10 things to know before dating someone with a disability

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Grzegorz and Magda. He is disabled, but she has more dangerous illness: multiple sclerosis. Photo by Dominik Golenia.

It seems like it shouldn’t be necessary to write this, given that one in every five Americans has a disability. “It’s 2017,” you might be saying to yourself. “We know better by now.”

A quick Google search would correct that misconception right away. Dating, romance and sex culture largely avoids disability. It’s not just in our bars, clubs, entertainment, social media, churches and other public spaces.

A quick sweep of dating advice articles shows a pathetic amount of articles with decent, realistic advice about love and sex (shout out to The Atlantic’s 2013 article “Love in the Time of Chronic Illness,” a candle in the wind and one of the few worth reading). Most are directed at people who have disabilities, belittling and minimizing our needs and desires, asking us to compromise and sell themselves short of healthy love and sex.

Few, if any, are directed at people looking to date or already dating someone with a disability. That’s a problem the other 80 percent of Americans should probably care about. People who have disabilities, whether visible or invisible, are datable. We want to be seen, to be in love, to have sex. We want to have kids, pets or both. Everybody has something to deal with, and a disability shouldn’t stop you from asking us out.

So, here are ten things you should take into consideration if you’re romantically or sexually interested in someone with a disability.

1) Treat us normally. Please don’t get weird. If you’re hitting on or chatting up someone cute and they tell you that they have a disability, say “Oh really? That’s interesting. If you’re into it, can you tell me what that’s like for you?” Don’t, for the love of all things holy, say something like “I’m sorry” or “That must be hard.” How are we supposed to respond to that? Why are you assuming what it’s like? Don’t make it weird.

The person you’re into, in spite of maybe having a rehearsed speech or five for moments like these, will welcome genuine interest and you respecting their agency to share what they experience. And if they don’t have a rehearsed speech or seem uncomfortable sharing, let it go and bring it up casually a different time. Disability and chronic illness is extremely personal to talk about. Just like with able-bodied people, we need time to build trust and safety before we’re ready to divulge some of the tough stuff.

2) Realize and own your able-bodied privilege. For many of us, just being out and about is emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting. Ever hear of the spoon theory? Assume at any time that you’ve caught us on a day when our dog died, our car broke down, we lost our job — and we only had two spoons to start with. Dating can be uncomfortable enough, but understand that interacting with you (even if we’re into the conversation and think you’re cute too) takes more energy from us than you’re putting forward.

Right away, we’re investing more into the relationship than you are — and that’s an unavoidable reality that will continue if you get together. Any relationship is physical and emotional work. But, for a disabled person to decide to hook up with or date you, they’re making a choice that requires more trust, hope and investment than you maybe realize or have had to make. This could mean inconveniencing their health; spending hours preparing for hiking or camping dates, or navigating unfriendly public transit that knocks the wind out of our sails before we even sit down to dinner. So recognize that out loud. Acknowledge it regularly. Be flattered and grateful we think you’re worth it.

3) Show active engagement in disability rights and awareness. If you don’t know what ableism is now, look it up. This is critical. I’ll wait. Ableism is a daily struggle for us in our grocery stores, auto shops, banks, workplaces and doctors offices. Sometimes, we’ll want to fight our own battles, speak for ourselves and educate others. But other times, we’ll be too tired, afraid or unprepared — and we’ll need you to step up and help. Research, speak out, ask for guidance and be a real ally.

That means taking a look at your own internalized ableist behavior. Nothing is more depressing than falling in love with someone only to hear them utter or defend ableist comments or behavior. Society does a pretty solid job associating disability or illness with death and fear, impressing deep in even the disabled and chronically ill our lack of worth. That’s hard enough to deal with, and we need your help calling out those insecurities or fears — not adding to the problem.

Gems from my life I’ll probably never forget: “This is just a today thing, right?” “I’m tired of putting up with this, you are exhausting.” “I love you, but will you always be like this?”

Again, how are we supposed to respond to that? It’s obviously not a today thing, you know that. Yes, it’s a lifelong disability. You know that too. You’re exhausting.

When you’re frustrated about work or sad about a personal loss, we’re there for you. We love you for who you are. When you say you love us back but you also say things like this, how are we supposed to believe you? Such unkind, ill-considered and immature emotional responses shows that maybe you don’t know what love is. Rethink it, hard.

4) Fighting ableism or dating us doesn’t get you cookie. If you’re dating us or having sex with us as some sort of weird way to get a notch on your bedpost or socially prove how progressive you are, walk away. And honestly, screw you.

You’re not a better person for dating us. We aren’t inherently more inspirational for being disabled or chronically ill. We’re inspirational because we’re doctors and writers and lawyers and engineers and programmers and parents and siblings and really good friends. We’re real people, not a trophy on your way to the next Women’s March, healthcare protest or Science Rally. You should care about us because it’s a part of being a decent human being. If you feel you’re going to need to be rewarded every time you get us a glass of water or help us when we get sick, grow the hell up.

5) Trust us to tell you what is good for us and what we need. One of the biggest frustrations I hear able-bodied partners express is that they did what they thought was something considerate and compassionate, only to have their disabled partner respond with bewilderment, sadness or even anger.

A good bit of relationship for everyone, no matter who or where, is to just ask what someone needs instead of assuming you already know. Trust me when I say that open communication never goes wrong here.

