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Dating with a physical disability

Dating with a physical disability

By Kent Miller

Think you have troubles when it comes to dating? Your nose is too big, your bank account too small, and any decent person worth dating will run screaming the moment they get a peek of your daft family? (Didn’t you know that every family is daft?) Meet Tiffiny Carlson of Minneapolis, MN — wheelchair-bound power dater. Or Rob Oliver of Pittsburgh, PA, also paralyzed — and happily married. Or Manhattanite Lauren Ruotolo, who has McCune-Albright Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that makes her body so fragile that, as a baby, she broke a femur rolling over in bed.

“It’s hard for anybody to date,” says Ruotolo candidly. “It’s definitely harder for people who are disabled because of the insecurities they have about someone looking at them.” So what are the secrets these possibly unexpected dating successes have to share? Read on to find out!

Remember, it’s what’s inside that counts
Character comes in all sorts of containers: fat and thin, short and tall, female and male, young and old. Sometimes it comes in a “broken” container — one that goes about in a wheelchair or on crutches. But it’s the spirit that really matters. “When people meet me, sometimes they say, ‘Oh my God, she’s disabled,’” says Ruotolo, who stands (with help from her constant companions, a pair of crutches) a little over four-foot-two in her Jimmy Choos — hence the title of her memoir, Unstoppable in Stilettos. “But once we get to know each other, those feelings go away.”
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“I still have the same personality, the same bad sense of humor, the same love of trivia,” says Oliver, 38, who was paralyzed in a body-surfing accident when he was 21. Having a disability can actually make a person stronger by forcing them to confront a painful reality. When Ruotolo was a little girl living on Long Island, doctors said her body was so fragile that she should stay in a wheelchair. She now jets around the world as Director of Entertainment Promotions at Hearst Magazines.

Don’t look for a hero or heroine to date
After a crippling accident, it can be very tempting for a disabled person to seek out a knight in shining armor — someone who will care for, help, and bend over backward for him or her. But these relationships seldom work out, says Carlson, who dove into a shallow pond at the age of instantly shattering her spine. “You don’t want someone in a romantic relationship to be your caregiver. Your date might believe he or she wants to do that, but eventually that person’s going to be sick of it,” explains Carlson, who’s fashioned a successful career as a writer and blogger

“I didn’t want somebody feeling sorry for me,” asserts Oliver. “When we got married, [my wife] expected that I would work and support the family.” David Linton, a professor at Manhattan Marymount College, is an able-bodied man who has been happily married for 29 years to a woman paralyzed in an automobile accident — not because he felt sorry for her, but “because she was smart and funny and sexy.” LeslieBeth Wish, a social worker in Sarasota, FL who blogs at, has counseled disabled veterans extensively. She advises them to ask themselves: “Would this person be attracted to me if I didn’t have a disability? Would I be attracted to this person if I didn’t have a disability?” After all, observes Wish: “No one wants to be married to a martyr.”

Be prepared to make some adjustments
None of the above should minimize the very real challenges of maintaining a relationship in which one partner faces limits on where he or she can go and what activities can be done on dates. As Ruotolo movingly describes in her memoir, a steep flight of stairs can prove a daunting challenge to someone who has one leg that’s two-and-a-half inches shorter than the other. Carlson shares one typical dilemma: “My boyfriend gets tickets to a [Minnesota] Vikings game, but they’re in a section where I can’t sit. What do I do?” then answers her own question: “I say, ‘don’t feel bad, baby, just go out and have fun and we’ll get together later tonight.’”

Typically able-bodied partners quickly develop “access antennae,” to use Linton’s apt phrase. “You say, ‘Let’s go to my favorite restaurant’ and then you notice a 10-inch step… [S]uddenly, you become aware of an assumption you’ve always made about that restaurant; namely, that anyone should be able to enjoy it.” Wish advises abled/disabled couples to “run errands together — you spend most of your life doing some pretty mundane things.” This way, the able-bodied person will become aware of the disabled partner’s everyday life — the clothing racks in the department store that are too close together to allow a wheelchair to pass through, the disdainful looks given in the supermarket checkout line, the subway that’s not wheelchair-friendly.

Of course, any relationship requires adjustments and negotiations. “Everybody has problems,” Oliver declares flatly. “You can see mine a lot more clearly than you can see others’ problems, maybe, but everyone has issues.”

Don’t settle!
Able-bodied people are constantly advised not to pick a partner who may be just be an “OK” match, but isn’t quite what they’re looking for overall. Think how great this temptation must be for the physically disabled! When Oliver woke up in a hospital after his life-altering accident, “I told [my girlfriend, Becky]: ‘It looks like there will be a lot of limitations in my future. If you don’t feel OK with that, then just leave. Don’t worry about what people will say… She said, ‘If you think you will get rid of me that easily, you have another thing coming.” They’ve been married for 19 years and have three children.

Live a life defined by achievements, not limitations
“Love is so much more than what happens when you’re dating,” Oliver says. “I’ve learned a lot of life lessons.” Carlson has had a successful and happy love life that includes both steady boyfriends — some of who she met online. Far from limiting her in achieving what she wanted out of life, her spinal-cord injury made her “more determined to get what [I] really want.” Of her life-altering accident, Carlson says: “I just decided not to let that stupid split-second decision ruin the rest of my life. Having a disability polished me and made me a richer person.”

Kent Miller is currently writing a comic young adult novel. His articles have appeared in Nintendo Power magazine, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The San Francisco Chronicle and The St. Petersburg Times (Florida).

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