9 Things to Keep in Mind When Dating a Person With a Disability
Dating with a disability requires patience and a heart encased in steel, so it can take a long time to work up the courage to do so. It took years to feel comfortable using the word "disabled" in association with myself, let alone dating confidently with the label attached. I am still navigating the waters every day. Approximately 61 million adults in the United States have a disability—increasing to one billion globally—so I am far from alone.
Even though we take up 20% of the world's population, many lack any insight into what it's like to exist as a disabled person, let alone date one of us, which can cause countless problems. According to clinical and health psychologist Kaley Roosen, Ph.D. C.Psych., who has muscular dystrophy and chronic pain, society's treatment of disabled people others them, making it even harder for non-disabled people to consider dating us.
"Living with a disability can mean for many living with something that makes them different from others," she tells HelloGiggles. "Growing up in an ableist society means that disabled people are viewed as asexual or child-like and often not included in conversations around desirability or dating or romantic love. This can lead to negative feelings around desirability."
However, more than a few non-disabled people will have dated a disabled person without even knowing, because we do not all fit into the media's stereotypical mold. Some of us have hidden or invisible physical disabilities, others are neurodivergent, and far too many are unaware that the word "disabled" even applies to them. The Americans with Disabilities Act states: "The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity."
Plus, living disabled requires accommodating a range of "intruders" in your life, like medical trauma and fluctuating energy. To varying extents, these aspects of disability affect the life of a romantic partner, too. However, despite the glaring absence of positive disabled love stories in mainstream media, dating disabled people is not a dead end. It also does not mean automatically becoming someone's carer. We are just like everyone else in the world—a little roughed up from living in a harsh world but are oh-so-beautiful.
Developing a successful relationship with us requires a few crucial things, such as communication, patience, and compassion. For example, you may need to check in more regularly when dating a disabled person to see if they need support, or you might struggle with waking up to exactly how common ableism attitudes are.
If you're dating someone disabled, or are crushing hard on one of us—can't blame you, we're hot—don't worry, because we have some simple tips that will help you navigate without making ableism the third wheel.
How to date a disabled person:
1. Educate yourself and do not expect a partner to do the work for you.
Dating a disabled person means adjusting your worldview and opening up to a little re-education. Although some of this will naturally come from your partner while getting to know one another, a lot of the responsibility lies with you. Disabled people constantly educate the people around them in an effort to be accommodated, which takes a toll. Do not add to this emotional labor by expecting a partner, or date, to be an unlimited guide.
Look for resources on dating disabled people—preferably written by disabled people or those who have actually dated us—and find what works for you. If you are going to love someone in the community, it is crucial to know that world, too. Reach out and actively take part in your partner's life, so you can see the full spectrum of their humanity.
2. Brace yourself for judgments and resistance.
Ableism is a constant in our society. That fact is inescapable. Dating a disabled person for the first time will be an eye-opening window to what life is like for us—so brace yourself.
"Ableism may be new for a non-disabled partner and they can ask for support, too," says Dr. Roosen. "Dealing with family or friend comments, inaccessible locations, stares from others can be very challenging, and the urge may be to suppress these feelings because your partner deals with it all the time. But it may actually be a nice point of connection to discuss the ableism you notice and how you feel with your partner."
For some, the weight of others' judgments is simply too much. "Judgements from others have caused some of my dates to become uncomfortable," says Tiana Ferrell, a writer, and publicist with symbrachydactyly, a rare congenital birth of the hand. "For instance, a guy that I was dating did not have a problem with my hand, yet he was uncomfortable with the way that strangers reacted to me. Some of my dates could not handle the stares and rude comments."
Acknowledging the inherent biases infecting our society is endlessly challenging. Be prepared and resist adopting other's views. If you are attracted to a disabled person, do not allow someone else's ignorance to taint that joy.
3. Check your ableism at the door.
Every person on the planet has socialized biases—and ableism is no exception. We are all fed ableist tropes in the media from infancy, like the good disabled person who "overcomes" disability to live like a "normal person" or the lazy disabled person who leeches off the government. Untangling these takes introspection and significant effort. You must check ableism at the door or risk adding to your partner's history of ableist experiences.
Shrugging off misconceptions about disability will make dating so much simpler, and you'll avoid perpetuating nasty tropes. For some, laughing off these judgments is straightforward.
"I've only had one experience and it was when I was in my wheelchair, someone asked my husband why they were with me when they could be with a walker," says Rachel Michaelson, a self-healing specialist and mindset coach. "My husband and I both said exactly the same time that he didn't want to go out with a zombie and we walked and wheeled off laughing. I don't allow negative people to affect me and we always manage to blow them out of the water with wit."
