“Well, I couldn’t date someone in a wheelchair.” The words were aggressive in their brusqueness, decisiveness and dismissal. “You can never be left alone or screwed.”
I got this message on a mainstream dating app.
I have cerebral palsy. I use a wheelchair and have often encountered abuse of my ability on dating apps. To this man, and to many others, my disability made me incomparable and unbeatable.
Online dating is a difficult experience for most. It’s the ease with which people can be fired. You’re committed to nothing more than a few anonymous messages, and you can keep scrolling indiscriminately when someone online doesn’t like you.
For people with disabilities and others with marginalized identities, there is an additional layer of horror and dehumanization. But the grueling landscape of mainstream dating apps has helped me become the woman I am today: a disabled woman who knows her worth.
It’s a hard-earned lesson: In my early 20s, I was constantly seeking approval and validation.
I started using dating apps in college. Comparing matches with friends was just a regular aspect of campus life. My goal was not to be in a relationship since I had just started college; it seemed natural since everyone was doing it.
I didn’t have many disabled friends, so I couldn’t articulate the struggle: every time I told friends I was reluctant to disclose my disability, they told me I had to. But that’s easy to say when you’re not bombarded with microaggressions and abuse. For example, being told that I was a liability, that my body had to be deformed, or that anyone I dated had to be a saint to put up with my “problems.”
The question of when to disclose a disability is very fraught, and everyone has to find a way to navigate it personally.
I’ve had several success stories, and when those relationships ended, it wasn’t because of my disability. It was because we found other reasons to be fatally incompatible: the sex wasn’t great, the spark wasn’t there, or the long distance took its toll. These are common reasons why relationships break up and have nothing to do with stereotypes of women with disabilities as burdens or sexless.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that you can’t let other people’s opinions dictate your self-worth. Men who reject me because of my disability have little value. I’m comfortable in my skin now, and the dating app hellscape helped thicken it.
I pondered this when I learned about a new dating app just for the disabled and chronically ill, dateability The app carries the tagline “Making Love Accessible.” It has been designed to create a welcoming place for people with disabilities so that we can go out without fear of being found. performs attitudes and behaviors.
I understand the appeal. But experience teaches us that no matter how hard we try to build a fantasy, an impenetrable bubble, reality will always seep through.
It remains a radical act to move with pride in a disabled body. First, I had to learn through my experiences to deconstruct other people’s ideas about what it is to be disabled: to push back their fears and ignorance, to question the non-disabled who tried to stifle my confidence in himself, who had won so much. Then I finally owned my disability, claimed it for the first time. But it is an ongoing process.
It’s taken me years of my life to get to this place, but my dating app experiences have taught me one simple truth: you have to go through it.
I assumed my dating life would be like “Sex and the City.” I wanted to wade through romantic entanglements, have casual sex, meet attractive and inappropriate men in glamorous places, and form relationships that could span an episode story or an entire series.
I wanted to be Samantha Jones until reality set in. There was no disabled Samantha Jones. I was left out of the limited 2D view of what it was to be a woman. The spectacle was an aspiration, and disabled women were not and are not taught to aspire, to be seen.
In this environment, disabled women inevitably struggle to feel desirable. We are still desexualized, patronized, infantilized, and considered “infusible.”
“Can you have sex?” I was once asked on a first date, because otherwise he opined, “What’s the point?”
When I first started dating, my answer would have been different. I would have assured them that I could tell them exactly how kind I have been. I told the last man who asked me to “fuck you”.
Experience has given me a built-in list of enabler red flags. The most common is for someone to do physical things for me without my consent. Try to undermine my independence or tell me that I have misunderstood their intention. A man once said the word “retard” in casual conversation; he got away with it, but I consider it an extreme insult, and we never saw each other again. It’s learning about the often seemingly small behaviors that can grow later and trusting your instincts.
Sometimes our disability is a weapon against us, like when my ex-partner told me she couldn’t deal with my disability or how people looked at us. It was a parting shot that I had to rebuild on my own.
Going through the dating experience has allowed me to consider who I am and what I want. Every dating experience I’ve had has, in some way, forced me to confront ableism, forced me to question it. Knowing my worth, setting my boundaries and demanding respect has been crucial. But unfortunately, it’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way, and I’ve had to unlearn a lot of unhealthy ideas about how women with disabilities should navigate the world to get there.
All of this makes the idea of a sheltered place for “accessible” love appealing. Being on the front lines is hard. But we deserve a date without separation or partition
Specialized apps greatly limit our dating pool. And if mainstream dating apps like Bumble, Tinder, and eharmony don’t stop people from spewing ignorance, hate, and skill, what can a smaller app do to prevent catfishing, scamming, or targeting people on the platform because they have a disabled fetish?
It’s so important that people with disabilities are on mainstream dating apps because we shouldn’t be “altered” and cut off. We deserve to take up space just as much as anyone without a disability, which we’ve been told we shouldn’t. It’s our right to decide who, how and where we date, including “mainstream” dating apps. We cannot let ignorance continue to hold us back.
Apps must ensure that users are removed when they receive a complaint of harassment or abusive language. I have often complained and labeled myself for inappropriate behavior, as have many disabled women I know. When we tell apps that other users are abusive and provide evidence of that abuse, they should act responsibly.
One in four American adults is disability The next generation will know the feeling of having their experiences reflected more fully, but we must hold our nerve. We didn’t struggle to create a dating app just for the disabled and chronically ill. It limits us.
Top dating apps have shaped the woman I am today. I feel comfortable with myself as a disabled woman who has been through it. I still use apps, now more sparingly, because life goes on.
I understand wanting to build a dating utopia – we were the generation of disabled women introduced to dating apps without even a disabled teen cheat sheet. But we have to carry on for our own sake so that the next generation of disabled people don’t have to go through what we did.
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