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Written on 1st May 2024 by Emma Wheeldon

Dating is usually a daunting task, but having a disability such as cerebral palsy and embarking on this venture brings an added level of complexity. After insightful conversations with clients who have been on this journey into the dating sphere with varying outcomes, I was led to consider barriers that may not have previously sprung to my mind.

Online chats through dating sites are a great way for people with communication devices to be able to message, just as those without disabilities do. Conversations through dating sites can be engaging, exciting, and endearing, but moving to the following stage can pose difficulties that may not be obvious.

Where would most first dates occur? The most common answer I have found is in a restaurant or bar, having a meal together.  Before even planning the meet-up, consideration must be given to how to travel to the location in a wheelchair, working out if it is accessible, if a carer needs to travel too, and whether they will need to be available for support with eating. If so, does the carer go on the date? This would certainly be intrusive and probably something that would put an end to even attempting the date in the first place. As I heard from one client, “you don’t want to be on a first date with someone feeding you”.

This led me to think of potential other meeting points for a first date such as a museum, outside with nature, or cinema. Removing the eating element and having no carer in attendance brings a feeling of independence. Unfortunately, many initial companionship/dating journeys come to an end once it comes to the meeting stage due to numerous barriers. At this point a close connection may have been built through online platforms or messaging, and for this not to progress due to the obstacles set out above can be a further dent to often already low self-esteem. On the positive side, when dating is successful the uplift in confidence is immense, empowering and often life changing.

two people on a date

Clients have told me that it can be difficult for people who are physically impaired, but cognitively extremely able, to progress in relationships due to their limitations with mobility and society’s tendency to judge someone’s intelligence by their physical appearance.

Alex, whom I have worked with for some time, is cognitively extremely able (he achieved a high 2:1 in his English Literature degree), but his mobility issues mean he requires a wheelchair and support workers to assist him. He would love to seek companionship which involves fulfilling conversations but feels that people look at him and make an instant judgment on his cognitive and emotional abilities. There seems to be a gap in the market for bringing together people with physical disabilities but who have similar cognitive abilities. Sadly, this leads to feelings of depression, having no hope, worthlessness and ultimately giving up.

Loneliness is an important point to consider, causing isolation and disconnection from others.  Research by the disability charity Sense in 2021 reported that 61% of disabled people were chronically lonely, and this rose to 70% in young disabled people.  Even before the pandemic, 37% of disabled people reported that they were chronically lonely.

Unfortunately, with disability can come vulnerability and sadly there are tales of rogue individuals preying on people by using fake accounts on dating sites, which is a further barrier to people entering into the disability dating world.

The ONS reports that in the 21/22 census 16 million people reported that they have a disability, which is 24% of the population, and of this 47% are classed as having mobility issues. With nearly half of people with disabilities having mobility issues, it is likely that huge numbers of people are finding the dating journey difficult. Given these numbers, there must be a way forward to change the landscape of disability dating for people that want to embark on this journey.

Alex feels that a further barrier for him is living in a rural location. Statistically, there are going to be fewer people with disabilities living nearby, which then reduces the likelihood of meeting anyone either in person or online.  As travel will always need to be with a carer, this also hinders him with potentially meeting people independently.

Conversations in themselves have huge positive effects on Alex’s confidence and mental health. For him, it is not necessarily dating that he wants to go straight to, due to the many pitfalls, but he would love to be able to meet with a like-minded person with whom he could have interesting conversations. If this companionship organically progressed to a relationship, then this would be fantastic. Alex tells me that he wonders how he will move forward with companionship, in view of people making assumptions due to his physical disabilities that he cannot have a fulfilling relationship on the same level as an abled bodied person, which is absolutely not the case. Having been told previously to “stay in his lane” by an able-bodied person, who felt he should only have a relationship with other disabled people, Alex reported that until there is a societal change, views will remain the same. Society needs to work on awareness to normalise “interabled” relationships, where one partner is disabled and the other is not, or where each partner has a different disability, as until this happens then progress will not be made.

It has certainly made me consider the companionship and dating landscape for people with disabilities, particularly when they cannot access the world as easily as able-bodied people can. The barriers are huge, and it is easy to see how it can be just too difficult to progress, which leaves a trail of loneliness and low self-esteem. People like Alex have so much to offer in companionship or a relationship that I really do hope that awareness can improve, and society’s view can be altered to enable mutually fulfilling interactions to increase in the future.