Online Dating as a Wheelchair User

A partner in their wheelchair and their girlfriend out for a walk by the bay, crossing a bridge. It is nighttime and they are reflecting in the light.  By Alexandria Shannon, Oct. 2021.
Jan 24, 2022 | by Kayley Lawrenz

Dating and building a partnership with someone is a beautiful experience that every person desires. We all want to love and be loved. However, after sustaining a spinal cord injury (SCI), reentering the dating game can be scary for many people. When we are newly injured, we are still deconstructing the many incorrect ableist beliefs we may hold, such as the feeling that no one would want a partner who uses a wheelchair and trying to understand what dating will be like with an SCI. Fear not, my fellow friends with SCIs; I am here to help you build a picture of what dating with an SCI may look like for you. Specifically, in this blog, I will be discussing the interesting world of online dating with a disability. First, I will discuss my opinion on informing potential partners about your SCI. Second, I will go into ableism and fetishization. Lastly, I will mention a few essential things to remember when dating online after an SCI.

To Disclose or Not Disclose You Have a Disability

Every person who has an SCI seems to ask themselves how and when they should approach disclosing their disability. Some make their disability clear from the beginning with full-body photos that include their wheelchair. They also may write about their SCI in their bio. Others obscure their wheelchair in photos. These individuals often only mention their disability after speaking for a while or before a date. In comparison, some will conceal their chair in photos and not inform the person about their SCI until they show up to the date.

Whichever way you go about disclosing your injury to a potential partner on a dating site is ultimately your choice! However, in my opinion, being upfront and honest about your SCI in your profile is the best choice. I have not always had this opinion though, and I would like to tell you how I came to this conclusion.

I did not start online dating until I was around 18-years old. When I first started, I almost completely hid my wheelchair. It was hidden in a way that if you did not have a disability or know someone with one, or scrutinize my photos, it is unlikely you would have known. In my mind, I wanted the person to get to know me before they saw my chair. That way, when I told them, they would not care. So, I would chat with someone for a while, and when they asked to meet me, I would say something like:

“I would love to meet up. However, I do need to make sure you noticed that I use a wheelchair. If you didn’t notice and you are not okay with it, you can just tell me, and we can stop talking. If you didn’t notice, but you’re open to still seeing me, great! I’m an open book, so if you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask. If you did notice, and you don’t care, that’s great.”

Some guys would not answer. Others responded, saying they did not notice, and they are no longer interested. Others wanted to keep talking but would friendzone me very quickly, and some would say they did not notice, but they did not care.

Then, at the age of 21, after a 6-month relationship ended, I stayed away from dating entirely and focused on school, work, and myself. However, after about two years of being single, I decided to dive back into the online dating game. When I made my profile, I still cropped my photos out of a fear that no one would match with me, but not as much. So, my wheelchair was more noticeable. However, you still had to look closely to notice. I would send a similar message to the one I mentioned above before meeting with anyone.

I am notoriously lazy about answering my phone, and that included my dating apps. However, after some time, I started talking to a guy that I really liked. He seemed kind and funny and was absolutely beautiful, so I started to get quite excited about the prospect of meeting in person. However, after I told him I used a wheelchair, he never answered me and deleted me from Snapchat. This ghosting really stung, and it was that night that I made my first dating profile that showed my wheelchair.

If I am honest, the alter ego inside my head went back and forth between panicking and being proud of myself for a good week. In that week, I learned several important things, including:

