“Well, I couldn’t date someone in a wheelchair.” The words were aggressive in their abruptness, decisiveness and dismissal. “You could never be left alone or fucked.”
I received this message on a mainstream dating app.
I have cerebral palsy. I use a wheelchair, and I’ve often encountered ableist abuse on dating apps. To this man, and many others, my disability rendered me undateable and unfuckable.
Online dating is a fraught experience for most. It’s the ease with which people can be dismissed. You’ve committed to nothing except a few anonymous messages and can continue to scroll indiscriminately when an online persona isn’t to your liking.
For those with disabilities and others with marginalized identities, there’s an additional layer of awfulness and dehumanization. But the grueling landscape of mainstream dating apps has helped to shape me into the woman I am today — a disabled woman who knows her worth.
It’s a hard-won lesson: At the beginning of my 20s, I constantly sought approval and validation.
I began using dating apps in college. Comparing matches with friends was just a routine aspect of campus life. My goal wasn’t to be in a relationship as I had just started at the university; it just felt natural, since everyone was doing it.
I didn’t have many disabled friends, so I couldn’t articulate the struggle: Whenever I told friends that I was reluctant to disclose my disability, they would tell me I must. But that’s easy to say when you’re not being bombarded with microaggressions and abuse. For instance, being told I was a liability, that my body must be deformed or that anyone who would date me must be a saint for putting up with my “problems.”
The question of when to disclose a disability is so loaded, and everyone has to find a way to navigate it personally.
I have had several success stories, and when those relationships ended, it wasn’t because of my disability. It was because we found other reasons to be fatally incompatible: The sex wasn’t great, the spark wasn’t there or the long distance took its toll. Those are the ordinary reasons relationships break down and have nothing to do with the stereotypes of disabled women as burdens or sexless.
As I’ve gotten older, I have realized that you can’t let the opinions of others dictate your self-worth. The men who reject me because of my disability hold little value. I’m now comfortable in my skin ― and the dating app hellscape helped thicken it.
I reflected on this when I learned of a new dating app solely for disabled and chronically ill people, Dateability. The app bears the slogan “Making love accessible.” It’s been designed to create a welcoming place for disabled people so that we can date without fear of encountering ableist attitudes and behaviors.
I understand the appeal. But experience teaches us that as hard as we might try to construct a fantasy ― an impenetrable bubble ― reality will always seep in.
It remains a radical act to move with pride in a disabled body. First, I had to learn through my experiences to deconstruct others’ ideas of what it is to be disabled ― to push back against their fears and ignorance, to question the non-disabled who tried to smother my hard-won self-confidence. Then, finally, I owned my disability ― I claimed it for the first time. But it’s an ongoing process.
It’s taken years of my life to get to this place, but my dating app experiences have taught me one simple truth: You’ve got to go through it.
I presumed my dating life would be like “Sex and the City.” I wanted to flit between romantic entanglements, have casual sex, meet attractive, inappropriate men in glamorous locations and form relationships that could span a one-episode storyline or an entire series.
I wanted to be Samantha Jones until reality set in. There was no disabled Samantha Jones. I fell outside the limited 2D view of what it was to be a woman. The show was aspirational, and disabled women weren’t and aren’t taught to aspire ― to be seen.
In this environment, disabled women inevitably struggle to feel desirable. We’re still desexualized, patronized, infantilized and viewed as “unfuckable.”
“Can you have sex?” I was once asked on a first date ― because otherwise, he opined, “what’s the point?”
When I first started dating, my response would have been different. I would have assured them that I could and been friendly about explaining exactly how. I told the last man who asked me to “fuck off.”
Experience has given me an inbuilt list of ableist red flags. The most common is having someone do physical things for me without my consent. Trying to undermine my independence or tell me I misunderstood their intention. A man once said the word “retard” in casual conversation; it slipped out, but I consider it an extreme slur, and we never saw each other again. It’s learning about the often seemingly small behaviors that may grow later and trusting your instincts.
Sometimes our disability is weaponized against us, like when my ex-partner told me he couldn’t cope with my disability or how people stared at us. It was a parting blow I had to rebuild from alone.
Going through the experience of dating has allowed me to consider who I am and what I want. Every dating experience I’ve ever had has, in some way, forced me to confront ableism ― it has forced me to question it. Knowing my worth, setting my boundaries and demanding respect have been crucial. But unfortunately, it’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way, and I’ve had to unlearn a lot of unhealthy ideas about how disabled women should move through the world to get there.
All of this makes the idea of a sheltered place for “accessible” love enticing. Being on the frontlines is hard. But we deserve to date without separation or partition
Specialized apps limit our dating pool severely. And if mainstream dating apps such as Bumble, Tinder and eharmony aren’t preventing people from spewing ignorance, hatred and ableism, what can a smaller app do to prevent catfishing, scamming or people targeting the platform specifically because they have a disability fetish?
It’s so important that disabled people are on mainstream dating apps because we shouldn’t be “othered” and cut off. We deserve to take up space as much as any non-disabled person ― which is something we’ve been told we shouldn’t do. It’s our right to decide who, how and where we date, including on “mainstream” dating apps. We can’t let ignorance continue to push us back.
The apps need to ensure that users are removed when they receive a complaint of harassment or abusive language. I have often complained and flagged inappropriate behavior, as have many disabled women I know. When we tell apps that other users are abusive and provide evidence of that abuse, they should act responsibly.
One in four American adults is disabled. The next generation will know the feeling of having their experiences reflected more fully ― but we’ve got to hold our nerve. Creating a dating app just for disabled and chronically ill people isn’t what we have fought for. It limits us.
Mainstream dating apps have shaped the woman I am today. I sit comfortably with myself as a disabled woman who has been through it. I still use apps, more sparingly now, because life moves on.
I understand wanting to construct a dating utopia ― we were the generation of disabled women introduced to dating apps without even a disabled teen mag cheat sheet. But we must keep on for our own good so that the next generation of disabled people doesn’t have to go through what we did.