by Lori Wood
It was 1994, and I was sitting in the commons area of the community college I was attending. I was a part-time student, and, between classes had over an hour for lunch. In the span of that time, about seven of us would congregate in the commons, listening to one another’s gripes about papers we had to write, or professors we wished we had known to avoid.
It was during one of these gripe sessions that I first saw him. This is probably the part where you expect me to describe his disarming good looks, or his winning smile. Truthfully, though, Pete* was not what you’d call “movie-star handsome.” What attracted me most to him was that he was just so darned nice to me, in a way that, as a young woman with a disability, I’d never experienced.
For the first time since I started college, a guy was talking to me, rather than through me. Anyone with a disability knows this technique too well: a person who you’re speaking to may, at first glance, appear to be making eye contact with you, when in actuality, their gaze is just indirect enough to bring you to the realization that they are staring at a spot on the wall behind your head. In fact, I was so accustomed to this tactic that, when Pete looked me in the eye, it made me a little uncomfortable, even defensive. What is he looking at? I’d wonder. To me, at first, his attention toward me too closely resembled the thoughtless staring I’d gotten from strangers for my entire life. Once we started talking, though, it became evident that he seemed eager to treat me as his equal, which I came to appreciate. As people getting to know each other do, we shared countless lists of likes and dislikes. Though there were differences between us in those respects, we had fun teasing each other about them. I’d say, “You like soccer? That’s such a stupid sport! ” This always got him going.
“Yeah, well, Michael Bolton’s music sucks!” he’d reply, knowing how much I love the singer.
This banter continued for weeks, but something changed after he bought me a soccer cap similar to one he always wore. At the time, I was reading a book in which the main character knew how to take initiative with men.
Inspired by her, I decided one day to do the same. I waited until Amy, my cousin/aide was out of earshot; this was something I had to do on my own. It’s now or never, I said to myself, when I saw Pete coming toward me. At the late-bloomer age of eighteen, I couldn’t quite believe what I was about to do. Before I could censor myself or change my mind, the words were out. “Hey, Pete, a few of us are going to the zoo on Saturday. Wanna come?” My heart was beating a million miles an hour, wondering if he would recognize the spirit in which the question was intended.
“Sure!” Pete said easily. He wrote his phone number on a piece of notebook paper and set it in front of me. “Give me a call,” he said with a big grin, and went to get lunch.
I’m not good at keeping secrets; the expression on my face gives me away every time. Still, I managed to keep my news to myself until Amy and I were headed back to class. “I asked Pete out…and he said yes!” I exclaimed. It was a long time coming, but the closest thing I’d ever had to a first date finally loomed on the horizon.
I called Pete a few days later, to finalize our plans, and we agreed that he would meet us at the zoo’s front gate. When the big day came, I was nervous, excited and giddy all at once. In this situation, humor was my best defense against complete panic.
“Do you want your shoes tied?” Amy asked.
Since I can’t stand or walk, I have to use a wheelchair. “Why, what am I gonna do, trip?” I joked.
Before I knew it, Amy, her then-boyfriend, a mutual friend and I were waiting for Pete at the gate. After five minutes with no sign of him, someone said, “He must be running a little late.”
Fifteen minutes later: “Maybe he got the day wrong.”
By the time a half-hour had passed, the truth was inescapable—he wasn’t coming. I got stood up.
As you can imagine, this experience left me feeling terribly hurt and rejected. It was humiliating; I felt as if I’d set myself up to be disappointed. To make things worse, the next time I saw Pete, he acted like he didn’t even realize what he’d done. He didn’t have the decency to be upfront with me about why he didn’t show up that day, and I never saw him again.
In the years since, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rehashed the incident in my mind, dousing my anger toward Pete with a torrential flood of maybes: Maybe he didn’t think of it as a date. Maybe I read too much into his response when I asked him out. Maybe he couldn’t think of a nice way to let me down easily; maybe my expectations for the whole thing were too high. Whatever the reason, I’ve vowed never to put myself in that position again.
