First Encounters: Disability and Dating

 Posted by on September 15, 2012
Sep 152012

istock_000009448299small3-300x199-4288521You’ve put together the perfect profile for your favorite dating sites.  It’s pithy, witty, sexy, and it’s totally you!  Now it’s time to pick out a profile picture that’s equally intriguing, sexy, and totally you.  Or will it be totally you?

Many of us have things that make us uncomfortable about our bodies, things we can’t change.  It gets trickier still when they are things we can choose to hide, or not.  Most of us want to put out what we believe to be our best selves when trying to attract a potential date, partner, or whatever we’re looking for on that dating site.  What happens when our best self is someone who might scare potential dates, partners, or whomever away?

The question of whether to disclose a disability before meeting someone is a sticky one, and often debated among people with disabilities.  Do you tell someone before your first date, or let them find out for themselves?  Do you post that great picture of you hiking with your adorably cute guide dog, in which the dog is clearly working, or do you post a picture with the dog lying sans harness at your feet, or do you leave the dog out entirely and focus the picture on your utterly alluring self?  Do you avoid sharing candid photos that show you with your mobility aid?  Some would rather weed out the people who are afraid, reticent, or even turned off by disability right away.  The thought process goes something like: “If you can’t accept me at the outset, then I don’t want to date you.”  Other people would like the chance to get to know a collection of prospective dates, and hope that people are open-minded enough to equate the person they got to know with the person-with-a-disability they meet later.

The question is moot when it comes time for the first date.  Depending on how much control someone with a disability has on where the first date takes place—are they able to arrange timely transportation to the date location, can they subtly choose a place they know is mobility impairment accessible, can they orchestrate the date to minimize potential sensory overload—they may be able to wait until the meeting occurs before disclosing.   There are many good reasons to disclose prior to meeting, but I can’t say that they’re good for everyone; the variety of types of disabilities,, preferences, and personal emotional needs among people is too great.

Most of my reasons in favor of disclosing apply to beginning any healthy relationship.  Whether we like it or not, visible disabilities are a surprise to many.  (Invisible—such as learning disabilities—and less visible—such as a hearing impairment—pose their own challenges during first dates, but generally don’t have the immediate shock factor.) It’s human nature to feel anxiety or even fear of something unfamiliar, and close interactions with disabled people are, depending on one’s life experiences, unfamiliar.  First dates are inherently awkward for many, but they can also be fun, entertaining, enlightening, sexy, or all of the above.  Getting the awkwardness about disability out of the way beforehand can clear away one source of that first-date awkwardness.  There’s also the question of whether someone will need practical help.  If they need assistance in and out of a movie theatre row, or to have the menu read at a restaurant, to be able to leave if an environment overstimulates the senses, or something else entirely, it’s conducive to healthy communication and a healthy relationship of whatever sort the people involved want to embark on, to talk about and negotiate those sorts of things ahead of time.  It also saves having to figure out what to do *during* the date, leaving the first date for more interesting topics of conversation.

If we’re talking about a heterosexual duo, we also encounter some interesting flouting of gender stereotypes when thinking about the first date.  I don’t know if this still holds in practice, but there’s still a cultural story about how the gentleman pays for dinner, and the gentleman holds the door.  Depending on the nature of the disability, the gentleman might need the door held for him, or, even if he is paying for dinner, might need the bill read to him. Regardless of the gender configuration of the couple, if one partner does not have a visible disability, that person may be seen by wait staff or well-meaning passers-by as a caregiver, or the kind friend taking a disabled person out for dinner; that can sure take the sexy out of a date unless folks discuss these possibilities ahead of time and are prepared to meet them with a laugh and a shrug.

Not all first dates lead to more, but clearing the air about any concerns of how much or little help a disabled person might need can set the stage for balanced interactions of give-and-take without which a fledgling relationship of any sort is going to struggle.

Caveat:  In writing this column, I find myself struggling to be the voice for a marginalized, diverse group of people. It’s a challenge, sometimes harder than others, to present disabled people’s experiences as unique, but essentially following the same pattern of endless variation as those of any other group of people.  What you’ve read above is less a statement of exactly how things are at all times, and more a playful meandering through some of the concerns and considerations that have come up as I’ve reflected on these issues, talked with other disabled people, and learned from interviews and personal narratives.

  2 Responses to “First Encounters: Disability and Dating”

  1. Robin, thank you for this post. I’m not disabled, but I had never viewed the awkward first date challenges through the eyes of someone with a disability. Your well-written article has given me much to think about. Thank you. xo

  2. Hi!

    I’m a first time reader, and I really enjoyed this article. I’m blind myself, and sometimes struggle with the same kinds of “to tell or not to tell” conundrums. The most recent instance had nothing to do with dating, but everything to do with finding a new roommate. There’s just no fun, un-awkward way of telling interested Craigslisters “Oh, yeah, so by the way…”

    Thanks so much for sharing!