There’s a common misconception that all people with disabilities are asexual or don’t have sex. Spoiler alert: Plenty of us do have sex. Some of us may do it the same way that people without disabilities do, and others, differently, but many of us love intimacy, sex, and being touched and desired. The societal perception of the contrary poses an unnecessary challenge to dating with a disability—on top of the myriad challenges that already exist for doing so, like dealing with chronic pain. (Even public spaces often aren’t accessible, so why would dating be?)
It’s easy for us to self-impose the way we think people without disabilities will feel about dating us, as a way to prepare for rejection.
No matter how proud we may feel to be members of the disability community, when it comes to dating, it’s easy for us to self-impose the way we think others will feel about dating us (based on past experiences), as a way to prepare for rejection. This mindset can add tremendous weight to the question of when to disclose a disability to a potential partner.
The moment I tell a guy on a date that I have heart conditions, there’s always a pause. To me, that pause feels like they must be doing the hardest calculus to answer the questions: “Can she have sex?” and “What if she has a heart attack right now?” I’ve also been ghosted after disclosing—left alone for telling the truth and sharing the reality of my disability. In some instances, this has led me into a spiral of self-consciousness and embarrassment.
Though I know, deep down, that it’s others’ ableist views—not anything about myself or my identity—that’s making me question myself, I’ve often come to see myself as undateable.
How I’ve worked to change my perspective on dating as a disabled person
To see if I could shift my own attitudes around dating, I signed up to work with certified sexologist Myisha Battle, author of This Is Supposed to Be Fun: Finding Joy in Hooking Up, Settling Down, and Everything In Between. Over the course of five sessions, she asked me about my dating history, intimacy, and my support system, as well as my ideal partner and deal-breakers.
In my first session, I felt incredibly irritated about the notion of having to change my way of thinking about dating, largely because the societal view paints me as someone who doesn’t have sex or deserve a romantic relationship. It didn’t feel fair that I was investing time and energy into changing my attitude when I wasn’t the problem.
But after each of my sessions, I felt increasingly confident in what I deserve from a healthy romantic relationship: a supportive, loving partner who values all parts of me. And ironically, that’s exactly what all members of society should remember about dating with a disability—that at the end of the day, this person is just looking for the same love and support that any person without a disability might seek out in a partner.
Thanks to her work with clients who live with and without disability and chronic illness, Battle was able to help me realize that I am dateable. She showed compassion for the frustration that I and others have with dating while disabled, and she warmly received the feedback I gave her about the way I prefer to disclose.
Because I have both visible and invisible disabilities, I typically choose not to write “disabled” in a profile on a dating app so that I have the opportunity to share my conditions in-person, when the time feels right. Again, I don’t look disabled to most, because plenty of people without disabilities make assumptions about what that entails.
I know that, for me, part of dating is educating a prospective partner about my health—which is a worthy endeavor but requires additional time, energy, and effort on my part.
I know that, for me, part of dating is educating a prospective partner about my health—which is a worthy endeavor but requires additional time, energy, and effort on my part. I can always tell there’s potential in a date if, after I share my disability with him, he says something along the lines of, “What do I need to know or do?” This indicates he is open to supporting my disability. Still, the extra explanation involved in disclosure is also what puts me (and so many other people with disabilities) in the position to be rejected by every new potential partner.
How a new dating app aims to make it easier to date with a disability
I’m certainly not alone in my feelings on the difficulty of dating with a disability and the fear of running up against ableism. Sisters Jacqueline and Alexa Child are the intelligent, stunning co-founders and co-CEOs of Dateability, an app that launched in October 2022 with the goal of making dating accessible for the 61 million people who live with a disability in the U.S. The idea came after Jacqueline, who lives with disability and chronic illness, noticed that her matches on dating apps would lose interest, often making offensive, ableist comments—that she shouldn’t have kids, that life with her would be miserable—upon her disclosure of her disability.
When Jacqueline had to get a feeding tube due to gastroparesis (a disorder that occurs when the stomach doesn’t empty properly) and could no longer eat, she realized that she’d need to disclose her disability to any would-be partner right away, as opposed to waiting until she was comfortable (like I typically can). And that would put her at an even greater disadvantage on the apps: She wouldn’t even have the time to get to know someone before having to confront their potential bias, conscious or otherwise, about the nature of her livelihood.
At that moment, the idea for Dateability was born. Users can share details called “deets” relating to their disability for as much (or as little) transparency as they’d like. For example, one user might offer up the name of their medical condition, while another might instead opt to choose from a list of preset descriptors, like “food allergy” or “mobility aid.” And while the app is accessible through the usual iOS and Android, it’s also available in a desktop version to allow for the use of a screen reader or aid of the user’s preference.
When disability is normalized and even celebrated from the outset, the rest of the dating process can be, well, joyful and romantic.
Though people without disabilities are able to join Dateability, too (and Jaqueline says the majority of users have indicated that they welcome them), the core purpose of the app—as a place inclusive to dating with a disability—helps remove any pressure around disclosure. When disability is normalized and even celebrated from the outset, the rest of the dating process can be, well, joyful and romantic.
Self-love is essential—but still isn’t always a replacement for romantic love
Even with a fully functioning inclusive dating app, Jacqueline tells me that she goes through phases with dating. Unlike me, she says she would be “totally happy” if she remained single. Through her continued health journey, Jacqueline has learned her worth. She no longer believes in the toxic narrative that she is “too much” for someone else to handle. And she’s accessed a unique level of self-love—the “ultimate reward,” she says—in realizing “that she does have things to offer, that she’s worthy, and that she’s deserving of love.”
These things are true for all people with disabilities and chronic illness. And we can certainly take pride in that. But I often ask myself the question: What is pride without the love of a partner? And does it matter? Can the love we give ourselves reflect all the pride we have?
Yes, we can celebrate our own accomplishments and how amazing we are, but I can’t help but wonder what that would be like with a partner adding to the celebration. Some say that love heals all, which may be true. But in any case, I do know that the love of a partner can make a tough or painful day softer.
It’s the reason why I’m not swearing off dating apps, no matter how difficult dating with a disability may be—and that’s a huge win for me. Perhaps I’ll try Dateability… or see if I can find Trevor Noah on Raya. I don’t know what the future holds for me and a romantic partner, but I do know that people with disabilities deserve more than the continuous love we give ourselves.