Fortunately, for women with disabilities, dating experiences don’t have to be this agonizing. “Before I started dating, some people would say things like, ‘You seem like a great person, but I think I can’t handle your situation right now.’” I didn’t really do much dating in high school, but I did in college,” says Cheryl Price, a C8 mom living in Boca Raton, who acquired her disability at birth. “Living in south Florida, I’ve experienced so many other people here with spinal cord injuries who had it in their teen years. For me to have had it at birth is rare, for that kind of disability.”
For some, any form of disability can be hard to accept. “You can’t expect everybody to accept your disability. You have to go into dating prepared for that. Some people accept it readily, and for some, it takes more time. If disability is that big of an issue for them, they’re probably not going to date you to begin with.”
While this news may seem discouraging, Cheryl’s personal experience gives us hope. “I’ve found that, when you’re dating somebody, they’re dating you because they like you for who you are. I don’t feel like I get treated differently on dates because of my disability, but sometimes dates want to understand things that they may not know about it, such as how I accomplish day to day activities.”
Cheryl has dated both ambulatory and disabled men, and acknowledges a difference between the two types. “I was with my ex-boyfriend for almost five years, and I didn’t have to explain anything, because we both had similar injuries. There’s a certain level of awareness that goes with that. When you’re dating someone that’s able-bodied and you’re not, there’s a nurturing that they have. They seem to be there for you, to help you with things, even if you only need help with one step. A lot of times, you find that quality in someone, when maybe otherwise, you wouldn’t.”
In either case, she points out, “You hope they’re understanding about any difference that there might be. No matter what your life situation is, there’s always something that might be an issue to someone else—there’s always that possibility.”
For a disabled woman who might be unnerved by the prospect of meeting men face to face, dating services might be a better alternative. Cheryl has done online dating in the past and, in filling out her application, she was quick to mention her disability. “In my opinion, it’s best to do that. I have nothing to hide,” she says.
Therefore, when it comes to online dating, she doesn’t see the point of not disclosing her disability right away. “I figure, ‘Why wait to mention it?’ If I run into somebody in a bar, they’re going to see it right away. To me, online dating services are just another avenue to pursue. If disability puts some people off right away, you can weed them out quicker this way. My disability doesn’t define me, but it’s part of who I am. I’ve lived with it all my life, and I’m totally comfortable with it.”
Still, online dating shouldn’t be perceived as a cure-all for the disabled woman’s dating woes. Since members of many of these websites can become acquainted with as many people as they want at one time, such an arrangement might further muddy the already murky waters of the dating pool, by making it difficult to choose one specific person.
As for any ambulatory woman, one with a disability may discover that it’s hard to find a man who is looking to move beyond casual sex and toward a more committed relationship. Or, she may have to combat the narrow-minded perception among some men that, because she has a disability, she is somehow incomplete as a woman. However, she needn’t necessarily resign herself to a life of loneliness. At Special Singles, http://www.specialsinglesonline.com/, there is hope. Located in Staten, New York, people with disabilities are offered opportunities to connect with one another, through such methods as personal ads, Instant Messaging and email. With this program, people who are looking to make friends are made to feel just as welcome as those looking for romantic prospects, reducing the pressure people sometimes feel when visiting these kinds of websites to ”find their perfect mate.”
Cheryl offers this advice to other women with disabilities interested in dating: “Just be yourself, and go into it understanding that not everybody is open-minded when it comes to things that may be considered obstacles, such as a disability. I think that people have images in their minds of the kind of person that they want to be with, and a lot of times, that doesn’t involve someone with a disability. You have to respect that. It’s their loss, but it doesn’t mean they’re bad people. They’re just looking for something else, but there are plenty of other people out there.”
Is there truly someone for everyone, as countless elements of popular culture would lead us to believe? I don’t know, but I do know that the decision to search for romance is a highly personal choice that those of us with disabilities should have the right to make.
*Name has been changed.