When a Man Told Me I'm 'Too Beautiful' to Be in My Wheelchair

I had just moved to DC and was cruising around Crystal City (the neighborhood in Arlington where I worked) in my black power chair. This particular morning, I was headed to Corner Bakery for coffee. I followed the same path from the Metro to work every day, and the Bakery was my usual coffee spot. Each morning I saw the same people, standing in line, salivating, as they waited for their morning caffeine fix.

A new power chair convert, I was slowly learning that life on wheels was not all bad. For instance, I was able to keep pace more easily when I was out with my friends. I could stroll alongside and be a part of every conversation rather than languish behind it.  Not only that, I was rarely as fatigued in my chair. I didn’t sweat as much — if at all — because it takes much less effort for me to manipulate a joystick than to move my arms and legs back and forth and to and fro. As a result, my makeup looked cuter (because it stayed on longer) and I could wear less practical shoes (because I walked less than I ever had in my life).

My long blond hair was cute and in place with a sparkly black headband, and I was wearing a black and white wrap dress with knee-high black boots. I carried my blue plastic Defense Equal Employment Opportunity Management Institute mug to the counter, and had it filled with my favorite European blend. The cashier, who knew me by name at this point, thanked me, and I headed for the door.

As I aimed for the exit, a man in line stopped me and said, “Excuse me, but… you are just too beautiful to be in that chair.” This, I suppose, was his idea of a pick-up line. For me, it was anything but. Where else should I be? Barefoot and pregnant in his kitchen? And if I was too pretty for this chair, was he implying that all chair users were as a general rule un-pretty? I ignored his so-called “compliment” and strolled on to work. I had places to be.

But the more I thought about this encounter, the more it infuriated me. Generally, society and the mainstream media portray those who use wheelchairs as deficient in some way or as geriatric. Even someone who attempts to keep a positive attitude about her disability is hard-pressed not to be influenced by occasional negativity.

Young women in their teens, twenties, and oftentimes older, tend to have problems with body image… and I am no different from most. We tend to put a lot of stock in what others think of us when it comes to a lot of things, including their thoughts about our physical appearance.

So every time a boy or man has commented on my beauty, or lack thereof, I have taken it to heart.

Don’t get me wrong, I want someone to love me for my brain and my heart, first and foremost… but it doesn’t hurt to feel pretty — sexy, even — some days. I want to know that men, who primarily form first impressions with their eyes, are capable of seeing me as attractive.

Often, others see people with physical or other developmental disabilities as asexual beings, and any mention of us having sex or having children is taboo. But when I look back at my past relationships, I know I’ve been loved and that I have loved. That’s not to say there haven’t been some real doozies.

Perhaps my most serious boyfriend was the worst. He was the first person I dated who also had a disability. The majority of strife in our relationship came from my insecurity about his feelings toward me. He would remind me that people “expected us to be together” because we both had cerebral palsy and would sometimes tell me he was frustrated that he could not date someone “normal.”

With comments like that, I was sharing the same thoughts. What was his malfunction? The real low point in our relationship came after he declared his intention to marry me. I was on Cloud 9 and thought I had finally found someone who loved me with the same fervent and unconditional love I showed him.

Until one moment snapped me back to reality.

He held my face, his hands gently cupped around my cheeks, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I think I’m finally OK with the fact that you have CP now.”

“Excuse me?” I said, my voice cracking, unsure of what I’d heard.

He repeated himself again, louder, and as if he was proud of his ability to overlook my obvious flaw.

I grew silent. I couldn’t understand how someone who expected others to see him for who he was looked at me through the same clouded lens that he asked others to avoid every day. I began to wonder what his thoughts of me had been before this sudden revelation or how he could be attracted to me, even in that moment, if it had taken him so long to come to grips with a characteristic we both shared.

What I realized then was that I was expecting just as much from him as I would from any other man — the kind of love that sees past the physical. The kind that lasts. The kind that really means something. I had thought his having a disability would make him more understanding and compassionate toward me, and that he’d be able to look past my crazy spastic facial expressions and altered gait, just as I’d done for him. I was doing more than overlooking those characteristics though. I was loving him for them.

I found the post-tracheotomy gravel in his voice very sexy, and the shakiness of his hands and sound of his hard gait familiarly comforting. In asking him to overlook what he perceived as my flaws, I wasn’t asking enough. I wanted him to do more. I wanted him to love them.

I’m waiting for the guy who thinks my crooked smile is adorable, that my toe walking is a familiar comfort to him, and that my curled toes are just something unique about me… even if they are a little weird. Point is, they’re part of me, so they’ll be something that he loves.

Is there a story about dating with a disability or disease that you’d like to share? Email your story to [email protected] with a brief bio (1-2 sentences), a photo for the piece and a photo of yourself.

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