  1. Having my disability on display saved me from a lot of rejection. I no longer got my hopes up to only have them crushed when someone did not accept my disability. No longer was I ghosted when someone found out because they knew about my disability before messaging me. For me, I felt empowered, confident, and accepted, rather than scared of rejection based on a disability that I believe has made me a more beautiful person on the inside.
  2. Having my disability on display allowed me to be myself. I no longer had to tiptoe around questions like, “what sports do you enjoy?” I no longer had to be concerned about telling the individual messaging me about my SCI because they already knew. I could feel free to be me and share all of my story with another person, and that feels incredible.
  3. The people I spoke to appreciate my openness and transparency about my disability. I no longer lost the trust of people I genuinely enjoyed getting to know or had angry messages because someone thought I was “tricking” them into liking me.
  4. I began to see my disability as a jerk meter. Displaying my disability allowed me to weed out all the potential partners that I would not want in my life for the long haul. Those who led with “can you still have sex?” or focused only on my wheelchair would not get replies from me, and those who put me first in the conversation, and questions regarding my disability second, often received replies.
  5. Displaying my wheelchair on my profiles allowed me to be open about my disability, making it a nonissue. Doing so minimized the focus on my SCI for both me and most of the people I talked to. For the first time, my own internalized ableism was not running my dating life.

Ableist Comments and Fetishization of People with Disabilities

While I encourage you to have your disability evident in your photos or written in your bio if you like, I would be lying if I said doing so will result in rainbows and butterflies. Ableism and disability fetishes (otherwise known as devoteeism) exist everywhere, and you need to be aware that you will run into both from time to time. Sometimes someone will say something ableist or fetishizing in their opening line, and others will wait a bit before saying either. Regardless, receiving these kinds of messages is never very fun.

Ableist and fetishizing comments to look out for include:

  • “I know what to do to make you walk again.”
  • “It appears you have suffered substantially in life and still maintain positivity. Bless you.”
  • “I was impressed that you were 24 and had a wheelchair and a tracheostomy, and I can see that you are probably happier than my able-bodied self, and you inspire me.”
  • “You look so happy; it makes me wonder what I have to be so miserable about.”
  • “What can you still do sexually?”

This particular comment is ableist, depending on when and how a person asks about sexual intimacy after an SCI. When someone asks this question before trying to get to know you, it is highly ableist and annoying. However, if you are beginning to build a relationship with someone and you two are talking about intimacy, it may be just fine. In my opinion, questions like, “Is there anything I need to know about sex and your injury?” is valid from a person when you are building a relationship. For example, I often mention to my partner that we may need to use more lube because my injury causes me to produce less natural lubricant during sexual intimacy.

  • “Can you still feel sex?”
  • “Why are you dating? You have a disability.”
  • “It is so inspiring to me that you are trying this online dating thing.”
  • “You are so beautiful for someone in a wheelchair.”
  • “You are still so cute! I bet all people still flirt and hit on you. How are you still single?”
  • “How could you ignore my message? It is not like you probably have many options.”
  • “You are a beautiful woman! I saw that chair, and it brought tears to my eyes.”
  • “I have never had sex with someone in a wheelchair before.”
  • “I would love to take you out and push you anywhere you want to go.”

When you decide you are ready to dive into the dating game, you will receive comments like these, and it is your choice on how you want to respond. In my case, I never reply to fetishizing comments. Likewise, sometimes I completely ignore ableist comments and do not reply. Other times, I choose to try educating a person who says an ableist comment. However, if you choose to educate, you need to be prepared for people not to listen. Some will appreciate you taking the time to educate them on their miseducated beliefs. Others will say you misinterpreted them and blame you for taking their words to be ableist, and some will lash out at you, calling you awful names. I have learned that whenever a person reacts negatively in these situations, just stop answering because you cannot change their mind.

It is ableist when someone refers to you as inspiring for existing or being happy after an SCI. Additionally, making assumptions about your level of needs or assuming you need/want to be pushed around is ableist. Believing your life is sad or one to be pitied by making comments similar to the ones above is ableist. Assuming you cannot have sex or assuming a change in sensation ruins sex is ableist. Being sexually attracted to you because you use a wheelchair is fetishization. The reality is that these beliefs, assumptions, and feelings exist because we live in an ableist world, which sucks.

However, there are so many people who do not see someone’s disability as a dealbreaker. I promise many people will see you before they see your disability. Therefore, find someone who does not fetishize your disability. Instead, find someone open to learning about your physical needs and treats you as their equal. Someone who treats you as someone they are romantically interested in, where the topic of your disability is not the main focus of your interactions.

