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Dating and disabilities

Dating and disabilities

By Christine M. Coppa

Mainstream America has recently caught on to just how “normal” it is to date someone in a wheelchair. TV and movies, both fictional and reality-based, are showing more people dating the wheelchair-bound, from the bevy of girlfriends and fans in the hit Paralympian documentary Murderball to Lacey and Ryan on MTV’s The Real World Austin to scenes on Joan of Arcadia and Saved!

Lindsay Stump from Jacksonville, Florida, didn’t need that wake-up call. She and her boyfriend Danny live together, have season tickets to the Jacksonville Jaguars and take their dog to the park — even though Danny became a paraplegic after being thrown from a truck. “Danny is my soul mate,” she says. “We live a very normal life.” Sounds great — in theory.

But for many people, the thought of dating someone in a chair still seems daunting — is it rude to ask questions? Will people stare? Can we have sex? Will my date be able to get into my car? First, let’s look at the big picture: “Dating someone in a wheelchair is not that different from dating an able-bodied person,” says Maximillian Wachtel, Ph.D, psychologist at Cherry Creek Psychology in Denver, Colorado. “Just like able-bodied individuals, some people in wheelchairs are loving and interesting, while some are jerks.” Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are five ways to prep yourself before a date with someone who has a physical disability.
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1. Be willing to help—or not
Depending on your partner’s mobility, you may need to do things like drive, open the door, assist with a transfer, assemble the wheelchair, feed your date or sign the bill. Then again, your “disabled” date, even a quadriplegic, may be able to do all of that — it’s case-by-case, so keeping an open, team-player attitude is key. “Certain people can’t deal with dating a guy in a wheelchair,” says Matt Castelluccio of Monroe, New York, whose spinal cord was severed in a motorcycle accident. “There are things that able-bodied people take for granted. A woman has to be prepared to work with her partner to overcome those challenges.” Rushing to help when it’s not needed can be insulting, so ask beforehand what your date will need. You can try a casual, “Hey, just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help with arranging transportation for our date or anything else you might need.” You might want to mention if it’s your first time you’ve been out with someone in a wheelchair so your date understands that you’d appreciate some guidance. If you’re upfront about this, you’ll be both relieved and prepared.

2. Get into the comfort zone
Make the date comfortable: Call ahead to make sure the destination is accessible and if you’re driving, ask your date to bring the handicap parking permit. Conversationally, don’t ignore it. “Your date knows he or she is in a wheelchair, so don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Ask questions if you’re curious,” advises Wachtel. Here’s how Keith Cavill from Wayne, New Jersey, a former motocross racer featured in Murderball, sees the situation: “I still go out to bars and meet new people, and I love when women ask questions about my disability.” On the other hand, know that focusing on a disability all night makes you seem obsessed with that, not who your date really is. “Don’t place all your attention on his or her handicap,” says Wachtel.

3. Know that it’s OK if the date’s not perfect
Don’t chalk up an awkward moment as the result of dating someone with a disability — those things happen when you date anyone. “I took this woman to a packed concert and her seat next to me was removed to fit another wheelchair,” remembers James Richard Johnson from Atlanta, Georgia, who’s a quadriplegic. “She had to sit behind me. It was definitely stressful,” says Johnson. Know that worrying too much about your date with a disabled person will make you more self-conscious when something small happens, so relax. Keep your sense of humor and roll with whatever comes your way. And stop fretting over whether you could ever settle down with someone in a wheelchair. “Don’t worry so much about being intimate and having babies — which is possible — and other long-term issues,” says Stump. “It’s just a first date!”

4. Shrug off the stares
Yes, out-of-the ordinary scenarios — like two people out on a date and one of them being in a wheelchair — can cause some people to do double takes... and worse. “I’ve gotten stares, stupid questions like ‘Is that your brother?’ and patronizing comments like ‘You’re so sweet to date him,’” says Stump. When her boyfriend got a brand new red convertible, someone asked her if she had to drive him around. “Why would he buy a car he couldn’t drive? He’s driven me on every single date we’ve been on!” says Stump. No matter how many ignorant questions or comments you get, remember that at one point you probably didn’t know much about people in wheelchairs, either. But getting upset only puts the focus on other people, when you should be paying attention to your date. Answer polite questions if you like — you may be able to bust some myths about dating someone who’s disabled.

5. Remember that your date is different
Most people with a serious medical condition experience resentment and depression, and yes, that can affect their dating lives. An understanding, patient date won’t take it personally if issues like that come up. “After I got home from the hospital after my accident, I took a lot of my frustrations out on my boyfriend,” says Jessica Gordon from Bucksport, Maine, who’s a quadriplegic. “It took a while before I realized I still had the desire to find true happiness and love with another person,” she says. It may take time and patience and perhaps professional counseling to work through the issues that can come up, but remember that all relationships involve challenges — and the one you’re pursuing is different... but no less worth fighting for.

Christine M. Coppa is a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for First for Women, In Touch, Glamour, and Philadelphia.