Navigating Love and Dating as a Disabled Person

A woman carrying flowers guides her blind boyfriend as they go for a springtime walk

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Verywell Loved is an ongoing series on the dating and relationship topics people are talking about, with personal stories and expert advice to help you better understand your own experiences. 

David Carter has never lacked confidence when it has come to dating, especially not before becoming disabled at age 24. For him, being rejected was just a reason to move on and ask someone else he was interested in.

“When I was rejected, even in my younger years of dating people, sometimes I would look at their friend sitting next to them and say, ‘Hey, you want to go on a date?’ Just to see what kind of feathers I could ruffle,” he says. But after his injury, the ability to be confident took on entirely new significance.

Carter’s story is a common one among people I’ve spoken to who have been injured over the years. The relationship they were in when they became disabled falls apart, they struggle to find their footing, and then they find someone, usually while participating in a hobby. For David, that meant meeting his wife Brittany at a workshop at the Shepherd Centre, one of the most well-known rehabilitation hospitals in the country. 

“I've said it a couple of times, but there really was a lot of fear that I was never going to find someone, that I would end up being single forever because there weren't really many people that I knew that use wheelchairs or had some kind of physical disability that were in a relationship.”

Carter says that being part of para-sport really pushed him towards seeing himself as desirable, albeit in a rather blunt way: by teammates telling him to take the initiative and talk to people.

Carter, 24

...there really was a lot of fear that I was never going to find someone, that I would end up being single forever because there weren't really many people that I knew that use wheelchairs...

— Carter, 24

"Those were the moments where it [being part of a team] was the most beneficial for me because nobody in the community where I live has any understanding or inkling of what it takes to live with such disabilities and then turn around and still live life to the same extent. Everybody wants to pat you on the shoulder and play pity party over where I live, and I'm not for that."

Recent research in Sexuality and Disability confirms that disabled people—particularly young people—are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to dating. And while there are people making moves, including making dating apps specifically aimed at disabled people like US-based Dateability, there’s still a long way to go before disabled people feel on even ground when it comes to finding long-lasting companionship. 

Building Confidence Is Key

Brianna Campbell (LMFT) of Two Chairs Behavioral Health says that a significant portion of the barriers facing disabled people when it comes to dating actually start earlier than you’d think. For many, it’s in childhood. 

“I think from just a societal, structural standpoint, literally, services end at a certain age. And, I will go out on a limb but, as a society, we do not provide a lot of support to disabled adults.”

Because systems and tools set out for disabled people in schools evaporate once they leave, the burden of consistently advocating for yourself just to stay safe inherently complicates navigating the dating scene. 

“Say you're on a dating app, right? You’re swiping right, you're looking left and you're still trying to navigate, ‘Okay, how do I have this conversation and what does that need to look like? How do I even approach a first date and make sure I have what I need?’” Campbell says.

Yes, Disabled People Are Sexual Beings Too

Dev Ramsawakh, an artist and educator, is another member of the disability community who isn't shy about what building a relationship with them takes.

“My sexuality is a huge part of my identity. I've always considered myself a very horny person," says Ramsawakh.

One of the common barriers for us disabled people, whether we were born with the condition or gained it later in life, is that society tends to de-sexualize us. We are seen as plot devices, as objects, as solo pity partiers. There are far more news segments dedicated to disabled kids getting taken to prom, ones that frame the experience as an act of charity, than there are segments about sustained relationships or sexual health.

In fact, disabled people, particularly those with intellectual and cognitive disabilities, are often left completely out of sexual education conversations. Ramsawakh says that this broad brush approach has really led to challenges when relationship building. It was an event at the University of Toronto discussing the interaction between disability and sexuality that allowed Ramsawakh to give themself permission to identify as disabled.

“That was actually the first time someone encouraged me in a way that made sense to me to identify as disabled and to actually accept that as part of my identity. And it was really helpful to have it in this context of talking about sex, and relationships, and things like that,” Ramsawakh says.

Dev Ramsawakh

My sexuality is a huge part of my identity...but the desexualization of disabled people was one of the things that really kept me from trying to be open about it.

— Dev Ramsawakh

Carter, who now works as a peer support liaison, says that those same perceptions persist for those who get injured beyond those teen years. In his current role, he says he’s consistently educating disabled people and their support systems about navigating relationships and getting over those preconceived notions. 

“It’s more or less them asking if the chair or whatever physical disabilities that they do have can be a distraction for attracting certain types of people…And most of my responses, tend to be, ‘I was confident before my injury and I'm just as confident after my injury as I was before.’ And if someone is focusing heavily on the baggage that comes with what they see in front of them then that’s something that they need to worry about, not me.”

That baggage, whether it's the wheelchair we use, how talk about our disabilities, or otherwise is a barrier that society hasn't quite reckoned with.

Barriers to Relationships Persist

But the dirty truth is that many non-disabled people do tend to share hangups when it comes to dating people with disabilities. Carter says that the key, like in any relationship, is to discuss the realities—and misconceptions—of your disability, something he focused on early.

“As far as the dating scene is concerned, and there are a bunch of things to be worried about, the one thing that I was very avid about was making good communication number one. Because having them understand the things that they need to know in the early stages will prevent me from presenting something to them later down the road, that's going to cause them to back out.”

One example he's given before is his worry about how his now-wife would respond to seeing him transfer out of his chair and into a restaurant booth on their first date.

For Dev, speaking publicly about things like challenging doctors appointments and incontinence, once a source of shame, has helped them build deep connections with people in their life, people they didn't expect would find commonality in those experiences...

Still, Ramsawakh says that understanding disability is part and parcel of building a relationship, romantic or otherwise. For them, being forced to share information about medical concerns like incontinence and the radical dehumanizing experience that is continued medical appointments let them know who they could share things with and who they couldn't.

“I think for me since I was born disabled and I've been disabled my whole life, I can't separate my disability from relationship building. Because it's this whole aspect of myself that in order to build a relationship with me, you have to know about it and understand it.”

Still, having been burned before, Ramsawakh says that there are still things they are slow to share. 

“I’m very open about being disabled. It's not something I have to come out about to people, but I won't get into specifics, or I won't get into my experience with it with just anybody…There are certain things that are, like, only besties allowed.”

Campbell says that, whether you’re disabled or not, it’s important to acknowledge that relationships involve a lot of sensitivity and care.

“Dating in itself, whether you identify as having an invisible disability, physical disability, etc. is kind of like a game of vulnerability. And so you want to make sure you're testing the waters, or being safe, or doing things on terms where you feel like you're in a situation where then you can show up and be vulnerable as your whole self.”

By John Loeppky
John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.