I’ve always waffled back and forth between being a hopeless romantic and a complete cynic. I’ve been in a wheelchair since I was 5 years old, as the result of a head-on car collision, and I used to subconsciously put up walls because of it. There have been times in my life when I was afraid no one would ever want to date a person in my situation. It’s a constant push and pull between trusting my instincts and being unsure of what’s to come.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how to navigate my wheelchair, and how to have a normal life and normal relationships. What’s more interesting, though, is how others view and handle people with disabilities. Much of it comes from ignorance, while others want to try and demonstrate how cool they are with my disability, so they feel the need to call it out. People largely have good intentions, but just don’t know what to do.
So, here are some of the most important things you need to know when it comes to dating someone with a disability.
1. Bad pickup lines will get you nowhere.
Definitely don’t try lines like “Can I have a ride?” “Do you want to race?” and “Don’t drink and drive.” Seriously. Never a good idea. These lines have been tried on me over a hundred times over the last few years, and they have literally worked once. In that case, it wasn’t the line, but the fact that the guy was just...super hot.
Related: Believe me when I tell you that not all people with disabilities know one another. Several men have come up to me at bars and tried to make conversation by saying, “Hey, my friend Dave is in a wheelchair. Maybe you know him?” Chances are, nope, I don’t know Dave. I can assure you, there’s not a secret club we all hang out at, and this is not a good way to make a first impression.
Honestly, women and men in wheelchairs would rather be approached with the same types of awful pickup lines as someone not in a wheelchair. Coming up to a woman and saying “Hey, gorgeous,” might be cheesy, but at least it could get you a smile.
2. If you’re surprised by my wheelchair, please respond with tact.
I tried my hand at the world of online dating for a while (spoiler alert: it’s the worst), often leaving out the fact that I’m in a wheelchair until the conversation had progressed. To me, it shouldn’t have an impact on my level of attractiveness, but the guys I came into contact with usually had something offensive to say in response.
It’s totally understandable to be surprised, but it’s better to proceed with respect or explain your thoughts. Responding with a “gross” or “Shouldn’t you be trying to date someone else in a wheelchair?” is not only hurtful — it’s mean and ignorant.
3. Assume I can do anything, until I tell you otherwise.
This one can be a bit tricky, as it normally comes from a place of genuine concern. Some of my boyfriends have left me out of things like skiing or beach days, or constantly assumed I needed help because they thought activities would be too difficult for me. It’s better to ask first, and let me tell you what I can or can’t do, than to never ask and be left wondering (or exclude me).
To this day, the man that has taught me the most said to me, “Girl, if I thought you needed help, I wouldn’t be with you right now.” It wasn’t meant to be mean, but quite the opposite — he just always assumed that I could do anything, and I loved knowing someone had that faith in me.
4. Strangers will always stare, and it’s OK if that bothers you.
One night while out in Vegas with a boyfriend, we were being stared at nonstop by almost everyone who walked by. The relationship was fairly new, and it was clear he wasn’t used to the strange looks. My heart broke for him as he asked, “Doesn’t it bother you when people stare at you?” Being stared at in public has become such a norm for me that I often don’t realize it’s happening, until it affects the person I’m with. It’s a bizarre experience at first, but eventually you learn to ignore it.
5. You should probably come armed with a clever retort.
Most often I’m too polite for my own good, and when strangers approach me and whomever I’m dating, I often clam up or smile politely. They think they have the right to ask if we’re able to have children, or assume my boyfriend is my caretaker.
In one instance, I was getting out of my car at a beer festival and several strangers yelled at my boyfriend for not helping me. He told them that he needed more help than I ever would. And one time at a restaurant, when I was in college, a waitress addressed only my boyfriend until he pointed out that I could speak for myself.
The ability to think on your toes in situations like that will get you far — it’s a powerful way of showing others that you’re comfortable, and that the situation is totally normal.
6. Ask any and all questions you have.
Any relationship will falter when there’s not open communication, but it’s even more important when you’re dating someone with a disability. Whether it’s understanding the nature of the disability, expressing concerns, or asking how things are going to work in the boudoir, no question is off limits.
During a conversation with an old boyfriend, I mentioned the car accident I’d been in in passing, and he looked at me completely confused. We had known each other for three years, but he didn’t know why I was in a wheelchair because he had been so afraid to ask.
Just ask. Ask all the questions you want, even if you think they’re pointless. The answers might surprise you, and will probably be the difference between having an awesome relationship and a crappy one.
7. Yes, you can play with the wheelchair. And if that doesn’t work, ditch it all together.
Nothing is sexier than a person who gives no fucks about a wheelchair because they’re just so focused on the person in it. A boring Friday night can instantly turn into a party with a bottle of wine, a spare wheelchair, and a stopwatch.
I’m normally hesitant to dance because I feel like the wheelchair gets in the way and can look completely stupid, but at a wedding a few years ago, my whole attitude was changed by a mysterious Zach Galifianakis lookalike. This particular guy had no qualms about the chair, dipping me and spinning me until we were both a little dizzy. The same person also believed in completely ditching the chair whenever possible. Three flights of stairs? No problem, throw the girl over your shoulder (although you should definitely ask first).
8. Wheelchairs do come with perks.
I say this partly in jest, but hey, let’s be honest — for every cloud there’s a silver lining. And in this case, dating a person in a wheelchair comes with unexpected perks for the plus-one. I can assure you, this is the only instance where you can go in an airplane bathroom with someone and they’ll think, Oh, he’s just helping her.
You also get killer parking spots, short wait times at amusement parks, great seats at ball games for cheap, and preferential treatment around the world. I definitely don’t recommend dating someone in a wheelchair just for the perks, but they do help make up for some of the tougher stuff.
9. Love is love and a person is a person, no matter the piece of equipment they lug around.
I can’t stress this enough. We all have baggage; a person with a physical disability just has baggage they can’t hide. So don’t let the chair, or artificial limb, or whatever it may be, stop you from pursuing someone you find intriguing.
All of these tips and insights don’t matter unless you come from a place of genuine care and respect for the other person. A chair or something else they have no control over should never reduce the level of love and respect you have for someone.
So I leave you with words said not by me, but which every person deserves to hear at some point: “I don’t care about the chair, or anything else. I just know you’re amazing and I want everyone to know I’m with you.”