However, it takes years of practice to allow ableist comments to bounce off without inflicting damage. Ferrell explains: "Oftentimes when a guy notices my limb difference, they either stop calling or tell me they don't want anything serious. Basically, anything to end the relationship. Of course, being rejected for the way you look is never easy, but it's nothing new as I receive similar treatment because I am a Black American."
4. Don't patronize us.
Some non-disabled people patronize disabled people. This infantilization crops up in countless ways, like being spoken to with a tone of voice typically used to calm rowdy toddlers or being ignored entirely in favor of speaking to an accompanying non-disabled adult. Do not take part in this behavior.
"Treat us like you want to be treated," says Ferrell. "Do not feel sorry for us, treat us like we are broken, or like we are a burden. In addition, when it comes to providing assistance or help, wait for us to ask. If we need help, we will let you know."
As disabled people are frequently an anomaly in a world that excludes us from mainstream representation, people love to stare and ogle at us, too. If you want to date a disabled person, you need to check this behavior quickly! All people deserve to be treated with respect and not like a curiosity to be cataloged.
5. Never desexualize us.
Far too often people assume that disabled people are uninterested in or completely incapable of having sex. Spoiler: many of us are sexual—and downright filthy—beings.
"Having a disability means constant exposure to ableism, which is so pervasive most people aren't aware that they are participating in it," says Roosen. "It could be as simple as never setting up your disabled friend on a date or more obvious like the common experience of being outright told in online dating that they would not want to date someone with a disability out of fears around lack of sexuality, or being worried that their lives will be limited due to dating a person with a disability."
Our sexuality should be celebrated equally to every non-disabled person out there. We are just as interested in exploring our kinks and desires as you are, so do not assume that we're lacking interest in sex. Of course, there are asexual disabled people, but it is not a label automatically applied to anyone who acquires a disability. All sexual desire lives inside the brain, the body's typical response is simply a reflection of these. Every disabled person has the power to exercise their sexuality if they want to, do not miss out because you made a misguided assumption fed by societal bias.
6. Set boundaries for yourself and for us.
Dating a disabled person does sometimes come with challenges, requiring some adjustment. You may be second priority to a partner's health or have to learn how to plan ahead to ensure accessibility for a partner. Sometimes these modifications have an emotional impact.
It is never easy to see someone you care about in pain or struggling, so be patient with yourself. There might be difficult days for you, too. To ensure that you do not fall into the trap of telling a partner that they're too much for you, or a burden, setting boundaries is an absolute necessity. If you need space, take it. If therapy would help manage your feelings, try it. If you need support from a partner, ask for it.
Staying silent about the impact of a partner's well-being can end up hurting both of you. Do not allow it to reach critical mass before flagging it. Everyone has to take care of themselves before helping anyone else. Do not forget your own self-care, which should always start with clear boundaries.
7. Be patient with us.
Disabled people internalize ableist attitudes every single day. We live in a world that says, "You are a burden" and it's hard not to believe it sometimes. Consequently, accepting love and affection from another person can be a challenge, because we are not always sure we deserve it.
"The best thing a non-disabled person can do dating a disabled person is to be patient and reassuring," says Roosen. "A lot of disabled people have gone through much trauma and rejection. Likely they will be expecting it from their partners and actively doing things to protect themselves against further rejection or humiliation."
There might be times that a disabled partner puts their shields up and hides from the love you want to shower them with. Do not be offended, they are in survival mode and it may take a while for those steel walls to melt away. Remember not to give up at the first hurdle, we are worth the wait.
8. Validate their feelings.
Disabled people are regularly doubted by an endless queue of people, so validating our feelings is a key part of your role as a partner. The same is true for all romantic partnerships but especially for the disabled community.
"When I was first properly diagnosed and told my use to society was now non-existent, I did go to a dark place of depression," adds Michaelson. "I pushed my hubby away and everything, but with help and support, I learned that I was worth something and I could still have a life. Now, I will never let anyone do that to me again."
Ableism attacks us all with a seemingly endless Rolodex of subtle daggers and the emotional impact can come out of nowhere. Be prepared to support a partner through this. Reassure them that their feelings are a real and understandable response to their surroundings.
"Tell them when you notice them pull away or express anxiety about potential rejection and be open to hearing about their responses and support one another," continues Roosen. "We all need support when navigating through ableism. Reassure your disabled partner about what it is you love about them to remind them of their worth and value. And be patient when they are feeling insecure."
9. Advocate for disabled people, but never speak over us.
Everyone has a responsibility to advocate for marginalized folks in society because we are all born with some level of privilege that means others will listen to us more. Using that power responsibly is up to you.
Too often disabled people are talked over or down to, so advocating for the community requires a delicate touch. You should highlight key issues to unaware people and you must call out ableism when you see it, but never speak for us. Non-disabled people do not truly understand what it is to be disabled, even if you're dating one of us, so do not take on the mantle of spokesperson. Move back and allow disabled people to take on the role.