People Share What Dating With a Disability Is Actually Like

In a world built for the able-bodied, disabled people face countless barriers in their everyday lives. Dating can be even more challenging, then, for the woman who has to spend every first date explaining how she “ended up” in a wheelchair or the man who receives pitying glances as he gives his date a rose. But many able-bodied daters may not know how to approach someone with a disability or what to avoid when asking a disabled person out.

According to the last U.S. Census statistics in 2012, one in five people Americans has a disability and more than half consider their disability severe, but physical and cognitive limitations don't stop those with disabilities from enjoying dating and having meaningful, lasting relationships.

We talked to five people with disabilities and asked them about dating ups and downs, tips for other daters with disabilities, and what able-bodied people can do differently in relationships.

Here’s what they said:

1. “Don't assume you're superior to us, because frankly, you're not... at all.”

Ariella Barker is a lawyer and disability consultant.

Name: Ariella Barker, 35

City: Charlotte, North Carolina

Disability: Spinal Muscular Atrophy

Job: Attorney, former law professor, Ms. Wheelchair NC 2014, and disability advocate.

How she approaches disability and dating:

In my opinion, we all have a disability in some way. Maybe it's not a disability that falls under the legal definition and maybe it's not visible. But I have dated men who were weaker in character than I am physically. Men who can't part from their mothers, men who cried like children at the drop of a hat, men who were one-minute men or selfish in bed, men who couldn't get a job, and grown men who still lived at home with their parents. They were more disabled than I ever was.

On dating able-bodied men:

The struggle is the sense of feeling inferior, particularly with regard to his family or friends. Hearing others praise your boyfriend for being such a saint to date the crippled girl and constantly trying never to burden my boyfriend with anything, for fear he would think that I'm a burden. [There were] men who saw me as someone they could use for a green card or my money. I even married a man I desperately loved, [who] immediately pressured me to apply for his green card and when he became impatient [waiting for it], emptied my bank account, maxed out my credit cards to the tune of $30,000, bought a one-way ticket back to his home country with my credit card, and ransacked my apartment while I was in a deposition one day.

On dating other people with disabilities:

Dating men with mobility impairments makes having physical contact a challenge. With a wheelchair or two coming in between our physical bodies and separating us in physical distance, cuddling and holding hands while watching a movie or riding on the bus are impossible. When I date someone, touch and affection are very important to me and these barriers make that nearly impossible. I have, however, dated men with other disabilities, like mental illness, and chromosomal defects.

Her message to able-bodied daters:

If you reject someone because of their disability, you could be rejecting the next Beethoven, who was deaf and made such beautiful music that we still play it today. Or Prince, who had epilepsy and was the sexiest man ever to live. Or the next Stephen Hawking, who has taught us more about the universe than any other human. Or the next Oscar Pistorius (sans the killing part) or the next Peter Dinklage, the hottest and most brilliant actor on "Game of Thrones." Don't assume you're superior to us, because frankly, you're not...at all.

2. “At least 90 percent of my relationship problems have had nothing to do with disability.”

Cara Liebowitz is a freelance writer and blogger, with multiple disabilities.

Name: Cara Liebowitz, 23

City: Long Island, New York

Disabilities: Cerebral palsy, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and asthma

Job: Freelance writer and blogger

Her biggest dating challenges:

Honestly? It’s the fact that I don’t drive. It’s really hard to maintain a romantic relationship (never mind sexual), when you hardly ever see the person. So whenever I make plans, I have to plan it with military precision: Where are we going? Which subway station is near there? Is it accessible? Will I have enough battery power in my scooter to get there and back? Even the closest relationships, geographically, can feel like long-distance relationships to me because it takes so much planning and so much energy.

Relationship experiences have been positive:

I have so many good memories from all of my relationships. I think my favorite memories are those memories where my disabilities and access needs were really accepted and accommodated. The first time I fell in front of one of my boyfriends, I was super nervous about how he’d react. People tend to panic when I hit the floor. But he said “I’m sorry I didn’t catch you,” and my heart just melted.

Her message to able-bodied people:

We are not your charity case. We are not your feel-good story. So many memes and news stories go around about non-disabled teens taking a disabled teen to prom. It makes me want to vomit — that’s not newsworthy! Kids go to prom! People date! But it’s presented as 'This non-disabled person could have gotten anyone, and they chose a disabled person.' It’s objectifying as all hell. We don’t need non-disabled people to do “special” things for us, so if you’re genuinely interested in us, great! But don’t act like you’re a saint for asking a disabled person out. Unless you want to get dumped — that’s a great way to get dumped.

The mantra wants disabled daters to know:

I’m invoking Elsa here, but “Let it go.” I’ve met so many disabled people who think there’s no way a non-disabled person will ever be interested in them or that a non-disabled person will never truly accept them, period. I used to feel like that, too. Just be yourself, disability and all. If you relax and stop worrying so much, you’ll find people who accept you for who you are. You’ll also find people who don’t but those people aren’t worth your time.

3. “Disabled people should be acknowledged as viable partners and people capable of relationships.”