Important Notes to Remember when Online Dating

  1. You do not need to disclose every aspect of your disability in your bio. Will a potential partner eventually need to understand how you get around, or the ins and outs of how your body functions after an SCI? Probably, yes. However, you are not secretive if you do not put “I PEE USING A CATHETER” on your profile. Having a full-body photo with you using your wheelchair or a short positive snippet about your SCI in your bio is just fine!
  2. Whether you are trying online dating or trying it the old-fashioned way, some people will not want to date you because you use a wheelchair. This fact is something you must accept, and it is going to hurt. However, it is essential to remind yourself that they have no clue what your life is like. So, when a person says they will not date someone who uses a wheelchair or has a disability, it is not an indication that something is wrong with you but rather an indication of the stereotypes they have chosen to believe.
  3. Remember that in many cases, you may not match with someone you like, or things will not work out due to lifestyle differences or assumptions about lifestyle differences, rather than because they are not accepting of your wheelchair or disability. For example, regardless of whether I like someone’s profile or not, I do not message people who love winter sports or extreme sports such as rock climbing. Due to my injury, I cannot handle cold temperatures, and my injury level makes extreme sports very difficult. Therefore, I consider my lifestyle and needs with their lifestyle and needs and decide to message based on these factors.
  4. Be confident in yourself and your disability. People are attracted to confidence. When you seem uncomfortable with the disability you live with or lack confidence regarding your SCI; others are more likely to react negatively towards your disability. Expressing shame, embarrassment, or an ableist mindset when discussing your SCI, either in your profile bio or in conversations with matches, will only result in negative experiences. Your disability does not define you, so do not define yourself by your disability.
  5. It is important to remind yourself that everyone struggles to date nowadays, regardless of whether you have a disability or not. Almost everyone has been ghosted or had opening messages to matches unanswered. Statistically, online daters are actually more likely not to get a reply than get a reply. So, jump into the dating pool headfirst, be unapologetic about your disability, do not get too discouraged, and do not put too much pressure on finding “the one.” Dating is supposed to be fun, so let yourself have fun!
  6. As a wheelchair user, experiencing access issues is inevitable throughout a new relationship. To avoid experiencing these issues on a first date, it is a good idea to plan the date together. It can be difficult for someone to independently plan an accessible date if they have never dated someone who uses a wheelchair before. So, if you plan it together, it saves the awkward, often disappointing situation of getting somewhere and having the place be inaccessible. If you do happen to run into an accessibility issue, have a plan to deal with it. Rather than feeling embarrassed, remind yourself that a potential partner needs to understand that this is a common issue in your life. View the issue as an opportunity to show your potential partner how well you workaround inaccessibility. You may also want to take the opportunity to educate your date on how inaccessibility creates inequity.
  7. When creating your dating profile, use photos of you being active and having fun with friends and family, as well as individual photos of yourself. These photos not only demonstrate your personality and lifestyle to potential matches, but they also squash the ridiculous stereotypes that exist in a society that say people living with disabilities are not active or living happy, fulfilling lives.
  8. As you gain more lived experience using a wheelchair, you will experience people trying to set you up with potential partners. However, you will begin to notice that your able-bodied counterparts often only try to set you up with other people with disabilities. Remember that while you should not rule out dating others with disabilities, you should never feel like dating within the disability community is your only option.
  9. DO NOT SETTLE!! In all honesty, I still need to constantly shut down the internalized ableism I have been raised with and remind myself of this point. You are worthy of love, and your disability does not change that fact. Therefore, refrain from staying in a relationship you are not happy in or continuing to talk to someone you are not interested in just because they are interested in you or do not consider the wheelchair to be an issue. Do not let your brain convince you that this person is the only person out there who will be interested because that narrative is far from the truth!

To find out more about blogger Kayley Lawrenz, you can visit: /our-bloggers