My experience with dating apps as a disabled woman

Online dating is way more complicated with a disability for reasons that I didn’t fully consider before entering the hellscape known as Tinder.

Being single at 27 can really suck sometimes. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with being single at all, because there’s tons of times when I’m actually grateful to be so. But when you see your friends getting engaged, married, having kids, starting like… a real grown up life and you’re still alone? It’s not the best feeling.

It’s hard to meet people organically when you’re not free to go out independently. And it’s even harder to approach someone or to be approached when you only really leave the house with your mom, brother, or close friend. Throw in the wheelchair and the closest thing you get to being flirted with is a someone praying for your legs.

In my experience, dating apps have been what feels like the only chance I really have to potentially meet anyone romantically. I actually had some naive hopes when downloading the apps and setting up my profiles. Oh, to be that innocent again. Turns out dating apps are garbage heaps and they really don’t make anything easier. Especially not for someone as awkward as I am.

Online dating is way more complicated with a disability for reasons that I didn’t fully consider before entering the hellscape known as Tinder.

Online dating is way more complicated with a disability for reasons that I didn’t fully consider before entering the hellscape known as Tinder.
[IMG: Photo of Karly in the park. Trees and lights are blurry behind her. She’s leaning on one arm in her wheelchair wearing a pink tshirt that says “the future is accessible”.]

First of all, there’s the decision of whether or not you’re going to disclose your disability.

A lot of people prefer to keep their disability private until comfortable with someone enough to discuss. Totally fair. But it’s definitely something that comes up while dating, and unfortunately, a lot of people even view it as a deal breaker. Or they’re so ableist about it that their reactions become a deal breaker for you. So there’s going to be that debate on whether it’s worth the risk of wasting your time and crossing your fingers they don’t react horribly, or if you’re going to say screw it and mention it in your bio.

For me, there wasn’t much of a choice. I’m very obviously disabled. Probably 95% of my photos have my wheelchair visible, so it’s pretty much impossible to hide the fact that I have a disability. I have no problems showing off my wheelchair, but sometimes I wish I had a minute to get to know someone without having it be the forefront of the conversation.

In an ideal world it wouldn’t change the way people interact with me, but it does and sometimes it feels like this huge barrier that people can never seem to see past. I hate the whole “I don’t see disability, I see a person” or any sort of language that dances around the reality of my life like “differently abled” or “handicapable”. My wheelchair and my disease is a big part of my life, so I want them acknowledged. It’s a key part of my identity. But… it shouldn’t be the only thing you ever see. I’m a whole person with a lot more interesting aspects than the fact that I’m sitting in a chair.

Being openly disabled on a dating app can make a massive difference in the kind of experience you’re going to have, and it definitely did for me.

For about 2 seconds I tried not mentioning it. My only photos were selfies so my wheelchair wasn’t shown and my bio didn’t even hint at anything disability related. But honestly I never even ended up talking to the people I managed to match up with. It felt weird and squicky to feel like I was just waiting to drop this bombshell on them.

It wasn’t long and then I added in photos where my wheelchair was prominent. I made sure every bio mentioned being disabled and how if that was an issue for you, don’t even bother swiping right. An option that 99% of people in my area seem to have now taken. The 1% left are looking for someone to join in on threesomes or they want to ask weird questions that should never be deemed appropriate.

I was opening myself up to a lot of invasive questions, cruel comments, and general grossness from strangers.

A lot of reactions to disabled people looking to date are based in pity and misinformation. You’d be surprised how comfortable people are to ask you if and how you can have sex as their opening greeting to you. Disabled people are rarely seen as sexual beings or romantically appealing.  Sometimes it feels like there’s like this bizarre purity bubble placed around me that everyone is desperately afraid to pop. It’s not wrong to date someone in a wheelchair, but people treat it like it’s skeevy. Which let’s be honest, is because we’re constantly infantilized. To the point where people either think it’s unethical to be with you or it’d be too much of a burden. Like bringing a toddler home instead of a date.

Other people just think it’s weird. Or disgusting. Or a waste of time. Ableism is everywhere and it’s especially aggressive in the dating scene. It’s pretty hard to have a laid back conversation and get to know someone when the second they see you’re in a wheelchair they expect you to prove yourself to be worthy of a date with them. Prove that you can have sex. That you can drink. Work. That you’re not a burden. That you’re not terminal. How long you’ve been disabled and why.

Ah, yes. The classic “what’s wrong with you?” Every disabled person I’ve ever met is well acquainted with that question. As if entering a conversation with someone in a wheelchair immediately deems you entitled to their full medical history.

The other side of the spectrum is pretty awful, too.

Shout out to the ones who want a pat on the back for dating someone with a disability. As if it’s such a massive step down to do so. Something only a Truly Good and Pure person would do. To give up their life to someone so far beneath them who’d be all alone without their kindness and sacrifice. Gag me.

There are people who genuinely believe this way of thinking. They fetishize disabled people and the thought of having control over them. And truthfully, dating is a scary concept when you consider that disabled people are way more likely to be sexually assaulted. It’s a particularly terrifying thought for someone like me who has literally no way to fight back or defend myself physically in any way. There are a lot of red flags I’m constantly on alert for, and they crop up fairly often online.

If you haven’t guessed already, I haven’t had the best experiences with dating apps.

That’s not to say that it’s the same for everyone! Dating apps can be a great alternative for a lot of people since it’s a much more accessible place to meet someone than a bar or club. For me, though, it’s felt pretty unwelcoming both as a woman and a wheelchair user.

Disabled people can and should date. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s really no different for us as it is for abled people. I mean, I have the same desires as everyone else. I want to go on dates and fall in love and get married one day. Plus, I’d love to just meet new people and socialize. My wheelchair doesn’t negate any of that, yet it’s always weighed against every positive attribute I have.

I’m definitely not saying the only reason I’m still single is that I’m in a wheelchair. That’s not the case at all. But if my experiences on Tinder have taught me anything, it’s that the stigma surrounding disability and disabled sexuality is a massive barrier we need to start breaking down.

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