By Chris Mason-Hale, BSW
Disclaimer: The writer of this blog identifies as a quadriplegic operating a manual wheelchair. The contents of this blog are an opinion of the writer based on their lived experience and several years as a peer mentor for people with disabilities and not meant to omit the experiences of other people with disabilities.
Online dating has made romance – or at least meeting people – more accessible than ever. Dating sites give people with disabilities a platform to maybe find that “someone special.” Many people form meaningful relationships–some local and some long distance. For those with disabilities, dating apps can be a remedy for the isolation brought on by barriers such as limited transportation options and the COVID-19 pandemic which have made it difficult to meet new people. It also provides an opportunity to disclose your disability on your terms. However, whether you’re swiping left, being left on read without a response, or swimming in dating matches, online dating is a heart-pounding experience…just not always in a good way. For those with disabilities, the worry that their disability will be too much for a potential partner is often very real. Which begs the question, “To disclose or not to disclose?”–But is that the right question?
This author certainly doesn’t think so. And by the end of this post, you will have some tips for how to create your dating profile with confidence in a way that showcases your best self.
While some people are comfortable dating a person with a disability, others can’t see past it. This can leave some disabled people under the impression that they must either disclose their disability early on or conceal it to be perceived as attractive—all in hopes that the other person will accept them. This form of conformity creates a mindset of feeling less than and that their disability is all a person will notice about them. Members of the community have tried different ways to disclose or conceal their disability from their online matches. Here are a few examples from my time as a mentor:
One mentee didn’t mention their disability while talking with an online match for weeks. They scheduled a first date, and ultimately chose to disclose their disability because the date was imminent. Then, they didn’t hear from the other person. Sometimes, telling someone so abruptly that you have a disability can unfortunately lead to being “ghosted” online, which is when a person stops talking to you and doesn’t return your calls or messages, or even blocks you.This is not the disabled person’s fault at all, but a few of my mentees have expressed feelings of rejection after finding themselves in this situation. I’ve also heard stories where their match chose to continue with the date as scheduled, and their disability wasn’t an issue moving forward.
Another person I mentored chose to conceal their disability, using clever camera angles and making quick use of the crop feature. Cutting out their assistive technology (e.g., wheelchair, walkers, hearing aids, etc.) or something they felt insecure about for fear of being dismissed as a burden or unattractive.
On the other hand, some individuals I’ve spoken with have displayed themselves and their disabilities with pride on their profiles. Their inbox quickly fills with messages curious about them and their disability. Many of the messages will be genuinely interested romantically which led to some great exchanges and eventual dates. But for some, this curiosity leads only to being called an inspiration for participating on the site or thanked for the impromptu education, making their matches’ lack of genuine romantic interest clear. In situations like this, it’s up to you whether you continue to educate or move on to find what you’re looking for. Though in some cases, individuals will even be fetishized by others. More on that another time…
These examples aren’t unique to people with disabilities but are familiar to anyone with insecurities and the feeling of being “other.” How and when you tell someone about your disability is your choice to make. But be careful if you conceal it because you could be keeping a part of yourself from someone who might surprise you. “To disclose or not to disclose?” That is the question, right? No. How to tell someone about your disability in a way that you’re comfortable with is the question to ask yourself and a dating profile is a great testing ground. So, let’s break down some the key parts of a dating profile to find places to potentially share your disability on your terms: profile picture, about me, interests, and strengths.
First things first, your dating profile isn’t the end all be all to whether you’ll find love, but it can feel that way. The beauty of any profile is the “Edit Profile” button. Remember that you can change anything you want, whenever you want. Your profile is the perfect place for a victory lap in celebration of yourself. The best part is that others get to see it too.
If you have a visible disability, your profile picture is a great way to disclose it. A picture is worth a thou…you know the rest. Having a good picture can do wonders for your profile. It doesn’t have to be a traditional photo with you smiling. Choose one that makes you laugh. It could be a great conversation starter. But if you have a great smile, go for it. Your profile picture is the place to show off some of your best features.
Not comfortable with revealing your disability in your profile picture? Or maybe you don’t have a visible disability? No problem! Disclosing doesn’t have to be a big deal. It could be as simple as this: Chuck, 53, spinal cord injury/wheelchair user, X-Mansion, New York. The about me section lets you go into as much detail about your disability as you feel comfortable. Some have even made detailed FAQs from questions they’ve received in the past. If you’re feeling smooth, you can invite people into your DMs to ask further questions and see where that curiosity takes you…
You can go nuts in your dating profile’s interest and hobbies section. Imagine meeting someone and then immediately talking about everything you’re passionate about. By fleshing out the interests and hobbies section of any dating profile, you can skip the small talk and get straight to those deep references and conversations we all love so much. Showcasing your interests can also help break some negative stigmas around how disabilities limit the fun you could have on a date. Sharing any adaptive activities will surely spark some intrigue because people may not be familiar with them. Guiding someone through an adapted activity is a creative way to educate them about your needs and accommodations.
Strengths and Traits:
Speaking of creativity, you can go ahead and add that to your list of strengths and traits. As someone with a disability, we have all had to think of creative ways to overcome the barriers we encounter. This section offers an opportunity to reflect on all you’ve accomplished and the lessons you’ve learned boiled down into some powerful words that represent you best.
The whole you:
At this point, for now, you’ve finished your victory lap. You’ve chosen a great picture, shared a little about yourself, your interests, and your strengths. The culmination of these things demonstrates that your disability shouldn’t be viewed as a burden but an essential part of you to be celebrated– not hidden with clever camera angles.
I’m sure some of what you’ve read sounds like common sense. But it’s easy to forget all the things that make you great when you’re worried about being perceived as desirable. As people with disabilities, we encounter enough barriers. Don’t let your disability be the one that prevents you from finding someone that will love you for all you are because “To disclose or not to disclose?” Should NEVER be the question.
Chris Mason-Hale had his spinal cord injury at sixteen years old during a high school football game in 2008, resulting in a quadriplegia diagnosis. In 2016, he went on to become a certified peer mentor through the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Mason-Hale is a former trainee of the LEND program and graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he received a bachelor’s degree in social work. Mason-Hale is now the Community Advocate at the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities (MCDD) and the Faculty Advocate with the Maternal and Child Health Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Other Related Disabilities (LEND) both at Kennedy Krieger Institute.