Kate is a marketing and media professional, with cerebral palsy

Name: Kate M., 26

City: Washington, D.C.

Disability: Spastic Cerebral Palsy

Job: Marketing/digital media professional, Twitter muse

Her biggest dating challenge:

I've been dating since I was about 22. I've been in one serious relationship (it lasted about a year) since I began dating. I am now single and got back into it after recovering from the breakup. A topic that comes up frequently is having to answer really strange questions about having a disability, like 'Can you have sex?' or 'Can you give oral sex?' There's still such negative stereotypes about people with disabilities having relationship or being sexual in any way.

The biggest surprise of dating others with disabilities:

I dated a guy with cerebral palsy for about a year. For some strange reason, I shied away from dating another person with a disability, as I thought it would be the only thing we would talk about. I was very wrong and it was one of the most fun and supportive relationships I'd ever been in.

On using dating apps:

It's always something different in terms of reaction. I'm currently on Tinder. I've met some great and not so great people on there. I used to not disclose my disability on dating profiles because I wanted to see the most honest reactions to my disability. Now, I fully disclose and it's taken a lot of the awkwardness out of the experience for me. It's been pretty good for the most part.

If you’re dating someone with a disability:

Be open. Ask questions. TALK. Learn their bodies. Communication starts on day one with a person with disability. It shouldn't be a job interview. Just be aware that there may be things that are done in a different way, and that's totally cool. Disabled people should be acknowledged as viable partners and people capable of relationships, if they want them. And take every stereotype you've ever heard about a woman with a disability and throw it away. At the end of the day, we're all just looking for a connection in some way, and that's just human.

4. “Be open to learning what you don't know.”

Lawrence Carter-Long is a disabled rights activist, writer, and film historian.

Name: Lawrence Carter-Long, 48

City: Washington, D.C.

Disability: Cerebral Palsy

Job: Disabled rights activist, writer, and film historian.

His worst dating memory:

Wait staff asking my non-disabled date what I wanted for dinner — that killed the mood for sure. I also had one guy assume that my girlfriend was my daughter, I suspect in part because I was using my cane that day. That was awkward. For all of us.

When dating someone else with a disability:

The most annoying part was the condescending attitudes of other people who felt it was their business to react, publicly, by saying things like, 'Isn't it great you found each other?'

His thoughts for non-disabled daters:

Listen. Be open to learning what you don't know. Make sure the place you want to go to is accessible before asking somebody out. Relationships are complicated enough, and there is no need to make matters worse by showing up to a place with five flights of stairs or flashing lights for someone who has revealed to you that they have seizures.

Come into all relationships with an open mind:

Don't automatically refuse to date another disabled person, just because that's what people expect you to do. By the same token, don't assume that simply because someone else is disabled that you'll be a good match either. What else do you have in common? Movies? Music? Food? Talking about lack of access can get boring very quickly.

Bottom line? Relationships are work:

In my adult life, most of the issues that have emerged in my relationships have been more about who is doing the dishes than they've been about any kind of issue related to me having cerebral palsy. That is, I suspect, as it should be.

5. “My wheelchair is literally no different from a pair of eyeglasses.”

D'arcee is a correspondence specialist with cerebral palsy

Name: D’Arcee Charington Neal, 30

City: Washington, D.C.

Disability: Cerebral Palsy

Job: Correspondence Specialist

How he sees the dating scene:

Dating is by far the most stressful thing for most people, unless you’re Nick Jonas, and I’ll bet he still has problems. Being a triple minority is HARD. But I have to believe someone will see in me something that sometimes I have a really hard time seeing in myself. In the meantime, you just gotta pull yourself up and keep going.

His experiences have been varied:

I’ve met guys who are completely and totally open, guys who were apprehensive and curious, guys who were shamed into it, and people who were completely disgusted by it. I’m usually happy when I meet people that are generally OK with the idea, but most of time, people end up treating me like glass, afraid of what to do or say the entire time.

How his first relationship changed his perspective:

My whole life, I felt like I was never going to be desired. No one ever sees a person in a wheelchair and lusts after them. But my first boyfriend, Frank, loved everything about me, even the disability, which he thought made me unique. The first time we kissed was like something out of a Disney movie. It was very natural, and for the first time, I thought, “Oh. That’s what this feels like.”

Words that sting forever:

Several years ago, I was chatting with a group of friends, and the concept of dating disabled people came up. And one guy made a comment which has been burned into my memory: He said that no one was ever going to date me openly. He said being seen with me would be desperate and horrible, and that if someone were with me, it was only out of pity. When I told him that he should pray that he never ended up in a wheelchair, he told me that he would’ve killed himself, because he could never live with my disability and still be gay... being lonely forever.

And the worse part about this whole ordeal? None of the 10 people we were talking with said a word. No one defended me. No one refuted him. So I know a part of what he says, a lot of people believe, and that’s what hurts me the most.

Advice for non-disabled daters:

Give us a chance. My wheelchair is literally no different from a pair of eyeglasses. It’s a device that helps me with a natural function. Talk to people. Ask them (respectfully) and don’t make assumptions, because you’re often wrong.