These are just a few of the responses to a survey we sent out, asking people to share their experiences of dating with a disability. Reading through the 141 surveys we received, it quickly became clear that dating as a wheelchair user is as variable and individualized as every other part of our lives. One theme emerged though: regardless of age, level of function or past dating history, more and more people are turning to online dating services to meet people and spark a romantic connection.
Online dating offers more potential relationships than ever before, but brings its own unique set of considerations and challenges — from addressing disability in your profiles, to dealing with ghosting and other byproducts of anonymity, to tackling access concerns when moving a relationship from the web to the real world. To help you minimize the worst aspects of online dating and maximize its advantages, here’s what we’ve learned talking with wheelchair users who have been playing the online dating game.
To Show or not to Show?
While how much of your disability you showcase in your online dating profile may seem like a big question, it’s really not much of a debate amongst the people with whom we talked. The consensus: potential partners need to know you use a wheelchair, and they need to know on first glance at your profile. Anything else, more often than not, leads to problems down the road.
The only person we talked with who doesn’t share his disability on his profiles does so because he was getting contacted “by too many weirdos.” That’s certainly a concern [see Russian Ballerinas, War Heroes and Other Things to Watch Out For, below]. For most though, dealing with the weirdos is annoying, but less of a concern than starting to develop a relationship with someone, only to have it end because of the unexpected introduction of disability.
Emily Ladau is a 27-year-old writer, editor and communications consultant who lives in New York City. When Ladau started in the online dating world, she struggled mightily with disclosing that she has Larsen’s syndrome, a congenital disability. She traces her struggles back to the media she consumed as a kid. “Disability is never portrayed as a characteristic of a desirable person. I’d never really seen it represented in media. I’d never seen myself reflected back at me in the teenage romance novels I was reading, or the movies that I would watch,” she says. “I definitely did not see myself as someone who was worthy of a relationship.”
Because of what Ladau now refers to as “internalized ableism,” she struggled to put her whole self out there, disability and all. “My hope was that I could hide it, and kind of build on other connections and a spark in personalities before disclosing my disability,” she says. “I would hide everything about my disability and I would sort of break it to the person all at once. And when you do it that way, when you treat your disability like it’s a big issue, that’s exactly how the person’s going to perceive it on the other end as well.”
For Ladau, growing comfortable with making her disability a visible part of her online profiles was a gradual process. Once complete, Ladau says things were a whole lot easier.
Corey Lovato, 31, a C6-7 quad who works as a staff attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law, went through a similar progression, though for different reasons. He had a girlfriend when he was injured at the age of 19. They’d only been together a few months, but the relationship ended up lasting 3.5 years before they eventually broke up. When he reentered the dating world, that relationship had given him confidence that there “was at least one person out there who was interested,” he says.
Lovato ended up going on a few dates, first with a girl he’d known since high school, then with someone he’d met at a bar. They didn’t progress to serious relationships, but it showed him that using a wheelchair wasn’t “an immediate deal breaker.”
When he first started using dating apps and online services, Lovato says he didn’t include anything about using a wheelchair in his profiles. “I just thought, it doesn’t matter, so why should I put it on there,” he says. But he had enough experiences with people stopping communication, or offering some lame response about how inspirational he was when they found out he had a spinal cord injury and used a wheelchair, that he started putting his disability front and center in his profiles. That means a picture where his wheelchair is clearly visible as his first profile picture. It also means an explicit mention that he’s a wheelchair user because he broke his neck snowboarding, as well as an answer to an awkward but inevitable concern. “The biggest question people have is whether or not you can have sex,” he says. “So I just wrote that in there, ‘The important parts for a relationship still work.’”
The straightforward approach works for Lovato — he’s had success finding dates on the free website OkCupid, and he met his current girlfriend on the paid service Match.com. They’ve been together about seven months and spend a lot of time doing typical young couple stuff: going to see live music, going to events and festivals around Phoenix and taking road trips all over the West. When asked about advice for passing the first impression test and connecting with potential dating partners, Lovato thinks a lot of it boils down to confidence. “People are attracted to confidence. Once I figured that out, things started going a whole lot better for me.” he says. “If you’re confident in who you are, even if you’re sitting in a wheelchair, people will respond to that. If you’re self-conscious … if you don’t want to go talk to people because you’re worried about what they will think because you’re in a wheelchair, then yeah, you’ll get more negative responses. And it’s not necessarily because of your wheelchair, it’s because of your attitude about it.”
