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The Feeld Guide to dating while disabled

Sara Youngblood Gregory

April 11th, 2024

Practical, expert-backed advice paired with the special sort of synergy that happens when we come together to talk about relationships, identity, companionship, and boundaries.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to join in for a conversation on dating and disability with none other than Stevie Boebi, disabled Internet personality and queer peer educator. Naturally, I was thrilled. In my work as a journalist and author—and someone who simply navigates the world in a disabled body—I’ve often written about and experienced the unique ways disabled people show up in the world and participate in their relationships. I also know the special sort of synergy that can happen when disabled people, and especially queer people, come together to talk and share advice around relationships, identity, companionship, and boundaries—without having to catch anyone up or struggle to center their experiences and concerns.

During our Feeld Forum, we covered a lot of ground, from crafting dating app bios and navigating Covid-19 safety to the role of mutual care, and care-taking, in intimate interactions. In a world where relationship advice often sidelines frank discussions of dating with disability, ignoring our very presence in the dating pool, wading into this conversation wasn’t just refreshing, it was vital. So, I decided to continue the conversation right where Stevie and I left off—providing some key take-aways from our discussion and expanding from there with practical, expert-backed advice. 

In this Feeld Guide, I’ll talk about the basics of dating as a disabled person—including disclosures, communication around accessibility, boundaries, and sex, as well as potential red flags to consider. But this conversation includes all of us, so I also included some tips for non-disabled folks on how best to approach dates and loved ones with different accessibility needs.

Navigating disclosures: When should I tell someone I’m disabled?

For most people, disability disclosure is a deeply personal decision. There’s no “right” way to talk about it. Often, disclosure looks different depending on the person, as disabilities can be visible, invisible, contextual, and/or situational.

Some people choose to lead with their identity, either talking about their disability frankly on or before a first date, noting themselves as disabled in their dating app bio, or including photos of themselves with an accessibility or mobility aid (like a cane for example) on their profile or social media. For some, this strategy can save time and energy by “weeding out” any incompatible dating prospects. Others may choose to disclose much later, focus only on accommodation needs, mention their disability in passing, or set aside time for a more formal or intimate conversation once a relationship is established. 

“When contemplating whether or how to disclose your disability, take some time to reflect on your motives,” says Lena Peak, a sex educator specializing in identity, disability, and embodiment. “Why is it important for others to understand your disability and its impact on your life?” Consider how much detail you feel comfortable sharing as well—and how personal or practical you want to get. For example, when chatting with someone new or planning a date, you may simply mention that you need a venue with a certain type of accessibility to meet up, that a Covid test pre-meeting is non-negotiable for you, or that you prefer to meet at a coffee shop that isn’t too loud or overstimulating. 

“Remember that you have full control over how much information you share,” says Peak. “You’re not obligated to provide extensive disability education or answer personal questions unless you feel comfortable doing so. Addressing inappropriate or invasive questions post-disclosure could involve responses like, ‘I appreciate your curiosity, but I’m not ready to discuss that aspect of my life yet.’”

No matter how you decide to disclose, it’s a good idea to develop a pre and post disclosure care plan, says Peak. “Prior to disclosure, you might want to listen to your favorite pump-up playlist or give yourself a pep-talk in the mirror. After, you might choose to connect with a friend, spend some time in nature, or treat yourself to something special. Creating a disclosure care plan like this can serve as a recognition and reward for navigating a challenging moment and embracing vulnerability.”

Communication: How do I talk about accessibility, boundaries, and sex when I’m disabled?

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that everyone needs accommodations in some shape or form—not just disabled people and certainly not just you. “Normalizing that every person has access needs can help alleviate the burden on disabled individuals to constantly advocate for themselves,” says Peak.

When talking to a potential partner—be it a romantic, platonic, or play-focused connection—it can be helpful to frame the conversation around access needs as mutual and collaborative. Start with something like, “I’ve been wanting to check in about accommodations and preferences during sex, can we talk a bit about what we both need and like?”, or “I know we’ve been talking about having a weekend getaway soon, so I’d love to talk about what a comfortable, accessible experience looks like for us both.” This way, everyone has a chance to share their needs, boundaries, and preferences without the pressure on any one person to manage or bring the other up to speed. Of course, some people want additional or ongoing conversation solely about their access needs, and that’s totally fine, too!

Additionally, Peak recommends explicitly asking your partner to share the responsibility of planning dates and shared experiences so that ensuring access isn’t always up to you.

“[You] can advocate for yourself by asking your date to factor in certain things around accessibility as they plan the date. Some examples may involve physical accessibility, sensory boundaries, health boundaries, and time/energy boundaries,” says Peak. You might try saying something like, “I’d love to grab dinner this weekend! Could you please make sure that the restaurant you choose is ADA compliant?”, or “I know we have a big date planned and I’m looking forward to it. If I have a pain flare up that weekend, can we think of a back-up plan together?”

Potential red flags to consider

While exact red flags depend on your own personal set of deal breakers and preferences, it can be helpful to keep a few things in mind.

“How a person treats your accommodations tells you [about] the level of care they are able or willing to give you,” says Brendan Yukins, LSW, a staff therapist at The Expansive Group with a specialty in neurodivergence. “If a date makes a fuss because they cannot take you somewhere they want to go, or gets upset because you require subtitles, that is their immaturity, not your fault. Dating you is not a sacrifice, it’s a privilege.”

Another thing to notice is the public or private nature of your new relationship, says Peak. “If your date only spends time with you alone in private settings, it may suggest that they’re uncomfortable with publicly acknowledging their relationship with a disabled person. On the other hand, take note if your date flaunts your relationship in public or on social media without your consent, especially early on in your relationship.” In order to avoid these sorts of situations, consider having a conversation earlier on around privacy and shared expectations.

In general, if you notice a pattern emerging in a relationship that you feel uncomfortable with, consider raising the issue or seeking the support of a trusted friend or therapist. “Stick to the impact of their actions and words instead of trying to interpret their intentions. Even the best-intentioned person can hurt your heart and mind,” says Yukins. Focus on how their actions impacted you and work together to find a path forward. If your date seems defensive, unreceptive, or refuses to collaborate, Yunkins says that is not a reflection on you. But it may be a sign that you and your date are incompatible.

Disability and dating when you’re able-bodied

If you are forming a relationship with a disabled person, there’s a lot you can do to better understand and show up for your partner. 

To start, don’t expect or assume your partner will teach you about being disabled. Instead, take the initiative, turn a critical eye on your own intentions, habits, and assumptions, and engage with the perspectives of a variety of disabled people. Peak recommends reading up on spoon theory and checking out books like The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability and Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice in addition to resources from educators like Sins Invalid. Just remember—your date is the expert on their body, needs, and story so while you can be inviting and curious, allow them to take the lead on what they share with you.

From there, make sure to talk openly with your partner about their accessibility needs and how you can best support them. All disabled people are different, so it’s important to never assume when they need help or in what way—in fact, this can often read as condescending or infantilizing. Instead, directly ask your partner if they need assistance and follow through when they name a specific ask. For example, if your partner tells you they need subtitles, adjust the settings on your TV so they don’t have to ask every time you watch a movie.

Finally, pay attention to your language. “Disabled and disability are not dirty words,” says Peak. Avoid using euphemisms like “differently abled” or “special needs” unless that is the language your date uses to describe themselves. And, as always, if you’re not sure—simply ask.

  • Dating
  • Communication