By Michael Rock
Dating in this day and age isn’t easy. Having a disability makes it even more of a challenge. According to one study, not only do people with disabilities tend to start dating later than most people, but only 24.4 out of 1,000 Americans with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 49 are on their first marriage. Among their counterparts without disabilities, the rate is 48.9 out of 1,000.
One of the many reasons for this inequity is the presence of structural barriers that undermine the attempts of adults with disabilities to date and be intimate with others. Such barriers can include inadequate access to transportation, curfews, and group home regulations that prioritize safety at the expense of intimacy, even though the two are balanceable.
Many experts have suggested that specialized sex education for people with disabilities, also suggesting that it’s more crucial for people with disabilities than for people without disabilities, as the former group generally needs more help in learning about boundaries for themselves and for others.
Parents and other caregivers should try to recognize the many misconceptions that exist about the sexuality and dating habits of people with disabilities, such as the myths that they are all disinterested in sex or that people with disabilities are only interested in dating people with similar disabilities.
For more independent people with disabilities, dating apps offer their own benefits and challenges. They may make it easier for people with disabilities to speak with people they would be unable to approach for the first time in person. Some, such as Tinder, have users swipe on prospective dates, leading to them prioritizing the physical appearance of those who they come across. Others, such as OKCupid, may be more effective for people with disabilities, as their platforms allow users greater opportunity to write about themselves and market their personalities to potential partners.
Regardless, there is a great deal of debate over whether users with disabilities should disclose in their dating profiles. Some feel that by doing this; they will save themselves unnecessary hurt and rejection. Others disagree, feeling that those with disabilities should be free to disclose when they feel comfortable to do so and that a worthwhile partner will not care.
Self-advocates have offered a great deal of insight into the challenges of dating with a disability. Some tips they have suggested to prospective partners include acknowledging equality in the relationship, recognizing that factors less directly related to disability than the disability itself can cause the most hang-ups, not automatically dismissing the date-ability of people with disabilities, and broad-mindedness about a partner’s disability.
As the romantic and sexual needs of people with disabilities are increasingly addressed, perhaps we will see more couples like David and Sarah, the protagonists of the 2017 romantic comedy Keep the Change. Though the movie features just about every trope for a film of its genre set in New York City, it has one thing about it that especially stands out – its core cast is made up of amateur actors with autism. The plot reflects this point of divergence, as does its humor, which heavily relies on the authentic and unique quirks of its cast members.
Such a film will ultimately prove crucial to addressing inequities in love and sex for the disability community, as it addresses all the key challenges and benefits needed to understand the issue.
Whether it’s structural barriers or a lack of quality sex education, misconceptions about people with disabilities or the backlash to such misconceptions, the topic of dating and sexuality with a disability is surely a key issue that must be addressed before people with disabilities can truly be equal to those without them.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.