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When Men Call Me 'Inspirational' for Dating With a Disability

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It’s mindlessly automatic, the way my hand shoots into the tiny black vinyl pouch perched on the armrest of my wheelchair and my fingers sift blindly through its contents – a halfway gone tube of red lipstick, torn up To-Do lists written by worn-out pens missing their caps and a few lone breath mints awaiting their fated battle against post-meal malodor – to find the melodic tri-tone chime emanating from my smartphone. The hair-trigger response rivals that of Pavlov’s hungry hounds, but instead of food arriving on a platter, I am classically conditioned to expect an equally tasteful, or tasteless, depending on the sender’s mood, treat: a message delivered by a mystery man sleuthing through an online dating app.   

He’s done his part, and now it’s my turn to decide if this online enigma is a run-of-the-mill Pick Up Artist or if he genuinely wants to be considered for role of Potential Suitor. It doesn’t take much detective work. Clue number one is usually that impressively witty or cringe-worthy one-liner he chose for a username – a first look at his caliber of character or his not-so-good intentions. If his self-appointed call sign seems harmless enough, curiosity overrides common sense and I snatch the bait.  

The second piece of evidence pointing to where this one-dimensional exchange will end is the choice words in his conversation opener. This pivotal moment can go one of three ways: innocuous and boring, leading me to believe he doesn’t have much skin in this game and might put even less effort into dating me; cute and charming, the approach I fall for most often and which almost always guarantees I will respond to his efforts to catch my attention; or the all-too-popular crass and just plain oafish, telling me that this guy only wants one thing and probably doesn’t have regular conversations with his mother.

To be clear: “Your sexy” from LetsFuk2Nite won’t fly with this gal. Word to the wise, boys (because real men don’t approach grown women this way): if you’re going to be crude, at least do us the favor of proper spelling and grammar. Better yet, just clean up your act – I have no time, or energy, for such a slapdash disposition.

But sometimes my defenses against smarmy bastards are downright lackadaisical. Like the time a nice-enough-looking 30-something guy with a charmingly crooked grin asked me right out of the gate, without even a quick “hello” to soften the blow of his presumptions, “Do you wear adult diapers? I mean, you use a wheelchair so I can only assume.” Did you also assume that line would get you anything other than no response from me?

I could have shot back an equally classy “F*** off, dude,” but instead I chose to mutter “I can’t even,” the exasperated cry of a woman who’s had just about enough of insensitive pricks full of fake bravado, before deleting his slimy message from my phone.

The shameless disrespect from players in this digital dating game is enough to make my thick skin crawl, but it’s the insults disguised as compliments that really get under it and stay there – until some self-reflection reveals that it’s their problem, not mine. I’d lose count if I tried to tally all the times I received messages that start with something like, “I wanted to drop a note and tell you how inspiring it is that you are living your life and looking for love…” Gee, thanks?

Then there’s the guy who serves up this appetizer on a first date, “I’m happy I met you. Now whenever I have a tough day, I’m going to think of you and remember that you get out of bed every morning.” That’s great, because I’ve always wanted to be someone’s poster child for soldiering on through adulthood.

I’d be remiss if I forgot the crown jewel of them all, the infamous Disabled Chick Catcall: “Hey, you’re so beautiful for a woman in a chair. The strength you have to put yourself out here is inspiring.” Hey, buddy, every person who wants love risks their heart. Having a disability does not make me a special case. And while I have your attention, this wheelchair doesn’t call into question my attractiveness or my ability to love and be loved. It’s simply part of how I experience our world.

Yes, the experiences of others have the power to put elements of our own realities into much clearer perspective, so we can find renewed value and appreciation for our lives. But the predictable “you inspire me” response to witnessing a woman live life is so tired. Instead of complimenting me, it subtly devalues my humanity. The subliminal message, unintentional most of the time, is “even though you’re disabled, you still manage to find purpose in your life – and that’s inspiring.” We all have purposeful lives, no matter where we’ve been. And to get where we’re going, sometimes we pull inspiration from others. It’s what builds connections and networks of support, and it’s what drives growth and change.

Ultimately, context matters most. I feel proud instead of patronized when I hear that my writing and other work has inspired people to think differently or to start exploring their own interests. However, when I’m called inspiring for getting out of bed in the morning or going on a date, I know the comment comes from fascination with my disability and not appreciation of my personal or professional merits or creative impact. That’s when I have a problem.

From where I sit (pun absolutely intended) people, especially men on dating sites, don’t always know the appropriate response to disability. The “I Word” has become a safe, albeit stale, placeholder in people’s attempt to recognize and legitimize diversity. Lord knows our world needs more attempts to love and appreciate every person. But grabbing on to “Inspirational” to grow comfort levels with differences can feel disingenuous to many people with disabilities. We want to be regarded for our whole person – there are thousands more descriptive words to choose.

What some pictures and a few words in an online dating profile might fail to show completely is that “disability” describes only part of the woman I am. If what that word means for my life inspires some guy to be a better man, that’s great and I’m sure his mom would thank me. But I want my life’s experiences to push people further outside the limits of their comfort zone. I want to encourage people to fearlessly go after what they want without second-guessing their worth. Above all, I want to empower people to proudly express their individuality without placing other people’s opinions above their own.

That’s all so much more inspiring than my ability to drain smartphone data to find a date, isn’t it?

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Originally published: November 17, 2016
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