What It's Like Using Dating Apps When You Have a Disability

"If you’re young, people can’t really conceive of the idea of you not being able-bodied and healthy."
Charlotte Bayes on What It's Like To Date With a Disability
Charlotte Bayes. Photo: courtesy of author

I am once again on The Apps looking at profiles that read “let’s go hiking or a long walk” or affectionately say “NO PSYCHOS NO DRAMA”. The thing is, I can’t hike and, to the untrained eye, I am full of drama. 

I was diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder when I was five that I was told I would grow out of. By the time I reached my early twenties, the teenage growing pains became unbearable and I had fatigue and several other debilitating other symptoms. Now in my thirties, I'm diagnosed with fibromyalgia, hemiplegic migraines, diabetes and other major illnesses that are just as uninteresting as those ones. All of these accumulate into a life where I have no energy and knock back opiates like Smarties.  


Now for the double whammy. I have also been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), widely known as the most painful and most difficult to treat mental health condition. To briefly sum up, I live my life feeling emotions on 100/10, which also rapidly changes. So if someone ghosted you, you might feel a bit gutted for a few days, I simply want to die for a week. 

I don’t disclose my disabilities on my profile. I’m fat and six foot one; I don’t need to stack more odds against me. What I do have is a great face, great chat and an amazing ability to tell if someone is a dickhead or not from the first five minutes of chatting. 

If we move to WhatsApp and it looks as though we will link up, I tell them straight away. In my notes on my phone I have a prepared speech. The “I am disabled” speech. It’s funny, informative, piss-taking to lighten the mood and mentions I have a blue parking badge and great prescriptions as a nice incentive.

No one has ever blocked me or told me to fuck off. Some able-bodied people have said that they know about being tired. Quick tip for you: Unless you have chronic fatigue, don’t do that. I explain that any dates are limited to how I feel on the day. Long walks are out of the picture and there is a chance I could flake.


Once this is out in the open and they seem very cool, I like to then hit them with the “I am also extremely mentally ill”. This one has had mixed reviews. I try to explain that I have had lots of therapy and am good at managing it. If it actually goes somewhere, I will even explain how being left on read will trigger me and if possible not to do that. I have a deep need to be loved and any sense of being abandoned triggers a response that is so overwhelming it feels like physical pain and there is a gaping void inside me that needs to be filled. But I have to ignore it 100 times a day. Cheers, BPD.

But not everyone likes to throw big disabled grenades into light-hearted chats like me, so I talked to other people who use apps to date about their experiences of sharing their disabilities to new partners. Some names have been changed by request to protect their privacy.


VICE: What disabilities do you have?
I have a diagnosis of ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) and peripheral neuropathy [nerve damage that causes pain, weakness, numbness or tingling]. Basically, I got a virus in 2016 and just never really recovered. 

When and how do you disclose them during the dating app process? 
So I started off not disclosing at all. It really freaked me out that I’d have to, at some point, admit it to people. I only did dates near where I lived so that I wasn’t knackered by the journey and back. Once I started talking about it, the reaction wasn’t particularly great. Often, I think if you’re young, people can’t really conceive of the idea of you not being able-bodied and healthy. 


What have reactions been like?
There’s a spectrum of reactions running from understanding to just flat out not interested in dating me. The vast majority of dating profiles consist of interests like going to festivals, travelling. Those were my interests prior to becoming disabled but it’s not something I can do now. People are confused at how someone who looks healthy and has great taste can also be very ill and unable to do a lot.

What have dates been like?
Generally quite good! The thing is that if I’m feeling truly horrendous I’ve just had to cancel on people. I’ve definitely pushed myself beyond my limits in the past and suffered for days, weeks afterwards because I’ve been afraid to rock the boat. But I’m much better at that now, basically saying I’ve had a really nice time but I’m beyond knackered, please can you let this very floppy six foot four man get an Uber home. 


VICE: What disabilities do you have and what have your online dating experiences been like?
Alex: I've got spina bifida and I'm a below knee amputee. My profile has that I'm a part time wheelchair user and has pics both with and without the chair. If we start chatting I'll probably disclose more then without going into TMI territory. I'm using Bumble and Match. Most appear to be bots, a couple have been real people assuming I'd be flattered with someone much younger taking an interest. I do tend to throw a joke in about the chair or my leg and gauge the reaction from there. I do wonder about having an 'explainer' ready.


