What Are the Challenges of Dating Someone In a Wheelchair?
Approximately 1.85 percent of people in the world use a wheelchair, but how often do you hear about sex or dating when you're in one? When you do see dating and disability depicted in the media, the context is often negative.
When I started using a wheelchair, I'd seen the British reality show, "The Undateables," about people with disabilities, I'd read articles by people saying how lucky they were to have found someone interested in them despite their disability, and more articles about the ableism people experience when trying to date.
I assumed nobody would ever find me attractive again.
I wasn't the only one: like me, R, a queer, nonbinary abolitionist who lives in Brooklyn in New York City and requested their full name not be used, worried about rejection due to society's views of wheelchair users.
"Being a wheelchair user made me super-anxious about dating," they said.
Whitney Bailey, a podcast host, motivational speaker and wheelchair user in Texas, said society's negative view of disability definitely got in the way of dating for her. Challenging those ideas can be the hardest part when starting to date.
Ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—affects every aspect of our lives. Assuming we are automatically undateable is just another form of it.
But that isn't the whole story of dating. After I began using a wheelchair, it took me a long time to start dating due to those fears, but when I did, I found the picture wasn't so dark. I did receive fewer matches on dating apps than before, but still had more than I could respond to promptly.
How to start dating in a wheelchair
Becoming disabled means your body is different from how it used to be. Eva Sweeney, the founder of Cripping Up Sex, an online educational platform for sex and disability based in California, recommended getting to know your new body.
"Explore your body in a general sense: what positions feel good to sit in, to lay in, etcetera," Sweeney said.
In the process, you might find yourself confronting grief or the loss of your old body.
"It is OK to mourn the abilities and sensations you once had. That's a completely normal way to feel," Sweeney said.
Take as much time as you need—there's no deadline to start dating.
I've found online dating the easiest way to meet people and I've had the best luck on long-form apps, where you can put your disability in your profile. Sweeney explained that this saves you a lot of time and energy; you talk only to people who will hopefully be cool with your disability.
Bailey met her partner on the Plenty of Fish dating app, and they've now been together for three years.
"He is also a wheelchair user, and I almost didn't date him because I swore I would never date another wheelchair user, but he won me over and, turns out, he is my person," she said.
Meeting dates in a wheelchair
Dating is more successful when you look for people who will think you're amazing rather than trying to make yourself palatable for others who won't.
"There are lots of people who aren't ableist," Sweeney said.
I disclose my disability on my profile, including a picture of me in my wheelchair, and give details as to what my disability will mean to the people I might date. I don't focus on a diagnosis, which many disabled people feel puts them in a box and which may not mean anything to potential dates.
Communication is as important here as it is in any kind of dating, so get comfortable talking about disability.
"Disability is new to most [people], so questions, if they are respectful, are awesome. They just mean the person wants to understand you," Sweeney explained
I find if you chat about disability as the normal part of life that it is, other people tend to follow suit. Be upfront about access needs, as well; your partner, even if they're able-bodied, might be encouraged to open up about their own needs.
"The right person will understand that ableds ask for help, too," R noted.
Make your date aware of any carers who will be present, and talk to your carer(s) about the date, too.
Practical tips for dating in a wheelchair
Try to arrange dates that bring both of you to the same eye level, such as restaurants rather than museums. It's much easier to talk and connect when you can easily look each other in the eye. Consider an online first date—it's a great way of getting to know someone with minimal effort.
Your personal style may change, either due to needing more accessible clothing, body changes or the practicalities of being in a wheelchair, so find a style that works for you and makes you feel confident when you're on a date.
Finally—don't forget—dating should be a fun way to get to know people you're excited to meet. Everyone should get the opportunity to do so.