The Difficulties of Dating with a Disability
Online dating isn't easy for anyone, but it can be especially tough for those of us with disabilities.
Illustration by Deshi Deng
Spencer Williams is a 25-year-old music aficionado and occasional radio broadcaster with the University of British Columbia's campus radio station. He also has a physical disorder called cerebral palsy.
I've always thought of my wheelchair as a gigantic cockblock. It's difficult for me to put myself out there and take a chance on someone, because I'm always afraid they will form an opinion about me based on my chair before getting to know me as a person. Online dating has been helpful because it gives me time to process my thoughts and craft considered responses, but I still have little confidence and am always worried that I might say the wrong thing.
I first tried Tinder about a year and a half ago after hearing about it from some friends. I was blown away by how many matches they got—especially the women—and decided to dive in. Like a lot of users, I wasn't looking for anything too serious. I just wanted to meet some new people and maybe have a bit of fun.
I quickly learned that the more I swiped the more nervous I became. Getting a match is like winning a round of sexy roulette, and when it happened I would freeze up, palms sweaty with anxiety. I had no idea what to say. When I did start conversations, they never went as far as I would have liked. Mostly we talked about my broadcasting work with CiTR, a radio station here in Vancouver. Other times it was obvious my match was a bot.
Discouraged but still hopeful, I decided to slow things down. I realized that maybe a shallow hook-up wasn't what I was looking for. I began reading profiles carefully instead of swiping on every face that I found vaguely attractive. I hoped that if I was more selective I might have a better shot at meeting someone who would want to go beyond surface-level conversations. That hasn't happened yet, but I'm still trying.
In the meantime, I'm not putting all of my eggs in the Tinder basket. I'm also using OK Cupid, which seems like a better option for someone like myself. The platform encourages getting to know people on a deeper level than Tinder, and I think it's better for those looking for long-term relationships, like myself. When I began filling out my profile, however, my old worries about being judged and soon after rejected came flooding back. I was scared of putting myself out there, but at the same time I realized that that's exactly what I needed to do.
Today, getting to know someone as a person and bonding with them over shared interests and activities are the things that get me the most excited.
I know that it's important to be upfront about my disability. Running the risk of ruining something good by not being honest in the beginning far outweighs the benefit of receiving a few more responses in the short term. But while I have pictures with my chair in my profile, I still refrain from writing about it in my bio. It's hard to know when the best time to talk about it with someone will be. It's not really a sexy topic, and my conversations so far haven't gotten to a point where it needed to be discussed, but it is something that I will eventually have to address with the right person. When that happens, we will figure out the logistics together.
Disabilities shouldn't affect whether or not you get involved with a person, but I have to admit it took me some time to learn that myself. I used to think I wanted a girlfriend who was able-bodied. I was so fixated on the idea of having sex that I didn't really think about all the other great things about being in a relationship. Today, getting to know someone as a person and bonding with them over shared interests and activities are the things that get me the most excited.
One experience in particular helped me realize the importance of getting to know people for who they are, and how little a person's physical limitations matter in the grand scheme of things. A few years ago I went to a Green Day show in the UK while on a family vacation. I ended up sitting beside a cute British woman who happened to be a fellow wheelchair user with a spinal cord injury. She was very upfront and asked if I wanted to sneak into the bathroom for a quick fuck. I was shocked and unsure about how to react. I thought about it, but ultimately declined. Losing my virginity in a soccer stadium bathroom was never a dream of mine. Still, we had a great conversation and exchanged contact info. The next day she sent me a message apologizing for coming on so strong and said she wanted to get to know me a bit better. We talked almost every day for weeks afterward, having long conversations about anything and everything, and she even came to visit me once in Vancouver.
After her trip to Vancouver we decided that the long-distance thing was too difficult, but I'm not so sure anymore. My relationship with her has made me realize that I don't need someone who is able-bodied to be happy. Online dating is a double-edged sword: it can make connecting with people easier, but it can also keep you from seeing the person who is right next to you, maybe at a Green Day concert. Nothing can replace human connection, and next spring I'm planning to visit her in the UK.
I still believe that sites like Tinder and OK Cupid have value. They can be important tools when trying to find love, especially among disabled people who might have trouble approaching people in real life. I still use the sites, and although I haven't had much luck with them so far, I'll keep trying. I'm currently in the process of revamping my profiles. We live in a time dominated by technology, and so long as we can keep our perspective on what's really important, we might as well use it to our advantage. Nobody said dating would be easy, and there's no one correct way to do it. If you're like me and have a fear of rejection, I'd say put yourself out there. If you're honest and upfront about who you are and what you want, who knows what will happen?
If you've got questions or would like advice about dating and sex in the disabled community drop us a line and Spencer will try to address it in a future column.