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My Boyfriend Has a Disability. So What?

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The first time my boyfriend took his leg off for sex, it was a little weird.

The next time, it wasn’t really weird at all.

Now, I honestly barely notice – or care ‒ that he has no foot from the left shin down (for which he wears a prosthetic leg). To answer your next question: he was born with it, due to amniotic band syndrome, which can restrict growth of limbs in the womb and cause other problems such as cleft palate. To answer your other question — we met online.

Incidentally, he also has a corrected club foot, a scar from a corrected cleft lip, issues with his hands — one has just two fingers and a thumb, and the other has four fingers which work fine but look a bit oddly shaped at closer inspection. But so what? Nothing much to see here (apart from the fact that he’s also gorgeous). Move along. Right?

Or so I thought. I’m more than a little flabbergasted at the latest figures from the charity Scope, released ahead of Valentine’s Day, which suggest that 67 percent of people in Britain “feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people.” Apparently, my generation, the maligned millennials feel twice as uncomfortable as other groups, with 21 percent saying that they had “actually avoided talking to a disabled person.” This has prompted Scope to launch a campaign called “End the awkward.”

Well, I’ve been on a lot of first dates, and let me tell you about awkward. Silence between two people who have nothing in common is awkward. Making a joke and having the other person not laugh at all is awkward. Hell, even accidentally making intense eye contact with a stranger on the train is awkward.

Honestly, when my now-boyfriend first told me on our first date, my reaction was “Huh, interesting, why’s that, hmm these meatballs are really good, tell me more, does it bother you, how does it affect you, do you want another drink, please let’s have another cocktail so we can keep talking.” But I don’t think I’m unusual or being especially good or anything, to be clear. It was just common sense to me.

Obviously, I do notice — in the sense that I can see. But does it bother me? Is it really awkward? Er, no.

Being with someone who has a disability definitely shouldn’t be awkward. Yes, it’s something you might not encounter every day, but as far as dating goes, it’s generally something to accept and get used to, like someone’s nervous laugh, their inability to grasp why you care so much about a certain television show, or their annoying habit of always being late (and yeah, he does the last one too, but then so do I, so who am I to judge?).

Maybe it’s because as a kid I was told not to stare at people with disabilities, the same as I was told not to stare at any people. And while some people with disabilities will tell you they welcome people looking and asking questions about obvious markers of appearance, others say they hate it. Just like everyone.

I do accept that there are certain issues. Yes, luckily for him, my boyfriend doesn’t need anyone to help him with doing stuff, and he doesn’t have to use a wheelchair (although he does use one sometimes), which might be harder to manage.

And no, it doesn’t hurt that I find him ridiculously sexy and that he himself is pretty open and comfortable about things.

But I’d be lying if I said I’d never worried about whether we’ll ever be able to do typical couple-y stuff like go on long country walks (because too much walking can hurt) or, I don’t know, hike Machu Picchu.

I sometimes worry about other people’s potential reactions — in case it might hurt or annoy him rather than because I give a toss what people think. I don’t like it when his leg causes him pain. I feel sad that the disability means he hasn’t always been as confident as he might have been.

And sure, I’ve had moments of sadness and doubt where I’ve thought, Wow, maybe we’ll never be able to take glorious city breaks where we walk round the sights and streets until our feet ache like hell to the point where our cold drink at the bar afterward feels like heaven.

But you know, I’m sure – if our relationship is meant to be ‒ we’ll figure it out, just like anything in any relationship. Do a bit less walking, a bit more taking the train or car. A bit less hiking up hills and a bit more sitting in country pubs. Something else altogether. It’s hardly purgatory.

Disability is just not a dealbreaker for me in the same way someone being rude to me would be. Or someone humiliating me or someone who just stops texting for no reason or generally behaves like a jerk. That’s freaking awkward. As anyone who’s done dating in a city will tell you, at length, you don’t have to have a disability to do those things.

Which is why I’m genuinely surprised at the Scope figures.

Admittedly, before I met my boyfriend, I didn’t really know anyone who had real mobility problems and hadn’t given people with disabilities much thought, other than briefly thinking that living with a disability must be pretty hard work.

But I still don’t give people with disabilities (as if they’re one big group…) much thought, even though I’m dating someone who qualifies. Because “they” often don’t need you to treat them hugely differently to anyone else.

OK, so people in wheelchairs need you to consider access, people who can’t walk far might need you to consider transport alternatives. People with learning disabilities might need you to make other allowances or slightly alter your expectations of what they can do.

But the key thing here? They’re all people. The same damn rules apply.

Treat others how you want to be treated. Consider everyone as individuals with interests, flaws, successes, insecurities and passions, just like everyone else. We’ve all got things to deal with in life. Some people’s are just a bit more visible.

My boyfriend may not have all his limbs or fingers, but he’s still a whole human being. And whatever happens with us, relationship-wise or otherwise, that won’t change. Duh.

If the Scope research makes people realize that a bit more, perhaps we can all (especially people my age, please!) focus less on the fact that people with disabilities are “awkward” and more on the important relationship issues. You know, like giving him a hard time for how long he takes to text back, taking issue with the fact he doesn’t like whisky (WHAT? I LOVE it), groaning at his sarcastic jokes and trying to convince him that spirulina powder really is a superfood worth spending loads of money on.

There are plenty of things in a new relationship that can be awkward, as anyone who’s ever dated anyone will know. But your partner’s disability? Not so much.

Originally published: February 20, 2015
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