I met my boyfriend three years ago on Twitter. We were following each other during that time, then one day tweets turned into GChat conversations, and GChat turned into Skype dates. When I moved back to DC last summer, we took it offline and soon after started dating. He was even cuter in person, funny, smart, intriguing, and he happened to be disabled.
When we first started dating he opened up to me about living with Spina Bifida and how it manifested for him. As time went on, my feelings started to grow for him and started really caring about him deeply. But I still had my concerns: What would people think about my disabled partner? What would my family say? What if people stare at us when we’re out on a date? How can I support him when he needs me?
Image: Nano Calvo via Zuma Press
It wasn’t my personal feelings and comfortwhen it came to dating a disabled man that I was worried about – it was other people’s reactions to my choice that really worried me. In some ways, those concerns were warranted because many people don’t understand what it means to date a disabled man, they don’t have real conversations about it, and they end up making very wrong assumptions about my partner and me.
The one question I’ve gotten more than once is probably one of the rudest questions I’ve ever heard, usually something along the lines of: “How do you have sex?,” or perhaps the more crass version: “Does his penis work?” I was asked this once by a colleague, and I had to fight the urge to shoot back, “Well, b*&^h, how do YOU have sex?” It’s extremely problematic because it assumes that disabled people can’t perform and, moreover, can’t be sexually appealing. My boyfriend has been told to his face that he’s half a man, so how can he possibly please me? I won’t go into detail about my sex life, but I will say that sex isn’t much different whether you’re with an able bodied person or a disabled person, and I’ve never had doubts about my partner’s ability to please me.
Another assumption that a family member made was that I had no other options in terms of men to date, so I somehow “settled” for a disabled man. This one is doubly offensive, because not only does it play into this idea of Black women being unable to “find a man,” it also assumes that disabled men aren’t worth dating simply because they have a disability. I am with my boyfriend because I love him and because of the way he makes me feel when we are together. I’ve never met anyone else who was so open and so ready and available to love. Why would I pass up the chance to be with such a great guy? Being with someone who has a physical disability isn’t settling; being with someone who is emotionally unavailable would be.
So where do these assumptions come from? Dating a disabled person isn’t something that people talk about often (if at all), but it’s safe to say that these assumptions are rooted in ableism—social prejudice about people with disabilities. When you assume that disabled people can’t perform sexually or aren’t dateable you are buying into the idea that able-bodied people are the norm. It is something that my partner deals with daily, and as his girlfriend I had to check my own attitudes that might have been ableist. I don’t get it right 100% of the time, but I can say that being with him has made me think differently about what our societal norms are and how I can be not just a better partner but a better ally.