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Dating (someone) with a disability

Dating is fun and exciting, but can also be terrifying! It can be especially nerve-wracking if you have a disability, or any type of chronic condition that causes your mind or body to work outside the usual expectation. ‘Disability’ is a collective term for both visible and invisible conditions, from paralysis to Cerebral Palsy to depression and hearing or seeing difficulties. All conditions have their own unique challenges that influence the individual experiences – especially when it comes to dating. But it’s not these challenges alone that complicate the dating process for people with a disability; it’s also, and maybe even more so, the many wrong assumptions about dating (someone) with a disability that can add to the anxiety.

These attitudes are often myths about what it’s like to live and love with a disability. For starters, a common myth about people with disabilities is that their lives are totally different than the lives of people without disabilities. Fact is, people with disabilities live a life that’s very much the same as anyone else’s – they study, work, have a social life, have to clean their house, cry, laugh, get angry, vote, pay taxes, plan and dream. They have a full identity, their own interests, hobbies and responsibilities, and they have the same emotional and physical desires as anyone else.

This idea that the life of someone with a disability is completely different feeds into the impression that people living with a disability cannot go on “normal” dates, like going to movies, a restaurant, bar, a gig, or sporting event. Of course that’s possible! It might call for some adjustments in arrangements, but that’s okay and doesn’t ruin the fun of going on a date, does it?

Another myth, in particular about people with a visible physical disability, is that they are more comfortable with “their own kind” and can therefore only date other people with a disability of or the same disability. That is as true as brunettes are more comfortable dating other brunettes and can therefore only date brunettes. So – ridiculous! People with a disability can date and fall in love with any other person they like, and the last time we checked taste is not defined by what we can or cannot do. Adding to this myth is the question of whether or not they can engage in the physical aspects of a relationship. Yes, they can, and they can enjoy it as much as anyone else. Besides, Dr Danielle Sheypuk (TedX, 2015) points out that “although people with physical disabilities are often considered to have severe limitations around sex, [they] are actually having sexual experiences not bound by the constraints of what sex should be, [and are] great at thinking creatively.”

The assumption that people with disabilities can only date and have sexual relationships with other people with disabilities limits the opportunities to develop love matches and relationships and, moreover, this way of thinking defines someone primarily as their disability. The stigma that a person is defined by their disability is one that we for once and for all need to get rid of. Our society is very good at identifying people by their most prominent characteristic, but that’s wrong.

It is myths like the above that make dating for people with a disability extra difficult. Everyone is concerned about making a good first impression, but when you have a visible disability the risk to be put in a box based on the way you look is a lot higher than it is for the average person.

Worrying that the other person will form an opinion about you based on your disability, also raises the question about when and how to bring it up, especially if a disability is not necessarily visible. Do you put this information in your online dating profile, do you say something once a connection is made, do you mention it right before your first date, or do you not pay any attention to it at all? These worries and insecurities lead to feeling vulnerable and make people reluctant to put themselves out there.

“But misconceptions also come from people with disabilities not believing they can achieve something or thinking they are undatable,” says Mama Cax, a blogger, model and activist from Haiti (Vice, 2018). She encourages people to show themselves as love interests without putting their disabilities at the centre, because “in real life, we are just like everyone else; dating, loving, and getting our hearts broken.” Of course, everyone is different and has to decide for themselves whether or not they are comfortable with dating. If that’s not you (yet), that is okay too.

If and when you do decide to put yourself out there, here are a few tips from people with a disability about how they approach the turbulent world of dating without letting their disability get in the way of their romantic happiness:

  • Be open, honest and upfront about your limitations. It will help the other person to understand your situation and to know how to respond without coming across as patronising. Another advantage is that it gets the conversation out of the way so you can move onto getting to know each other as people and see if there’s chemistry. Besides, when you are upfront about your limitations from the start, for example by putting it in your online dating profile, you will filter out the people who are not worth your time – the people, who approach you, really want to know you.
  • Don’t settle or lower your standards. You are allowed to be picky as much as anyone else; don’t settle for someone that “will do”, just because they accept you for who you are. In the end, finding a partner is not only about being accepted, it’s about finding someone who makes you happy and brings out the best in you.
  • Have confidence and have fun. Believe in yourself and remember that you are worthy. Have confidence in yourself. It’s the key to meeting new people and having them fall in love with you. Also remember to have fun when you are dating – don’t put too much pressure on it.
  • Finally, remember that everyone struggles with dating and that it might take a while before you find the right person. And that is cool!

If you are reading this blog as someone who is dating a person with a disability, then here are some worthwhile tips for you:

  • Treat your date with love and respect. Treat them as you would any other person and understand their autonomy. Dating someone with a disability is no different from dating a non-disabled person; the same rules and boundaries apply.
  • Be open to learning about their physical and sexual needs. Keep an open mind and heart, listen and show them that you’re willing to learn.
  • Avoid making their disability the main topic of conversation – they are much more than their disability and, like you, they have interests, hobbies, thoughts, and opinions about the world that they would probably prefer to discuss.
  • Understanding that no matter who you date, there are going to challenges, so that shouldn’t stop you from dating someone with a disability or let that be the deciding factor.

Finally, a reminder for everyone who is dating – not all disabilities are visible. “One in five (20%) Australians aged 16-85 experience mental illness in any year,” (Blackdog Institute, 2020). Mental health challenges can affect the dating experience for both the person suffering from mental illness and the person dating them. If you are dating someone with a mental health challenge, keep the following in mind:

  • Educate yourself and be open-minded.
  • Talk about your communication style. Learn what works best for both you, everyone has a different style of communication, and to avoid miscommunication it is best to have direct and open conversations about this.
  • Be patient and a good listener. People with a mental illness are often concerned that they are not being heard or understood, and often need more time to think about how they express themselves. Give them the time they need and verbally acknowledge what they are saying or feeling. To demonstrate that you are listening, you can weave in past conversations. For example, if they mention a certain dish they like, maybe you can surprise them by cooking it or getting take out.
  • Don’t try to fix them. If you like or love a person, it is normal you want to help them get better. Keep in mind though that there is a big difference between helping and fixing. Suggesting solutions to fix them might do more harm than good, for both parties – it is not your responsibility to fix your partner. You are their support; ask them what their triggers are and what kind of support they need from you. Sometimes it’s enough to just know that you are there.

These blogs and this information come to you from Your Side – an NDIS Provider in Sydney – with the aim to educate and inform.

At Your Side, we believe that you should choose the right services and supports that suit your individual goals and lifestyle. We will give you greater choice and enhance your independence and well-being. Our dedicated team members are here to help you live how you choose and provide you with all the disability support services under one roof to help you do the things that you love with the people that you love!

Call 1300 134 332 or email ndis@yourside.org.au to talk to our NDIS Team.