First Time Online Dating as a Disabled Woman was a Disaster.
by Elizabeth Wright
Hesitating on what to write on my dating site profile, I was in two minds. Do I disclose the truth or hide it for as long as possible?
Having a very visible physical disability means you live a life where you are constantly seen, appraised, judged because of what your body looks like. You are not normal or average let alone regarded as beautiful or attractive. Even if you are deemed attractive in some way you are frequently told “ohhhh you’re so pretty, it’s such a shame you have a disability.”
It had been over a year since I had been on a date. A date where the guy brought along his work mates. In the end the date had felt more like a lunch gathering of friends… them, plus me. I continued chatting to the guy for another week or two, but when he made a lewd comment about my guy friend and myself I cut contact completely.
People might say I shouldn’t be too picky. Especially in light of my having a disability. I’m entitled to have standards though. As a disabled woman I need to be careful of who I date. I need someone who is open minded, kind, caring, and wanting to understand my life as a disabled woman. They have to not be embarrassed by me or hide me, or fetishise me, or use me. They have to accept all parts of me.
I decided to disclose my disability in a straight forward kind of way. In my profile I said,
I am quite sporty. I competed at two Paralympic Games. Having competed at the Paralympics means I have a physical disability. It’s called limb difference. My right arm and leg are shorter and I wear a prosthetic leg. I can give you more details if we end up chatting. I hit publish and expected to hear crickets.
I didn’t hear crickets.
In fact, within hours, I started getting emails from the dating site telling me Josh, Henry, Lenny, Jo, Greg, and Nick had waved at me. As I opened the dating site I wondered — had they read my profile? Did they know that I had a disability? There were guys who turned me off, like Dan, with his veins popping out of his oversized biceps. There were guys like Rob, who had studied art at university, just like me. And there were guys who were mega hot, who enticed me with their nonchalant looks and hairy chins. Guys like Pete who’s gaze smouldered through the screen.
Over the first few days of my foray into online dating I wheedled potential dates down to three. One of the guys in particular hit all my buttons, if you know what I mean. Tall, dark haired, good looking, he was a journalist and came across as highly educated and witty. He made me laugh, which for me is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Let’s call him Mark.
Mark and I bounced messages back and forth via the dating site like it was a tennis match. The conversation was fun. A lot of fun. We flirted like our lives depended on it. After a week of messaging I dropped a rather large hint about meeting up. This is when things started to get a bit weird. Mark didn’t respond for a day. And when he did respond he acted as though I hadn’t asked him to meet up with me. I noticed that he had been looking at my profile again. I left it a few days, kept the banter going, until I plucked up the courage to suggest meeting in the city centre for coffee.
Mark’s response was not what I was expecting.
Are you disabled?
I sat in front of my laptop gaping. The man had obviously looked at my profile, but had he not read it? Why was he trying to confirm if I had a disability when I had written it down in black and white? Did he think I was some weird attention seeker or fetishist? Did he think I had Munchausen Syndrome?
I typed back immediately — yes I am disabled. I stated that in my profile. I have limb difference, this means that I am missing half my right arm and right leg and I wear a prosthetic leg.
My foot tapped impatiently as I watched and waited for his reply. Minutes passed and nothing. I couldn’t hold back any longer. Is my disability an issue for you?
My heart dropped when his reply came through moments later.
I’m not sure… I don’t think this is going to work out.
Indignant, I thought back to all of his flirty messages, which included classics like: you are so beautiful in your profile pic, wow you’re amazing- I can’t wait to finally meet you, and I want to show you my favourite beachside walk- it’s so romantic! Was I naive? Had I just been the biggest fool ever in believing his intentions?
I replied with a snarl. Not going to work out? What the hell have we been doing for the past week then?
Mark responded. You weren’t who I thought you were. Your photos don’t show your disability.
I had to bite the inside of my cheek to stop from screaming through the internet at him. To be fair I had only put a portrait style photo up. Perhaps I should have put a photo up of me in a bikini, my limb difference on show. I lived with fear that putting a photo up on the dating site that clearly showed my disability would mean absolute rejection. This fear is internal ableism at its most potent, especially when it comes to sexuality, dating, and relationships. The point was I had still stated in my profile that I had a disability and it wasn’t my fault he hadn’t read that. I told him this and then clicked my laptop closed. I really didn’t want to see his response.
When I checked back later he hadn’t responded. In fact he had taken his profile down off the site.
Mark decimated my confidence about online dating. He made me doubt my ability to get guys to look past my limb difference. But we live in a world now where a large number of people find their significant other via online dating. In 2017, US sociologist, Michael Rosenfeld discovered that 39 percent of heterosexual couples met online, compared to 22 percent in 2009. Using technology to meet our romantic partners is becoming the new norm. I have friends who have met their partners online. Family members who have met their partners online.
And in this quest for a forever partner, I have learnt that disabled women, like myself, can meet decent guys online.
After Mark I pushed myself to meet up with the other guys I had been chatting to. One guy took me to a movie — worst first date ever. The other guy lived not far from me, so we met at a bar halfway between our houses. This guy was fun. But more friendship fun than “I want to seduce you” kind of fun. We did meet up again a few more times, as friends, but even that friendship has petered out.
I’m not put off by dating sites. I may hide it well, but underneath this tough, I-can-do-anything-myself-I-don’t-need-a-man exterior, I am a softy romantic at heart. I still have to get a little braver in putting up photos that clearly show my disability. My disability is a key part of me and if a guy can’t handle it, for whatever reason, I would rather he not contact me from the start.
Online dating can be a minefield. It’s not just the rejection that you have to deal with, but also the fetishists who really like an amputee, or the guys with a hero complex who feel they have to save you from yourself (and society).
I won’t give up on the online dating just yet, but honestly, it can be a ball ache. So if you know someone who might dig me and are happy to be set up on an anonymous date (“blind date” is ableist language people!), that is one area of dating I have yet to try. And who knows, that might be the better way to go about finding that significant other I’m searching for.
Elizabeth Wright is a magazine editor, writer, disability activist, keynote and TEDx speaker, and Paralympic Medalist. You can find Elizabeth here on Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin.