Listen to this Story
Narrated by Chelsea Bear
The disabled community makes up one in four Americans, which means their lives are intertwined within the spectrum of all relationships. We’re focusing on the ways in which disability is intrinsic to everyday life, and how everyone is connected to it as part of the human experience.
I’ve been on and off dating apps for nearly a decade. As my friends and I started swiping and making virtual connections, it was inevitable that a match would eventually ask to meet in person. This was when I felt an anxiety that my able-bodied friends did not have to endure. I’m not talking about first-date jitters, although those were very much there.
I’m talking about my unavoidable fear that the person asking me on a date would no longer be interested once they saw the way I walk.
No matter how good of a conversation I had with a potential date prior to meeting in person, I could never be sure how they would react to my physical disability. I was born with cerebral palsy, which affects how I walk: I have limited mobility in my legs and drag my feet. In my eyes, my disability is just one small aspect of my overall life — a piece of who I am. Beyond my disability I’m an adventurous person who loves to travel and try new things. I view the world through an optimistic lens and always jump on the opportunity to tell an unexpected joke. I’ll never turn down a glass of red wine or the chance to be near water. I’m a loyal friend, sister, and daughter.
Nevertheless, my disability has proven to be a dealbreaker for potential significant others. I once met a guy while out getting drinks with friends. We had a wonderful conversation and exchanged numbers. After he left, I realized I hadn’t gotten up from my barstool the entire time we were talking.
I wasn’t sure if he had noticed my disability but he asked me on a date a few days later. As soon as he saw me enter the restaurant on my mobility scooter, the look on his face and the way he spoke to me was significantly different compared to our first, chemistry-filled encounter. Though we had similar interests and an initial attraction, it was painfully clear that my disability deterred him from wanting to move forward.
Because of experiences like this, I used to downplay my disability on my dating profile. When I’m in a photo or sitting, it’s not easy to identify that I have a disability unless I’m on my mobility scooter or I stand up and begin walking. I have the option to completely hide my cerebral palsy behind the screen. This is something I’m not necessarily proud of; however, I figured at the time that it would allow potential dates the chance to get to know me beyond the detail that makes me “different.” And anyway, everyone showcases the most attractive aspects of themselves on their profiles. Since men were telling me my disability was “unattractive,” I was only trying to appear more desirable.
After all, there is no guidebook on how to navigate online dating apps with a physical disability. For me, it came down to a lot of trial and error (mainly error) over the years. I learned three important lessons along the way.
One time, I planned to arrive 30 minutes before dinner so I would be seated at the table before my date arrived. I thought that if we could chat before he saw me walk, I’d have a better chance of getting to date two. We had a great conversation but when I got up to use the restroom, his face looked like he had seen a ghost. He ended up finishing out the date but I could feel that the energy had shifted. I never heard from him again. This scenario taught me that if I can’t embrace myself for all that I am, how can I expect someone else to?
Another time, I decided to disclose my disability before meeting my date in person. We eventually made it to date number four and even had a few open conversations about my disability that didn’t seem to bother him. But then I fell, walking outside of a restaurant. This happens every now and then so I got right back up with a smile on my face and reassured him that I was fine. After that date he ghosted me, and I blamed it on the fall. Later on, this helped me realize that I want to be with someone who can communicate how they’re feeling rather than someone who can’t have tough conversations.
As I learned the best ways to share my disability with someone new, I also had some incredible dates with men who didn’t think twice about taking me out. But this came with complicated feelings, too. I didn’t feel strongly about these men but I felt the urge to continue dating them since my disability didn’t bother them. Eventually I learned not to compromise finding a deep connection with someone just because my disability didn’t make these dates run away. I don’t have to settle when my disability isn’t a dealbreaker, either.
I’ve done a lot of self-discovery to truly embrace my disability — the highs and the lows — through online dating. And even though I still don’t have a success story, I finally feel like I’m moving in the right direction. The best dates I’ve had so far are the ones where I’m completely myself, open and honest. I’ve learned ways to talk about my disability that feel the most comfortable to me, whether that’s through jokes to break the ice or casually weaving it into conversations.
In my profile I share that I enjoy short walks on the beach and that sitting in the disabled section at concerts allows me extra space to show off my not-so-great dance moves. I highlight some benefits of dating me, which include hotel stays in spacious, accessible hotel rooms, cutting the lines at theme parks, and up-close parking. It helps lighten a conversation that some view as heavy.
I used to struggle a lot with the internal dialogue about if and how I should disclose my disability but I’ve always strived to be open to answering questions a potential date may have. I try to be empathetic about the fact that they may be intimidated or lack experience with disability, while making it clear that I lead a normal life that just has some adaptations.
In an ideal world, I’ll meet someone special soon. Someone who is confident in himself, who has a sense of humor, his own passions and a thriving career. Someone who enjoys life and can create a partnership with me. And, of course, he’ll know from the start that my mobility scooter, Scootz, and I come as a package deal.
It’s my hope that more potential dates will learn to see my disability as an attribute, like I do. We all have something in our lives that deserves more than a snap judgment — and it’s those vulnerable details that tend to make bonds that much stronger.
Chelsea Bear is a content creator and disability advocate based in Florida. She led a career as a publicist for eight years before turning to social media to share her experiences of living with cerebral palsy. Today she utilizes her background in communications to share messages online that strive to break stigmas, and works with brands to advocate for disability representation and inclusion.