VICE: What disabilities do you have?
Caitlin: I have agoraphobia and a panic disorder and because of this I haven’t been further than 0.5 miles from my house in 15 months.

When and how do you disclose that during the dating app process?
I disclose them pretty quickly, for fear of someone suggesting meeting up. I try to downplay it a bit as not to scare them off early on, though of course it does have an impact. Nine out of ten times it doesn’t go any further after I tell them. 


What have reactions been like?
Generally OK, though of course some people are more sympathetic than others. I’ve not had anyone be nasty but I have had some people being quite patronising about it. I’ve been living with this for nearly 10 years in various forms and it never gets any less exhausting or difficult having to disclose it to every new person I talk to. 

What have dates been like?
I live at home so although I feel comfortable having dates in my garden, it’s not ideal with my parents knocking about. Generally, I do Zoom dates, which aren’t ideal, but I make it work. I actually got into a relationship during lockdown. We started video calling and eventually met up at my house. Our relationship lasted for about 5-6 months before he ended it earlier this year. I assumed a big part of this was due to my inability to go out.

When and how do you drop your disabilities into conversation?
I usually wait until the other person mentions about meeting up and then I bring it up. I usually don’t use the word agoraphobic, I just say “I’m having a tough time getting out and about at the minute”, lol, and then if I chat to them on Zoom or they don’t seem like an arsehole I go into more details.


What disabilities do you have?
I have BPD and depression.

How do you disclose this to potential dates?
I wouldn't bring it up myself, theres such a huge stigma especially around women and non-binary people with BPD that they're always going to be toxic, abusive, manipulative that I was so scared that sharing who I am  would be an instant turn off for whoever I was talking to. I would more often than not wait until I was meeting someone in real life to open that can of worms. My body is covered in visible self-harm scars which meant if I didn't explain early on that I would catch them trying to glance and soak it all in when I was looking away.


What have reactions been like?
I've been told "I think having scars and being crazy is kinda hot you know" which is a very concerning response. I have found that being romanticised is actually something that's happened to me on numerous occasions. At the beginning it's almost like some people find it exciting? Especially the impulsive behaviour and lack of care I would have for myself, then eventually over time I would become less of an exciting and unpredictable, fun person to hang around with and more of a burden and that's usually how that one would end.

Another reaction I've experienced is at the opposite end of the scale where people instantly feel sorry for you and seem to get an overwhelming urge to want to "fix" you. 


What disabilities do you have?
I have narcolepsy, PoTS, interstitial cystitis, IBS and a whole slew of mental illnesses. More specifically, I deal with PMDD, OCD, ADHD, PTSD, an eating disorder and some pretty intense social anxiety.

When and how do you disclose this during the early dating app process?
A lot of it depends on the person and what level of interaction I’m looking to have with someone. For example, I probably wouldn’t disclose the specifics of my disabilities to a one-time casual sex partner. I might say something along the lines of “I have issues with mobility & energy levels, because of some chronic illness stuff” but wouldn’t go much further than that. 

However, I do disclose my disabilities to people who I’m seeing on a more long-term basis. I don’t really have a set timeline for that because relationship dynamics can vary from person to person. But I usually disclose my disabilities in stages, starting with the more obvious physical things like my narcolepsy. I’ll sometimes have discussions about my general mental health issues but the more vulnerable things, like my ED and trauma, are usually the last to be shared.

What are the usual reactions you get from this?
When I’ve disclosed my disabilities in the past, reactions have ranged from caring but concerned, to visibly overwhelmed, to just genuinely supportive. I’ve learned to use people’s reactions to gauge whether or not I want to tell them more later on. I have yet to meet anyone who’s reacted in an openly shitty or ableist way but I’m still scared of it happening. That fear, along with internalised ableism, often holds me back from being more open with people.

How do dates go?
Dates have been a mixed bag so far! I’ve gone on some really great dates, but I’ve also had rougher ones where I was going through a flare up or just exhausted. I’ll frequently find myself apologising for seeming distant or distracted; if I don’t, many people mistake me being “out of it” for a lack of interest.