term 'disabled' instead of 'differently abled', at the request of the interviewees.