Don’t tell us what we shouldn’t be eating or drinking. We already know. We already weighed that extra beer or two. We need to let down our hair and eat dairy or gluten. We need to go walking alone sometimes, even if it means we could pass out in a park somewhere. Yes, bring up that medical study or new prescription you heard about. But also trust that we know what meds, exercise and tests are best for ourselves.

We’re as independent and stubborn as you are. If we need your help, we will totally ask.

6) And get ready, because we’ll need your help. This is the part that freaks most able-bodied people out. “What will my life look like now? Will I have to do everything in the relationship? What if we can’t go biking or to concerts? I don’t want to give anything up.”

Chill out. Do you really think we want to sit life out on the sidelines? We want to do all of that crap too. In fact, the more you’re willing and able to help us, the more we can do. Being disabled doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped fishing or traveling or going out — it just means it’s harder to do those things alone. And when we’ve got a safety plan and people we trust to help, we’re happier and more prepared than we would be flying solo.

Even if we can’t or don’t want to do everything with you (which is completely healthy in able-bodied relationships, too), we won’t ask you to stop doing things you love to do.

7) Your sex life is going to be fine. In fact, it’s going to be great. Sex: the DEFCON 1 issue stopping many able-bodied people from dating us, let alone talking to us. There’s no secret disability sex enclave, indoctrination or manual. You don’t need to prove yourself; you just need to be responsive. Whether things are vanilla or not, is up to you.

Why wouldn’t your sex life be great? Are you planning to stop communicating what you need and want? Are you going to not reciprocate, shut down, or gloss over our needs and wants? Those are deal-breakers and intimacy-killers in any relationship. Chances are, if you’re attracted enough to someone to have sex with them, it’s going to bring down the mood really, breathtakingly fast if you’re not both enjoying it.

Yes, some people with disabilities have special considerations that they’ll want (or not want) to clue you in on. Sadly, many people with disabilities are subjected to emotional, psychological or sexual abuse. Like with anyone sorting out feeling of trauma and victimization, patience and tenderness go a long way. Sometimes, medications might throw off desire or enjoyment. That’s frustrating for both parties. As always, take an active to decide what’s right for you, how you want to figure out it together and whether one or both of you needs a change.

8) Just because we can’t do something, doesn’t mean we don’t want to. On the flip side, just because we don’t want to do something, doesn’t mean we can’t. This is so huge. If you get this down, 90 percent of your couple’s fights will never happen.

We want to be included and a part of your life. We want to be invited to the parties, the dinners, the night outs and the weekend trips. And, if we’re physically or mentally are up to it, we’ll be there. But if we don’t want to be there, that’s fine too. It’s not an end-all if we don’t want to see your friend who makes wheelchair jokes or the aunt who squats down to talk to us on eye level like we’re children. Maybe the next season of “Master of None” just came out on Netflix and we want to stay home.

9) Strategize the best way to use individual strengths. This is a big one, especially if you think you’re ready to move in with someone, get married or start a family. We all have strengths and weakness in the kitchen, in the laundry room, in the household budgeting and in the day-to-day minutia that makes a life.

People who have certain physical limitations might find it hard to stand to do the dishes, load and carry laundry, clean the home or to do grocery runs. So if you can, order your groceries online and have them delivered. Find a place with a dishwasher. Hire a cleaner a few times a month. It’s worth the stress it will save you, I promise. If that’s not feasible, split up the household chores to your best advantages.

And in the rare case that you live with someone who can’t do any housework, remember three things: a) they’re contributing other, essential emotional labor that is meaningful and invaluable to your well-being; b) they probably feel bad about this all of the time already and rather than lashing out at them if you’re frustrated and need help, you should look for solutions elsewhere; and c) you probably knew about this getting into it with them.

If you didn’t and disability came as a surprise after an accident or illness, you should see a couples therapist to sort out your needs and plan for them together. There’s no shame in getting help at any time, and it could save your relationship.

10) And finally, how to break up with someone. I know, depressing as hell, but I’ve watched too many bad breakups and divorces to let people hit the same rocks.

Generally, the rules of a break up stay solid: be honest and prompt about your feelings, employ as little contact as possible, put things in a box, stay amiable if you can, avoid common places for the time being. But when you’ve been involved with someone who has a disability, there are some key spots to navigate.

Breakups are not just emotionally rough but have scientifically proven to make people mentally and physically unwell. For disabled people, falling in love is an act of bravery because experiencing a breakup can set back health care. It’s not just losing your best friend or imagined future — it can exacerbate chronic illness symptoms. That’s really, really tough to manage and get through. So just keep that in mind.

Another thing that I might advise against is deleting photos on social media or throwing mementos away. Obviously, if your partner hurt you in a deep way or the pain of keeping reminders of them around is too great, do what you will and delete at will. But if you’re already not talking and blocking each other on social media, consider this.

People who have disabilities fight every moment of their lives to be seen. They are erased in virtually every aspect of public life, to spare able-bodied people the indignity and discomfort of accommodating and appreciating them. Erasure might not mean a thing to you — but to someone who experiences erasure on a daily basis, it could be devastating. So, if the break up is amicable, if you want to try to be friends one day, if you’re not sure you could be causing them that kind of pain, don’t hit delete. Save the memory of that person in a way you would for anyone else you loved and lost.

Above all, know that disabled people want to love and be loved. We’re just like everyone else, with our own desires and needs. And if you can get with it, we’ll get with you.

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