Writing by Jerusha Mather
I know online dating can be tricky and intimidating for many, myself included. As a 27-year-old neuroscientist living with cerebral palsy, many people have said I’ve significantly achieved. On dating apps, though, I’ve had my fair share of experiences that have left me hurt and rejected. People with disability can have trouble being seen as potential lovers because of stereotypes perpetuated from media, and despite shows such as Love on the Spectrum, the lack of representation bleeds into misunderstanding in the dating field. Despite the show drawing attention to the experiences of dating and relationships of people living with autism spectrum disorder, in reality, love is vastly different between people with all kinds of disability.
New research from Mable.com.au found that 3-in-5 people with a disability agree it’s hard to find a romantic partner. A further 81% of us prefer not to mention our disability until it’s referenced in a social setting – for fear of immediate rejection and not even being given a chance.
It’s disheartening when some of the people I’ve loved tossed aside my feelings and didn’t care about me. I’ve had my boundaries crossed, making me feel vulnerable and unsafe at times. However, as I look past those relationships and see professional counsellors, I’ve begun to heal and grow to feel confident again with putting myself out there.
Despite some of my experiences, I remain vigilant and hopeful in my journey of finding love, hoping to inspire and lead others with disability as well to use online dating platforms and be seen as potential lovers. If you are a person with disability reading this, please do not be fearful of putting yourself out there. We are just as worthy of finding love as the next person.
This advice goes for anyone who is dating currently, but especially those in my community – take your time. Be conscious of how a potential partner makes you feel. Do they make you feel comfortable? Understood? Loved? During a date, being comfortable is the best way of expressing who you are and what makes you, you. I engage support workers from Mable to help take me around to dates, to help move about them confidently. My support workers help me in these settings, always supporting my date and me to feel comfortable maintaining confidentially and professionalism during dates and empowering me to be independent.
It’s important to not feel helpless when dating – especially in today’s digital age. But I do feel more can be done to make dating platforms safer and more accessible for people with disability to develop relationships. With the popularity of dating apps and the abundance of them available, these platforms have the opportunity to help create a safer and more inclusive space for people with disabilities using their platforms.
Multiple studies have found that people with disability have similar wants when it comes to dating. However, support, inclusivity and lack of equal opportunities have prevented meaningful dating experiences.
Dating platforms can make these changes and do more for people with disability and break stereotypes in their relationships. Dating platform developers can offer so much more, from featuring people with disability in advertisements, educating users about inclusive behaviours when dating people with disability to providing personal support for people with disabilities who may need extra assistance in finding love through mentoring and specialist coaching staff.
It is crucial to reduce bias against people with disability by providing awareness of what it means to live with all kinds of disabilities. More needs to be done to normalise able-bodied and disabled people in relationships, and I hope to champion finding love and making it more accessible for everyone. Everyone has their special someone, and I trust there’s someone out there for me… and for you, too.