I was watching House Hunters the other night and a young couple was searching for their first home. Besides the sober realization that they couldn’t afford to live in their dream neighborhood that most House Hunter couples experience, they also had another challenge. They spent most of their house hunting inspecting key details like entryway measurements, and how close the toilet was to the tub. Why? The husband was in a wheelchair. Up until that point, besides my fascination with Matthew Roloff from Little People, Big World, I never imagined how difficult it is to find a home when you have a physical disability.
We all like to think we don’t discriminate, but a disability can bring many challenges that can test even the toughest of relationships. Dating is hard enough when both people don’t have any serious physical limitations. It’s one thing when someone you already have strong feelings for becomes ill or experiences an unfortunate accident, but could you really find yourself initially attracted to someone in a wheelchair or an amputee?
If I’m being completely honest, I get nervous around people with disabilities. Case in point: During my day job I work out of an office that shares a building with an organization that services the blind. We share a common bathroom located down a hallway that is literally a block long. Have you ever seen the Awkward Black Girl “Hallway” episode? Imagine that with people awkwardly meandering down a hallway while you dodge white canes and people invading your personal space on the elevator. I’m always torn between whether I should offer them help or whether they want to be left alone and not treated as if they have a disability. So most days, I just stay quiet and hide in the doorway until they pass hoping they can’t hear me breathe.
I think before you overanalyze about handicapped parking or whether you should use the word “handicapped,” “physically disabled” or “challenged,” the most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to suddenly become an advocate. Dating someone in a wheelchair doesn’t suddenly make you an authority on the rights of the disabled or give you an excuse to be an obnoxious self-righteous jerk to anyone who doesn’t quite understand. Like most people, those with physical disabilities just want to be treated with common courtesy and respect. They don’t want you to make a scene at every place that doesn’t cater to their needs or every pedestrian that stares a little too long. Doing so can make you seem like you’re doing that person a favor or trying to protect them more than just enjoying the person that they are.
So now onto the question that first crosses most people’s minds when it comes to dating someone with a physical disability: How is sex supposed to work out? Just like sex with anybody else, it can be as complicated or simple as you allow it to be. It’s cheesy, but being intimate doesn’t always have to be about flipping into 10 different positions. Depending on the severity of the injury, most people with some kind of impairment can feel some degree of pleasure. It just means you may have to get a little more creative and be more open-minded about pleasure. So like the Big Red commercials of my childhood used to say, kiss a little longer and stay close a little longer. A satisfying sexual relationship doesn’t always have to mimic a Bikram yoga session.
Being open-minded and not looking at your partner as a victim isn’t without its challenges. There will be those times when you realize your favorite coffee shop doesn’t have an access ramp or you will realize how intimidating a ride on public transportation can be. The important thing is to have a sense of humor and to not make assumptions. Don’t dismiss what could otherwise be a great guy with even greater potential because you can’t see past his wheelchair. You could be so busy focusing on the able-bodied jerk that you don’t notice the gentleman rolling past you. Don’t assume that all people with physical limitations have the same challenges. Someone who is blind won’t necessarily have the same challenges as someone in a wheelchair. If something doesn’t makes sense, just ask. You don’t have to be an expert on all things disabled, you just have to be an expert on your partner…just like anyone else.
Have you ever dated someone who was physically impaired? What were the challenges?
Toya Sharee is a community health educator and parenting education coordinator who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.