Being Disabled Doesn’t Need to Stop You From Meeting Your Person
I pushed my wheelchair, zipping around my apartment as I grabbed everything I might need for my date in just a few hours. My stomach was in a knot of excitement or anxiety as I went through a mental checklist of items to bring: catheters? Check. Tire repair kit? Check. Pushing gloves? That’s when I paused.
I looked over at the black gloves sitting on my countertop. “Gloves make me look more disabled and less sexy,” I’d thought decidedly. I looked down at my already callused hands, deducing they probably had another day of pushing in them, and left my gloves looking betrayed on the counter.
I was about to go on my first date as a disabled man with no idea what to expect.
Beginning to Face My Dating Fears
I had lived 23 years of my life as an able-bodied person, aware of dating and relationships in my former life, but this was uncharted territory for me. I was an explorer without a map or guide to help me along the way. I had only been using a wheelchair for a few years, and quite frankly, I was terrified that no one would want me. I feared that being disabled would be a deal breaker when it came to finding a partner.
“No one’s prince charming is in a wheelchair,” I sometimes told myself. In my mind, the best I could hope for was that someone would settle for me.
I didn’t know it then, but all of that worthlessness and unease came from what I learned was internalized ableism: an absurd idea perpetuated by society that my worth, desirability, or value as a human was diminished because I was disabled. Ironically, in all of my years of rehabilitation, no one had warned me that it would be ableism, and not my actual paralysis, that would be the greatest threat to my happiness.
Despite all of my destructive and self-damning thoughts, I was determined to find out whether or not my fears were valid. Would anyone consider me good enough to date? Would they want to have sex with me? Create a life with me? While my underlying fear told me the answer was a resounding “no,” logic told me that being disabled didn’t alter my value, and that I still deserved love.
Addressing Stigma That Comes With Disability on Dating Apps
I started back up with dating and hook-up apps first. I experimented with my profile, naturally overthinking every word as I wrote, deleted, and reworked my bio to an unobtainable level of perfection. I wondered how or if I should disclose my disability, “or maybe I should tell a joke so I can casually bring it up as a way to break the ice,” I thought. I finally settled on a postscript note that read, “P.S. I rock a wheelchair. And yes, I can get it up.”
I wanted to let my prospects know that I was both easy going and sexually viable, both of which addressed some of the stigma I knew came with disability (that we are sad, tragic, and can’t have sex).
With my profile live, I was left to anxiously wait for the expected fallout. To be honest, I was surprised that I received messages with such range! There was a diverse amount of appropriate replies and awkward questions, mixed together with some expected outright ghosting. And thus began my disabled dating journey. Through ups and downs, I maintained a certain level of engagement without losing hope, and the more I challenged the idea that I wasn’t worthy of relationships, the more ready I felt to start dating in person.
Exploring Sex in My New Disabled Body
I started to date by agreeing to meet when I’d been asked out. It was only as time went on that I became courageous enough to do the asking, pursuing the men I was interested in and attracted to. I learned how to talk about disability, how to educate, and how to ensure that dates were accessible and worked for me. To my surprise, I found that cultivating romance was exactly the same as it had been previous to being paralyzed. It turned out that sitting in a wheelchair made no difference when it came to the chemistry I had with another man.
As a natural (and nerve-wracking) part of the dating process, I also began to find myself in situations where I was able to explore sex in my newly disabled body. My wheelchair accessible vehicle had ample space in the back, leading to many exciting and sexy things happening in the backseat of my tricked out, super cool soccer mom-esque van.
It was once I felt safe and comfortable enough that I began inviting guys over to my apartment. I was deliberate in my exploration, trying one thing after another until I became the expert of my own body. Finding numerous ways to have a tried-and-true sexual experience and reach orgasm was the only real way I’d come to discover how mind-blowing sex was as a disabled person.
To be honest, I believe that my disability actually makes sex better for me and my able-bodied partners. Sex with a disability often requires explicit communication, and it’s that communication which opened doors to greater pleasure and connection. Able-bodied people often have narrow ideas of what sex and pleasure are supposed to look like, and disability breaks that expectation up, creating room for unprecedented freedom, curiosity, and exploration.
As I became increasingly aware that sex and varying levels of intimacy were totally possible for people like me, I couldn’t help but also feel enraged at how society desexualizes us. We are so often portrayed as having no interest in romance, or that finding interested partners will be impossible for us. These are harmful, blatantly false messages that keep disabled people marginalized. We want just as much sex, romance, and pleasure as the next person, disabled or otherwise.
Accessibility in Relation to Dating, Sex, and Everything in Between
The only difference is, like myself, some have accommodation or accessibility needs. I remember driving downtown to go on a date, only to learn a few minutes after arriving that the restaurant didn’t have an accessible bathroom I could use. That led to me rolling into an electrical closet to pee while my supportive date waited behind me, both of us dealing with an awkward silence only broken by the stream of urine as it hit the plastic bottle. Disabled people have to make sure that the places we go — out for a dinner date reservation, for instance — can accommodate our bodies, mobility devices, or other access needs.
We may also have access needs in regards to sex and intimacy. How so? Well, some people have chronic pain that needs to be managed, while others can have ostomy bags, indwelling catheters, or feeding tubes that need to be accommodated. Others, like me, don’t have mobility in certain areas, so positions have to be adjusted or changed to make sex more comfortable, safe, or pleasurable.
A message to the ableist: These differences can feel like obstacles that will undoubtedly hamper the sexual experience, but these differences are only obstacles when they are compared and judged against the narrow standards of the able-bodied experience. The needs of disabled people and their bodies aren’t special. They are valid, deserving of equal consideration and respect. These accommodations can even be the source of surprising, sexy possibilities for all parties involved.
A recent Gamut Network panel discussion about sex and disability I listened in on had its panelists describe their best, craziest or sexiest experience. One interabled couple (a partnership where one individual is disabled and the other is not) talked about the spontaneous and hot sex they had in an airport bathroom. Another disabled person described a hilarious incident with a toy that managed to shoot out of his partner like a bullet. And Alex Dacy, a well-known figure on Instagram, even illustrated a hot makeout moment that included a small accommodation. Dacy has spinal muscular atrophy type 2, and uses a power wheelchair. She described being a bit tipsy one night while flirting with a man in a bar. “We started kissing, and like, whenever I drink, I am in charge, so you do what I say,” she said of her experience. “I told him to kneel in front of me so we were more the same height, so it would be sexier. He was directly in front of me, and I was like ‘Yes, this is hot.’ There we were, sloppy making out on the club floor while at least three people videoed it.” See? Possibilities, people!
Disabled people want to participate fully and equally in every area of life. We want to be treated like normal human beings because that’s what we are. See us as whole and complete, disability included. When planning dates or outings, ask us what our accessibility needs are, and then select activities, events, and venues that support those needs. During sex, ask what feels good, what turns us on, or if we need any specific accommodations in the process — something everyone should be doing in the bedroom, to be honest.
To my dear disabled community, know that you can have incredibly meaningful relationships. Many of you might feel resigned or cynical about this, and many of you have experienced ableism in countless forms as you’ve attempted to find connection or love. You deserve all the love and connection that you desire. You have immense contributions to give to the world and to your future partners. No one is settling because of your disability. They see your sexiness. As the disability justice movement grows and flourishes, able-bodied people will come to see what we already know: we are perfect as we are.
And I’m with you on your journey, rolling alongside you always.
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