The topic of love and relationships can be a delicate subject for anyone. But for someone with a disability, it can be particularly fraught and is often laden with many deep and dark “what ifs.”
Meeting the right someone is challenging in a day and age where people are so heavily consumed by their jobs and attached to social media that they forget to go out and enjoy themselves and the company of others in an environment free from the intrusion of technology. Rare are the days where people meet their future partner in pubs, libraries, cafes and parks. More commonly, my generation are meeting future partners via dating apps and internet websites. In a world where judgments on a person’s worth seem to be made within the first 30 seconds, having a pair of crutches, a walk similar to Pingu and often a wheelchair in tow can mean that the odds often feel stacked against you right from the offset.
That being said, in early 2014 I decided that if I can’t beat technology, I might as well join it. I was feeling settled and happy in my own skin, and I decided that it was time to take my first foray into the world of online dating. This is where our story picks up, and I will go on to share a few of the lessons I learned throughout this process while sharing a few of the funnier and more shocking experiences.
Lesson #1: You will only be happy with someone when you are happy with yourself.
I began my online dating adventure with Plenty of Fish and Tinder and I must admit, it was an eye opener! Without wanting to sound arrogant, I was immediately quite popular and was enjoying the attention greatly. However, when it came to meeting up with people, I began to get nervous. When you meet someone in a bar or are introduced by friends, your prospective date is immediately aware of your disability and has the opportunity to decide in that moment if they want to continue with this particular interaction. When you meet someone online, unless your profile picture or blurb states that you are disabled or shows a crutch or wheelchair, there is a very significant piece of information yet to be shared with your prospective date.
Different people hold different opinions about how best to deal with this scenario. Broadly speaking, there are three options:
1) Don’t tell your date until you meet them in person.
This for me was not an option. Having been on the receiving end of that split second recoil and look of shock (followed by the awkward silence) when standing up and reaching for my crutches after having been chatted up at a bar, I feel this is a bad idea. Furthermore, I really do not feel that it would be fair to the guy that I was meeting, as it immediately puts him in an unfairly awkward situation. With me, what you see is what you get, and if I had not at least introduced the idea that I was a little bit “different” prior to meeting up, I think I would’ve have been doing both my date and myself a massive disservice.
2) Tell your date everything about your disability before you meet them.
This is something I tried early on in my online dating adventure and controversially I must admit that it was not my favorite option! When Googling “spina bifida” a plethora of information appears on your screen and in truth, paints a picture that is alarming and not true to my experiences. Although my spina bifida is severe, I manage to adapt many activities to be able to participate in some way, be it slightly modified or very modified. But, when presented only with the results of a Google search, it can be off-putting for an individual who knows no better! It certainly explains why all of a sudden a few matches I had made mysteriously disappeared right after “spina bifida” was mentioned.
That being said, the benefit of this option is that it provides an immediate way to exclude those individuals you really don’t want to meet. Sharing your disability status candidly with your potential date leaves you wide open to being asked a whole variety of questions ranging from the sensible to the downright weird: I have heard them all! The topic of disability can certainly bring out the weird folk. I have been asked everything from “do you wear splints and if so, do you wear them to bed?” to “can I help you catheterize?” *shudder* I can assure you those individuals were not privileged with my presence on a date!
3) Mention having a disability and warn your potential date that you will be arriving on crutches, but save the details for a face-to-face conversation.
This is by far my preferred option. Knowing my date is already aware that I have some sort of disability is reassuring, as I know I will not be faced with immediate shock! It avoids making the first 10 minutes of meeting even more awkward than they already would be, and allows me the opportunity to explain my condition to someone in person. Hopefully when someone meets me, they will realize that despite my disability, I have an awful lot to offer and can be quite good fun!
I can wholeheartedly vouch for the success of this option, with all guys I went on a date with telling me that they appreciated my honesty prior to meeting up, and if they were successful in securing a second date, telling me that Googling spina bifida is scary!
Lesson #2: Honesty is the best policy – no matter how scary.
Regardless of how you go about this initial disclosure (or lack of disclosure), the real fun and games begins when you start going out on dates with the individuals you have been talking to. This is where you start to get to know the person properly, and as with all people trying to find a significant other, get to know the nittier grittier aspects of a person’s character. I have been fortunate to meet some truly lovely guys who have been kind, gentle and funny, who although we were not meant to be, showed me a really good time and treated me kindly.
On the flip side, not all of my dates were so successful, and there is one particular series of dates coming to mind. I had met this individual on Tinder and trialed option three to good success. He asked sensible questions and reiterated his interest in meeting up and taking me for dinner. We met up, had a lovely dinner and arranged to meet up the following week.
On arriving at date two, alarm bells started to ring. He was asking me questions about how to “fix” spina bifida and whether I had pursued all avenues of medical treatment. I explained the congenital nature of my condition and the fact that it is permanent with no cure. He went quiet and we continued our date.
On meeting for date three, he was straight onto the topic of spina bifida. He explained that his parents were flying into the country in a few weeks and that he wanted to introduce me to them (which already freaked me out – slightly too soon!) He then continued to explain that he could not introduce me to his parents in my “current state” and proceeded to present me with a list of doctors for me to meet with. For one stunned moment, I wondered if I had entered into some sort of alternate reality and looked around to see if I was on a hidden camera show.
Unfortunately, this was not the case and before me was a very ignorant and naïve person. I calmly explained that this was not appropriate, and that I did not want to be with someone who wants to fix me and is embarrassed to introduce me to family and friends as I am. I then proceeded to pick up my water glass and throw its contents in his face! I never thought I would have that movie moment in my life, but it was too good an opportunity to miss! What makes me laugh to this day is that his list of doctors included a microbiologist, a gynecologist, an ophthalmologist and a dentist, none of whom could help me in any way!
As with all things in life, you take the good with the bad and I am so pleased to report that I have endured the bad and found the good with regards to the dating game. A few days before giving up on Tinder entirely, I matched with a guy called George. He was kind, funny, intelligent and not remotely creepy. I actually took option two and disclosed my disability (because I was in hospital at the time of talking and needed to explain why I couldn’t meet for a little while) and was met with concern purely regarding my current admission and interest into spina bifida’s impact on my life. He did not seem remotely put off, and two weeks later we met up for our first date. Ten months later we were engaged and 14 months later we moved in together!
Follow this journey on The Girl With the Pearl Scooter.