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How Online Dating Affected My Self-Esteem as a Disabled Woman

Online dating is more common than meeting people by chance nowadays. With many people seemingly unable to function without a device firmly glued to the palm of their hand, online dating has simply accompanied the times. Yet before it was popular, people with disabilities utilized online dating as the most accessible way to find and build romantic relationships. Disabled people like me.

My first encounters with online dating were back in 2003 when I was just 15. While my peers had been on the dating scene since they hit puberty, sneaking behind the science port-a-cabins for some discreet snogging and cooing over who’d bag a date with the most popular lad or lass in the class — I wasn’t part of it. It’s not that I didn’t crave dating or share the same curiosity to explore my sexuality as they did. It was simply because secondary school antics of the dating kind were accessible to everybody except those of us with a disability. That combined with the fact I was painfully shy and introverted (believe it or not) made for a bit of a delay before I joined my peers in the dating game.

When I did take the plunge and recognized online dating to be the most accessible way for me to get out there and meet people, I decided I wanted to try a disabled only dating site. “Why?” you may ask. It was down to personal preference. I’m not and never have been a one-night-stand type of girl; I was looking for somebody who had common interests so that there’d be a good chance of it developing into a nice relationship. However long or short didn’t matter.

I knew from a very young age I wanted to find someone who could relate to me. It was more important (in my book) to receive emotional support in terms of my health from a potential partner, than it was to have a big, buff boyfriend who might not “get it.” I felt that in order for a guy to truly “get it” — or get me — it would be easier if he had a disability of some kind too. So I found myself on DisabledUnited.

I gave up on the site after a month as it just wasn’t for young people. It was all people 30+ and getting into a relationship with a much older guy wasn’t my thing — nor do I think my parents would be very impressed! Fast forward a tad, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give the run-of-the-mill dating sites a try. By this point I’d had one long-term relationship, had a break and was ready to get back in the saddle.

I found myself on the free online dating sites such as Plenty of Fish and Oasis. Still living at home and relying on the bank of Mum and Dad, a girl couldn’t be forking out for eHarmony, no matter how appealing their match questionnaires appeared. I’d just have pluck the weeds on my own.

Like many wheelchair users, when it comes to creating a dating profile we never know whether to mention the disability or not, or if it’d be in our best interests to upload a photo showing or not showing our chairs. On one hand you could argue, why hide it? The disability is a part of you and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. On the other hand, even in a photo they’re more likely to see your wheelchair before you — just as in face-to-face meetings. This totally defeats the beauty of online dating, where you get to show the individual what you want them to see first, the best of you!

Originally I decided to be honest. It’s not like I could hide my power chair when meeting any guys in real life, and they could see it as being deceitful otherwise. I’ve seen this happen before — the disabled person not declaring the disability until the person has gotten to like them, it’s all going well and they want to meet and boom! The disability bomb is dropped and suddenly the able person forgets all the common interests, flirty chats and initial attraction because many people just can’t see past the disability. It’s so very sad.

I used some nice photo shoot photos that made me feel sexy and confident. I picked a head shot where my headrest is in the background and briefly mentioned I was a wheelchair user in my profile. Now don’t get me wrong, some guys — scratch that — 80 percent of guys do not read the girl’s profile. All that time and effort basically selling the best of yourself in a big essay is totally wasted on some people. This is likely how somebody had a light bulb moment and invented Tinder.

Yet as I was open about my disability, guys felt it was appropriate to message me with the opening line, “Hey babe, not being funny but like, can you still have sex?” No flattering compliment on my photos, no comparison of common interests — they wanted to know such an intimate detail about me before even giving me the time of day.

The first few times same opening line came up, I’d educate them that disabled people are not asexual. In fact many of us are naturally more creative in bed due to our limitations! Thankfully, I don’t take offense easily and I put it down to ignorance, perhaps lack of contact with anybody with a disability in their family or circle, but the more this happened the less passionate I became about challenging the stigma with every single one of them. It got old, it got depressing, it started to get to me.

Try as I might to power against the tide of ignorance in the dating pool, I began to ask myself if I was even desirable. I remember a guy following up the “can you have sex?” question by saying if my answer was no, it would be a deal breaker for him and that’s why he was asking it first — he didn’t want to waste my time or his. I could see the admirable side of his brutal honesty; at least he gave me an explanation, unlike the other guys. However, it didn’t do anything for my confidence. With every message about sex, my confidence took a knock. The sheer strength of the stigma that disabled people can’t or don’t have, nor want sexual intimacy hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like I consumed so much stigma that the stigma itself made me start to feel asexual.

That’s when I took my honesty out my profile, taking away their ability to judge me on my condition before me. I changed my photos to hide my chair. I felt almost ashamed of my disability, as if these sites weren’t for people like me and I didn’t have a right to be looking for a date.

The difference was like night and day. Suddenly I was being called “beautiful,” “sexy,” “gorgeous,” and not one guy asked me about sex. Like I’d been warned, one guy did get his knickers in a twist when I told him I was in a wheelchair before we met. He called it all off, but that only showed me he wasn’t the man for me. I deserved better.

After that I met another guy. We talked for two weeks about life and decided to meet. This time when I confessed I was a wheelchair user, he wasn’t phased and then confessed he was visually impaired. That was seven years ago, and we’ve lived together for six and have two beautiful little girls. So you know what happened to make that happen!

Ultimately online dating gave me a thicker skin. I’ve learned you can only educate ignorance. Most importantly, if a guy asks you about sex on the first message or two, you know then and there where his priorities lie and after that it’s up to you whether you think you deserve better. If you’re a disabled woman reading this and dipping in the online dating pool — you are more than a sexual object and you deserve to be loved and respected for the wonderfully sexy woman you are. If they are the right guy/girl for you, your disability won’t matter in any way, shape or form — including beneath the sheets!

Find more stories about sex and disability by following @MDBloggersCrew.

Getty image by Andrey Popov.