Online dating is a challenge for everyone. But when you have a disability, it’s not just a good pick-up line you need to worry about. Social stigma, discrimination and intrusive questioning are all just part of trying to find the perfect partner. 

I’m a 19-year-old wheelchair user and I’m here to let you in on what online dating is like with cerebral palsy. 

I’ve had cerebral palsy since I was born, the result of a lack of oxygen during birth. I am unable to walk and I use a wheelchair full time. Cerebral palsy is a condition that develops before, during or after birth due to brain damage that affects movement and coordination. Although the condition isn’t progressive, meaning it won’t worsen over time, having cerebral palsy means that I have to adapt to everyday life due to lack of access and preconceived ideas around disability ― which is why dating can be tricky.

I took the plunge into online dating as I was celebrating my 18th birthday, four drinks down in a pub surrounded by couples and an unhealthy amount of Sambuca. In my hazy state, I decided I should let my friends set me up a profile on Tinder. Not thinking much of it, I endlessly swiped through the abundance of profiles of boys I was convinced would never swipe right on me.

After a while, I was chatting with more people and started to become more confident. No one seemed to mind that I had a disability. That is, until I matched with someone who sent what could be considered the worst opening line in history: “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were in a wheelchair, personally, I wouldn’t date you.” 

After this, I started to notice more and more how people were reacting to my profile, and if there’s one top tip I can give you, “Can you have sex?” is not and never will be a flirty, fun or appropriate way to start a conversation. (And you certainly won’t find out.)

Intrusive questions from strangers are something I’m accustomed to. It seems that disability is either seen as a negative or as a fetish to those that “wanna see what it’s like to bed someone who can’t walk.” Yeah, someone really sent me that.

What is it that instantly puts people off? Maybe they think I need a caretaker? Maybe they think I can’t go on nights out? Or is it that they just don’t know about disability and don’t know how to react?

In truth, it’s likely a mix of all three. The amount of times friends have been mistaken for my caretaker is quite frankly insulting, and many people have the misconception that disabled people don’t do ordinary things, like enjoy a Friday night on the town. As for the lack of education being a factor for the reactions of some folks, it’s clear that nobody is educated enough about disability.

I actually lead a rather busy lifestyle; pre-pandemic times I could be found at various concerts at local venues, in the local nightclub on a Saturday or on a lunch date with the girls ― and failing that I’m probably in the pub. In short, I’m fiercely independent and I definitely don’t need a full-time caretaker.

I wish others were more aware of how disabled people can and do lead ordinary lives. Although I can understand why people can feel a little awkward when they’ve had no exposure to disability, if there’s one piece of advice I can give it’s that you should just treat disabled people the same as those who are able-bodied. 

The online experience hasn’t all been disastrously bad. I’ve been on a few dates with people who genuinely don’t mind my cerebral palsy, but finding someone I have a real connection with isn’t something I’ve experienced yet. 

After trying several dating apps and receiving endless awkward and embarrassing questions, as well as going on some dates that I’d rather just forget, I’ve decided to stay single and forgo swiping right. While dating apps are accessible and can make dating easier for those with disabilities, for me it’s a minefield of ableism that I’d rather avoid.

If there’s one final piece of knowledge I want to leave you with it’s this: Disabled people don’t want your pity, we want real and genuine connections. And men, take note when I say if you ask a disabled person if they can have sexual intercourse, the answer will always be, “Not with you.”

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