Culturally pervasive attitudes of ableism imply that disabled people are totally removed from sexual and romantic life, or even imagine them as children. Some disabled people may have internalized these messages too, feeling like dating is out of reach. It’s not! While dating is never easy for anyone regardless of ability status, and you’ll likely encounter ableism in some corners, it’s also more than possible to build a healthy, fulfilling dating and romantic life with partners who adore and are attracted to you. Here’s my best advice on where to start:
Establish your own boundaries around disability issues before the date
If you’re open to dating able-bodied people — or potentially disabled people with a different experience of disability than you — it’s totally reasonable to be concerned about ableism, microaggressions, or just plain rejection. While you can’t control whether someone will pursue you or be attracted to you, you can control what behavior you’re willing to accept, and take the initiative to set those boundaries.
What are your boundaries and expectations for an able-bodied partner? What do red flags look like to you? Is it a dealbreaker for you if someone asks invasive medical questions? Is it a dealbreaker if they try to ignore your disability entirely? Would you expect an ideal able-bodied partner to show allyship and solidarity by educating themselves about your disability or about disability justice on their own time? Decide these things for yourself ahead of time so you can assess potential dates when your thoughts aren’t clouded by attraction or excitement.
Make your list of green flags
Everyone should go into dating with a sense of their own green flags – things you’re actively looking for and signal to you that you’re with someone who’s a good fit, not just a lack of red flags.
Green flags will speak to the concrete things about a potential partner that indicates compatibility — not just characteristics, like “funny” or “kind,” but things like “actively stays in touch with friends from past eras of their life.” Not all of your important green flags will be about disability-related issues, of course, but it’s worth thinking about what a compatible partner would look like in terms of disability allyship and partnership.
Would a green flag be that they already have disabled friends and family that they actively advocate for? They volunteer assistance or support — or that they don’t, and wait for you to lead on how you’d like to be supported. Are they generally a thoughtful and empathetic person? Do they generally approach areas of difference in identity or privilege in their life without centering themselves?
Set the tone for your talking about disability
It’s a natural instinct to want to hold back on the parts of ourselves that feel “messy” or “difficult” when we meet someone new and want to impress them — our challenging birth family dynamics, our past relationship baggage, our financial troubles, our disability. This is a totally understandable desire – we want to put our best foot forward, and we definitely don’t want to scare anyone off. It’s also just vulnerable and uncomfortable to let someone we really like see parts of ourselves that we don’t think of as positive.
Although this is a normal desire, it can be counterintuitive for a lot of reasons — with disability especially it’s an instinct you should consider resisting. Downplaying our challenges, desires, and needs can backfire if a relationship does progress. If you’ve made a point of minimizing your access needs for the first months of a relationship and trying to seem “less disabled,” you may well feel like you can’t bring up urgent accommodations or ask for the support you really need later on for fear of changing that narrative — and end up hurting both your relationship and your health. At the same time, you’re closing off an opportunity for a partner who cares about you to actually show up for you — your partner can’t support you as a disabled person if you aren’t upfront about what your needs are. True intimacy in a relationship comes from vulnerability; if you’re serious about a relationship, allowing for the possibility of true vulnerability by being direct about your access needs is key.
To start off on the right foot with this, make a point of talking about your disability early on — and be intentional about setting the tone for how you want your disability to be discussed and considered. If you’re planning a first date in a public place (always a good idea!), bring up right away that you need to confirm whether the venue is accessible for you or not — doing so in a casual but clear way will establish that you do have access needs and considering them is a priority, and also that your disability isn’t a dirty secret or a delicate topic that needs to be tiptoed around.
Foster a spirit of exploration for sex and intimacy
One of the anxieties an able-bodied partner might have in your relationship — and that you may well have, too! — is that it will be hard to find ways to have sex that are accessible, safe, and fulfilling for both of you. Some able-bodied partners may have well-intentioned fears about accidentally hurting you, making you sick, or just generally “doing the wrong thing.” (You may also have those fears!)
While it’s completely real that the sex you have with partners may not be exactly the same as sex between two able-bodied people, it’s still going to be hot, fun, and feel good for both of you. The key is to make sure you’re approaching your sex life with curiosity, openness, and excitement. Rather than imagining the sex you see able-bodied people having on TV or in porn and working backward to try to get as close to it as possible — a recipe for frustration, for able-bodied people too! — try starting with a blank slate and exploring questions about what your sex life could look like.
What parts of your body give you the most pleasure? What positions are most comfortable for you to stay in for a long period of time, and what could you try sexually from that position? Are there body parts or skill sets you have that are different than able-bodied people — like high mobility or a high pain tolerance — that could lead to something fun and different in the bedroom? Are there accommodations or accessibility devices — like wedge pillows for support, body harnesses to suspend in the air like a sex swing, harnesses to position a dildo on your thigh or hand instead of your pelvis — that could open up new possibilities for you? If you’re approaching your sex life with an attitude of exploration and adventure, these questions all offer dozens of hot new things to try out or experiment with — and that’s always the most fun part of a new relationship.