That’s solid advice, even if it’s coming from a young, straight, normatively good-looking attorney. But with the realities of the online dating world, building and maintaining confidence can require a lot of resiliency.
Dealing With Rejection, and Ghosting
Even for those like Lovato, who have success with online dating and dating in general, rejection is just something you have to learn to deal with. “Some people aren’t going to want to date you because you’re in a wheelchair, and that’s just something you have to accept,” says Lovato. “It’s going to hurt when you run into one of them, because it’s going to bring up all those doubts that you have.” But, he says, “Most of the time they don’t have any idea what your life is like, so it’s really not a reflection on how dateable you are, it’s a reflection of what stereotypes they’ve accepted.”
Caitlin Reilly, a wheelchair user for 27 years, met her ex-husband via online dating back in the late ’90s when it was still in its infancy. Reilly says that she’s spent more of her life as a wheelchair user than not, and feels comfortable with her disability — it’s a part of her life that she knows how to manage. But when she and her husband got divorced and she reentered the online dating scene about two years ago, the experience dredged up doubts that she hadn’t felt in a long time. Reilly says she’s been ghosted — a now common practice where one person suddenly cuts off all communication — several times in the past two years. “There was one guy I went out with like three different times, and it was kind of getting serious quick and he just totally disappeared off the face of the earth,” she says. It brought her focus to her disability. “Can they not handle it?” she asked herself. “I’m not normally like that, but it definitely brings back insecurities.”
Ghosting is particularly hard to deal with because you have no idea why it happens. One minute things are progressing and the next, this person you may have been developing feelings for has vanished. Outright rejection can be easier to deal with because it’s conclusive and you can move on. Ghosting gives the imagination free rein. And because society so often frames disability as a negative, ghosting makes it all too easy to get lost down that rabbit hole.
Consider this though: ghosting has become so prevalent as a cultural phenomenon that the Oxford English Dictionary added an official definition in 2016. In the same year, the dating website Plenty of Fish released a survey showing that 80 percent of millennials, who the site defined as between 18 and 33 years old, using the site had been ghosted. So maybe it was your disability, or maybe you had a booger in your nose or you talked too much without bothering to listen or you really love anime or you drink too much or … whatever. The point is, people deem others unfit for a relationship for all sorts of reasons, some stupid, some not. People ghost because for some, awkward conversations are just too much to deal with these days. That’s certainly not a satisfying answer, but if you want to use online dating services, ghosting is probably something you’re going to have to deal with.
The even more common corollary to ghosting in the online dating game is the simple non-response to an initial message. Elizabeth Bruch, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who recently analyzed large scale data sets from a popular online dating website, found the reply rate to the average message was somewhere between zero and 10 percent. If you’re new to online dating, and you send out messages to a few matches and don’t get a response, it can be crushing. But when you follow the data, actually hearing back from your first few messages would be abnormal. For those who are just entering the game, or struggling to connect with anyone, Bruch and other experts recommend a simple strategy: persistence.
The Unpaid Internship
If persistence sounds like hard work, you’re not wrong. There are so many people on online dating sites these days, that finding someone with whom you have a mutual attraction, chemistry and all the other intangibles that can make or break a relationship takes a lot of effort. In person, we can use all of our senses to get an immediate and often strong first-impression of the relative worthiness of a potential mate. But online you have to comb profiles, send and respond to messages, make phone calls and coordinate meetups, just to get to the point where you find out whether they have body odor or trouble maintaining eye contact.
For Andrew Gurza, a queer man with cerebral palsy, a disability advocate and the host of the sexuality podcast Disability After Dark, reaching the “getting to know someone” stage of things is proving to be more effort than it’s worth. Gurza is open and even playful with his disability, using lines like “Your number one disabled lover” or “Bear (slang for a large, hairy guy) in a chair” in his online dating profiles. But he says that openness often brings ableist messages along with it. “I’m constantly asked, ‘What can you do sexually?’ I’m constantly told that I shouldn’t be on the app because I’m disabled, why would anyone want to be with me,” he says. “It’s so much work getting past all that crap to actually spend time getting to meet somebody.”
Gurza says that as a young, queer man with a disability, “The idea of going on a date with anybody when I was a teenager was exciting but impossible.” In college, he explored and had plenty of sexual encounters, but nothing that developed into a relationship. “In my experience with queer men, sex seems to be on the table a lot faster than connection does.”
Online dating was supposed to be a means to find a connection with someone, but in that regard, it hasn’t proved worth the effort. In the past year Gurza has decided to back away from it. He’s not going to “give up on finding love, because that would be tragic and sad, but to give up on the need to be in a relationship and to go on dates.”
Reilly has also struggled with the amount of effort it takes to make a real connection with someone when you meet online. Reilly has a job, she’s a program specialist for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program of the federal government, and a life. Dating is different in her 40s compared to her 20s. “I get a ton of responses, and I don’t know how to say this in a nice way, but it’s a lot of losers just looking for hookups,” she says.
Reilly’s had a few short-term relationships that came from online dating, and estimates she’s been on 20 dates in the past two years. To help keep her from wasting her time or getting scammed, she makes sure that if she’s going to meet someone, she has at least talked with them on the phone, preferably a video chat. “I wasted a lot of time on people that I think I could have ruled out had we talked on the phone,” she says. “I’m at an age where I know what I want, and I’m not going to waste my time if they don’t seem worth it.”
Between the ghosting and the hookup culture and the amount of effort it takes to get to a first-date, only to have it go nowhere, the experiences have taken a toll. “I’m really discouraged by the whole process,” she says. “But I’m not going to give up, because I feel like I’ll eventually meet someone.”
So You Have a Date, Now What?
With online dating in general, and dating with a disability in particular, there can be so many layers to get through that it can feel like, ‘“Wait, now what?” once you actually wind up on a date. Ladau has had dates go off the rails because of accessibility issues. One time, she and guy planned a second date at a painting class. She researched locations and found a restaurant that was reputed to be accessible. Once they got there, they found out that the restaurant was accessible, but the painting class was upstairs. They spent an awkward meal listening to happy banter of the class going on without them. Ladau eventually got the company to refund their money, but she never heard from the guy again. After that, she says, “I would try to show up early to a date because if there were accessibility issues I wanted to scope it out and come up with a game plan before the other person even arrived.”
Both Reilly and Lovato say they haven’t really had any issues with accessibility on dates. Lovato usually picks the location because its often still the guy asking the girl out. “Not always though,” he says. “If she picked, I had the fact that I’m in a wheelchair on my dating profile, so she’d know we needed a place I can get into.”
How proactive to be about accessibility is up to you. If you have very specific accessibility needs, or there’s a high potential for access issues in the town or city in which you live, you may want to vet locations before showing up for a first date. Access issues are unavoidable over the course of a relationship, but you may not want that to affect first impressions. At the same time, dealing with inaccessibility is just another part of life, and showing a potential partner that you know how to deal with it and find a workaround can be a good thing for potential partners to see.
Ladau spent a long time trying and struggling with online dating, dealing with rejection and moving through relationships of varying seriousness. She’s now out of the dating game, in a stable, happy relationship with a guy she met on Tinder. With that experience, she offers some particularly helpful words for moving from the online realm to the real world. “Too many times, I would build up these relationship fantasies in my head of what would happen as soon as someone showed the slightest bit of interest or told me that the wheelchair wasn’t a problem, and getting carried away like that so quickly is incredibly harmful,” she says. “Don’t settle … just because somebody does accept you for who you are and that you’re a wheelchair user doesn’t mean that you have to date them. If it doesn’t feel right, break it off.”
After Lovato broke up with the girlfriend who’d been with him through his accident, he worried about starting the dating process as a wheelchair user. “I also had this fear in my head like, if she leaves, will anyone else ever be there?” he says. But putting himself out there quickly dispelled that notion. “The best thing about online dating is that the net is so much wider, you find so many more people. But the worst thing about online dating is also that the net is so much wider. You get so many people who are just not good matches, you have to sort through a lot more people until you find someone you actually click with.”
Ladau says the advice she wishes she’d heard from people is simple: keep trying and be realistic. “You have to pull a lot of weeds before you find the flower,” she laughs. “That’s really cheesy, but it’s true.”
Russian Ballerinas, War Heroes and Other Things to Watch Out For
Lucian Smith, a wheelchair user and now retired accountant who lives near Philadelphia, recently got a divorce. Afterward, a friend signed him up for a Match.com profile and shortly after setting everything up, Smith was surprised by a match that came through. “She was really pretty, I’d say out of my league,” he says. “And she was in Philadelphia with a dance troupe, dancing in the Nutcracker ballet.”
