Each Wednesday, I post my response to a question from the Redefining Disability Challenge. This is my response to the tenth question in the Challenge. I am not looking ahead to future questions, so I may inadvertently address some topics which will come up later.
Here is this week’s question:
Does disability affect you in other ways? If so, how?
If you have read my recent posts in this challenge, you know the past few questions have asked how disability affects specific areas of my life – school, family, and leisure. My responses have sparked some good conversations among readers, and I have enjoyed the dialogue. I have been hesitant to discuss the issue of how disability impacts my romantic relationships, but I guess now is as good a time as any to write about it. I am not writing this post in an attempt to gain sympathy or pity for my experiences. I am not sorry for the experiences I have had. They have been funny, cringe-inducing, sad, endearing, traumatic, genuinely lovely and downright pathetic. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
Well, maybe I could have skipped the experience with the guy who showed up for a blind date at a fancy restaurant wearing a faded camouflage sweatshirt. And one Shaun was enough – Sean (who was really Steve, as I found out later) and Shawn were just overkill.
I didn’t date in high school. I think I went on a grand total of two dates during my college years. This wasn’t because of lack of desire, or lack of opportunity. It was because I didn’t view myself as “date worthy material.”
I was learning what it was like to live with a body which was not society’s traditional definition of beautiful. I saw the fashion magazines, the models on the runways, the girls who had multiple boyfriends and I knew I did not look like any of them. My body was misshapen. My arms were contracted. My feet were inverted. My spine was, still is, crooked. I couldn’t do what they did.
Whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw everything I wasn’t. I saw a short girl who would never be able to carry off the fashions others appeared to wear with ease. I saw uneven hips which made my skirts hang unevenly unless I altered the hems. My journals from those days are full of rants about not being perceived as pretty, attractive or sexy.
I didn’t see the woman I see now. I didn’t see thick, dark hair which adapts to any hair style I attempt. I didn’t see an engaging, genuine smile. And my boobs? Well, they weren’t the attribute I now strategically use at times to my advantage! They were just abnormally large for my narrow, skinny shoulders and made buying clothes a challenge.
My views on dating and myself as a viable dating option changed around the time I turned twenty one. That was around the time I realized my own self-perception was negatively affecting my ability develop a romantic relationship with anyone else. I started smiling and maintaining eye contact with attractive men, rather than looking away. I began to approach and engage men in conversation once I recognized they might be intimidated and hesitant to approach me. I asked questions and learned to let them talk. Men like women who let them talk and then act as if they are interested – all the dating books say that and it works!
As my confidence grew, so did the number of dating opportunities. And I was not shy about meeting men. I was an early adopter of online dating. I threw myself into dating, crafting a witty yet honest profile. I had one hard and fast rule: I never knowingly dated anyone who was already taken. Otherwise, I responded to everyone who reached out to me, keeping a journal and taking notes about my escapades – one day it will make a GREAT book!
After noting a trend, as an experiment I created two profiles on separate sites. They had the same text. One had photos which showed my wheelchair and the other only had head shots which did not indicate any physical impairment.
Guess which ad resulted in zero dates and zero messages?
Guess which ad resulted in fifty six dates in eleven months?
It is difficult for other people to find you attractive or perceive you as a potential date when you are unable to view yourself in such a manner. As a young woman in the dating world who happened to use a wheelchair, it did not help my newly found confidence to come across men who held the stereotype that I, as a woman with a disability, was “less than” or lacking. After twelve, I stopped counting the number of men who told me, “You’re tons of fun, you’re a great person, but I just can’t handle the wheelchair.”
The wheelchair. Like it was something I could magically change. As if it was something I chose and wanted for myself. Were they thinking I was looking for a caregiver?!
“It’s not what defines me!” I would say with exasperation.
“Sure – pick the ONE thing about myself I have no control over and throw that in my face as a way out,” whined the voices in my head.
It’s hard not to take this personally when it happens repeatedly. I wish I could tell you it has changed in twenty years, but it hasn’t. To this day, the reason I hear most often when men tell me they want to stop dating me is “the wheelchair.” I’m reasonably certain most times it isn’t really “the wheelchair.” But it makes a convenient excuse.
Over time, I have come to realize this statement is more of a reflection on the men than on me. Really, they are doing me a favor by getting out and breaking ties early. If you can’t handle all of me, thank you for not wasting my time. But, do you really have to blame my disability? Couldn’t you simply say I wasn’t a match for what you are looking for?
The unfortunate result is I now have walls and barricades around my heart and emotions which are taller than the Great Wall of China. The byproduct of needing to appear as a strong, competent, independent woman for so long is I have difficulty allowing others to see me as vulnerable, just like anyone else. It’s my issue, and I am the first to admit I have sacrificed potentially great relationships because I was too scared to let someone I was interested in see me in a vulnerable position. Intimacy is built on authenticity and honesty, which requires me to slowly take down the bricks I have used to build the strong exterior.
We all experience fear of rejection, and we all have “stuff” we want to hide from those we are attracted to. You don’t have to have a disability for that statement to apply to you. I am no different than anyone else who wants to project a certain image, knowing the every day reality might be different. Some people hide their drug addiction. Some people hide their gambling or their dismal credit score. Some people hide their gender identity. I hide the details of the daily impact of disability until I am reasonably sure the man I am dating realizes I don’t expect him to be my permanent caregiver.
I openly discuss my disability with anyone who asks. Believe me, I’ve heard every question you can think of.
Yes, I can feel “down there.” I am not paralyzed and have full sensation all over my body.
Yes, I can have an orgasm. Do you know how to give them?
Yes, I could get pregnant and carry a child. But I won’t because I absolutely do not have any desire to be a parent. I am the “fun aunt” and embrace that role with enthusiasm.
Yes, I can have sex. But not with you because you asked me in Starbucks five minutes into our first date. (True story – and not the only time it’s happened!)
There have been strong men through the years who were able to see beyond the obvious and recognize the unique qualities I bring to the table. I have known great love and intimacy. I am certain love will find me again when it is meant to be a part of my life. Since my early twenties, my self-worth has never been tied to my ability to maintain a romantic relationship. I have found fulfillment and happiness in life. The fact I don’t NEED a man or a relationship to make myself feel worthy is intimidating to weak men, but appealing to others. At least, that is what men have told me.
Dating is difficult for everyone. The benefit of doing it from a wheelchair is you get some great stories over time. I really do need to write that book.