"Do I mention it?" A friend worriedly asks over coffee. We're chatting about whether she should disclose her disability to the person she's been speaking to on a dating app. It's a conversation that, as single disabled women, we've had many times.
Whether to try and pass as non-disabled or tell someone you (might) want to date is a tricky decision to make. And it's one disabled single people are navigating all the time. It is, unfortunately, a crucial part of the disabled dating experience. While we shouldn't have to disclose a disability to the people we might end up going on a date with, the harsh reality is that we do have to consider the potential negative reactions and consequences of being upfront.
Not only is this an incredibly complex, personal, and nuanced decision, but there is no online quiz to take to answer the age-old question: To pass or not to pass? And as representation for disabled people, especially within pop culture and the relationships and dating sphere, is so limited, we have no real examples to look to on how to handle it, either. It's hardly surprisingly that among my disabled female friends, there's a vast difference of opinion on how to approach dating.
Why might disabled people want to pass as non-disabled?
Dating apps, while they can be emotionally taxing for all daters, are particularly unforgiving spaces when you're single and disabled (and a woman). From speaking with disabled women for this feature, it's clear we have similar experiences: being ghosted, blocked, a stranger prying into our medical history, the involuntary twist of our gut when we're called a "cr*pple."
These aren't to be written off as bad, one-off or rare experiences. For disabled people on dating apps and in society generally, this is happening all the time—as research from the leading disability charity Scope reveals. The majority (67 percent) of British people feel awkward around disabled people, and as a result, they panic or, worse, avoid contact altogether. As Alison Kerry, Head of Communications at the charity, tells me, "Disabled people have relationships and go on dates, but sometimes others assume this isn't the case. At Scope, we hear from disabled people who get asked awkward or inappropriate questions by strangers about sex, or face negative reactions from people on dating apps."
It's no wonder, then, that many disabled people on dating apps struggle to decide whether to disclose their disability on their profile. Dr. Kirsty Liddiard, a sociologist and Senior Research Fellow specializing in disability, gender and sexuality, explains that many daters strive to pass as non-disabled on dating sites. As "they feel more comfortable not disclosing disability until a certain point in an interaction with a potential new partner."
"My disability shouldn't be a disclaimer."
Emma*, 25, tells me she doesn't believe in having to disclose her disability before meeting up with someone. "It feels so damaging, like you're saying there's something wrong," she says. "It shouldn't be a disclaimer." Of course, it shouldn’t, but in a world that can judge so harshly and so completely, we unfortunately do often have to deal with the negative reactions of others.
Caroline, 29, has several disabilities, including fibromyalgia and hypermobility. She tells me she simply "can't flirt" and has not met up with anyone from a dating app. But there are stories. The men—who before she realized she was gay and changed her dating app settings from men to women—sent her dick pics. Since she's come out, Caroline is forthright in her approach to both this conversation and dating apps, in general. "I say I'm disabled because if you asked me to describe myself in three words, they would be 'fat, disabled, gay.'" She also adds that telling someone you’re disabled before you met them can serve as a handy litmus test. And I agree, because what would either of us do with a partner who was turned off by our disabilities?
However, she does believe it may have contributed to what she considers to be her lack of dating success. Most women ignore her messages, and she gets only a few matches. Would it be different if she hid her disability? We can't be sure, but Caroline has no regrets about her approach. "I choose to do it as a way of turning my internalized ableism on its head, in taking control of the word, control of the 'disclosure,' although I don’t like that word, in charge of my identity."
Nici, 26, has a chronic pain and fatigue condition, which she chooses not to disclose on her profile. Instead, she slips it into conversation as she feels it is not the most crucial part of her identity. Although, Nici says she does feel a great deal of pressure to pass as non-disabled because people are "often put off by it." There is a trend in how people react; they either feel sorry for her or immediately ghost her.
"Disclosing my disability on my profile serves as a litmus test."
Choosing to pass is a difficult and personal decision, and the judgement and barrage of questions she receives are exhausting. Nici likens the probing she receives after mentioning her disabilities to "Line of Duty style interrogation." She adds, "my disability is part of my identity, but it isn't the only thing about me. Sometimes the disability is all they can see." As Nici notes, it is fundamentally wrong that we should have to disclose a disability and an abridged medical history before we've finished with even the shallowest of dating app introductions. We're essentially wooden women. We must pass a preliminary quality control test before being declared real and worthy of romantic interest.
Emily, 27, was born without her left hand. She chooses not to disclose her disability until she is on the date, face-to-face, because, for her, social media, and dating apps, in particular, are too superficial, too impersonal. In her experience, people are much less likely to ask questions or make comments in person. So, anyone who reacts badly isn't worth the effort, as she tells me with her characteristic mix of self-assurance and decisiveness, "problem solved!"
There is no right approach.
Dr. Liddiard insists that either approach to dating as a disabled person is acceptable and must be an individual choice. The pressure we feel to disclose or pass is due to the "grand narratives" of disability within our culture. These grand narratives include the idea that disabled people should give in to non-disabled people's urge to know about their disability and respond to intimate questions regardless of whether they are appropriate. This means that disabled people are at a clear disadvantage when dating. Many people also have gross misconceptions about what it means to have a partner who is disabled. As a result, potential partners can often miss out or act unkindly or disrespectfully when a disability is disclosed. So, as a group, we are woven from red flags and the negative perceptions of others.
But there are success stories. Emily and I have both had some near-perfect first dates and meaningful relationships through dating apps. She met one of her matches and remembers the sensations of their first encounter, how inseparable they became, their undeniable chemistry. I look back fondly on an ill-fated relationship, only doomed because we were geographically and sexually incompatible. Ultimately, there's no right or wrong way to date, with or without a disability. As long as you enjoy it and it meets your wants and needs, there will always be, at least, a good story to tell over coffee.
*Name has been changed.
Follow Melissa on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.
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