Smith and the woman met up for a date in downtown Philly. Smith says she was as beautiful as she’d appeared in her profile, smart and seemed very open to the idea of dating a guy in wheelchair. “We had a great time,” he says. They made plans for a second date. Things went just as well at the start of the second date. Then, after they’d finished eating, the woman pulled a fiancé visa application out of her purse, complete with passport and supporting documentation. She told him that if they filled out the application and he signed it, when she returned to Russia with the dance troupe, she could get a visa and come back. Then they could be together and get married. “I was like, ‘Really? I don’t think I can do that on my second date after 13 years of marriage,’” says Smith. “As soon as I hedged on it, she was gone … I never heard from her again.”
Smith says he talked to a Russian woman he knew from work who told him that Russian women are often told disabled men are good targets “because they’re desperate.” A match requesting money “for airfare” or trying to get you to fill out a visa application most likely isn’t doing so because of unending devotion to you.
Caitlin Reilly has also learned a few things about dealing with scammers on online dating services. “They pull at your heartstrings,” she says. “One guy was a widower, really handsome and he also lost his daughter in the same accident as his wife. So me, bleeding heart, I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’” They started messaging and then texting back and forth. Then one night she got suspicious when she asked him to video chat. He claimed it wasn’t working on his phone, and they had a phone call. “He told me he was from Texas originally, so I expected him to have a southern accent. But he clearly had a British accent.” She cut it off right there.
Reilly says other things to watch out for are military profiles — those purporting to be war heroes. You’d be amazed how many guys claim to be on a secret mission in Afghanistan. Obviously, guy in the military doesn’t equal fraudster, but if they use it as an excuse for being vague about their life, it’s worth watching out for.
If you’re worried about a potential date being a scammer, make sure you talk to them over the phone or in a video chat before you meet up. Always make sure an initial meeting is in a public place. And this should go without saying, but never send money to strangers over the internet.
Lastly, there’s a whole world of people who fetishize disability. If you have a photo that prominently features your wheelchair in your profile and/or mention your disability, there’s a good chance you’re going to get messaged by some of them. It’s a much larger topic than we have space to cover here, but “Hot Wheels: The World of Wheelchair Fetishists and Disability Devotees” offers an in-depth look at this subculture. Available at: bit.ly/2RsUpWq
Oh, and the prostitutes. There are definitely prostitutes who target disabled folk online because they think we’ll be more likely to pay for sex. Moving on …
Disability Double Down
What do you think about dating someone else with a disability? For some, the response is, “No way, I already have enough disability in my life.” For others, having a relationship in which the other person also has a disability can be fulfilling in a way that dating a nondisabled person never would be.
If you have a disability, you most certainly shouldn’t feel like dating within the disability community is your only option. But at the same time, you shouldn’t rule it out. For a longtime, Ladau says she didn’t want to date someone with a disability because she didn’t want to call more attention to her own disability. “Which is so silly,” she says. Then she met a wheelchair user and they really connected on a personal level. “I was a little hesitant at first, but I realized, if I want someone to accept me and date me … how come I can’t extend the same thing for somebody else?” They ended up dating for two years, and Ladau says that having that level of mutual disability understanding was “a rewarding and unique experience.”
It can be a bit overwhelming choosing which of the plethora of online dating apps to use. Of the mainstream dating services, popular free options include Tinder, Bumble, Plenty of Fish, OkCupid and Coffee Meets Bagel. Match.com and eHarmony are the most commonly used paid options. “The best dating apps of 2018” from the website Digital Trends offers a good overview of the features and usability for the most popular services. Available at digitaltrends.com/mobile/best-dating-apps.
For the queer community, Her and Grindr are two popular apps, while OkCupid gets good ratings for inclusivity. Teen Vogue gives a good breakdown of some of the current options in their article “Best Dating Apps for Queer and LGBTQ People,” available at: teenvogue.com/story/best-dating-apps-queer-lgbtq-people
In addition, there are a number of services that cater specifically to people with disabilities. Whispers 4u, Dating4Disabled, Special Bridge and Disabled Passions are a few options that Vantage Mobility breaks down in its article “Expert Dating Tips for the Best Disabled Dating Websites.” Available at bit.ly/2TNwlKK.