Prior to my current long-term relationship, I had a high success rate of pursuing partners who returned my interest. I’ve spent most of my young adult life in romantic relationships, so by the time my partner and I decided to open our relationship about a year into ours, I felt relatively confident in my ability to find additional partners. Non-monogamy was common in my social communities, I was generally well-liked by everyone, and I had finally gotten to a place in my life where I loved my body and found myself solidly attractive.
Dating was still scary of course. I was new to non-monogamy, which is an additional hurdle to navigate in the beginning stages of dating, but whenever I developed a new crush, I felt like there was a significant chance that a relationship could come of it.
In 2014 I became disabled. In a long and arduous process, I discovered that not only had I injured the left side of my sacrum but that I have a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. EDS causes chronic pain in just about every joint I have; makes me prone to injuries, repetitive stress, and muscle fatigue; and causes a host of other health problems that are seemingly unrelated. In five years, I’ve sustained a total of four serious injuries due to EDS, all of which I’m still recovering from.
Managing the physical and financial resources to accommodate my new disability, bringing the people around me up to speed on the intricacies of my issues, and processing the cultural stigma of being disabled made dating suddenly very difficult.
Meeting New People
After becoming disabled, my options for new partners became much more limited. Disability and chronic illness are always socially isolating, but this pattern applies to romance too.
To manage my injuries, my time became consumed by medical appointments, physical therapy, and rest. Chronic pain is exhausting and frequently I only had enough resources to go to work and get basic chores done. Lacking independent transportation, I didn’t have enough spoons to see my closest friends unless they could come to me. I was left with very few resources to put towards meeting new people and I rarely opted to drag myself out of the house past 7 pm unless I had a commitment and a ride.
Before becoming disabled, my primary locations for meeting potential partners were my local dance communities. Dancing with someone gives you an immediate sense of your level of physical safety and connection with a person, making it a great way to meet people.
But when I became disabled, I lost the ability to dance safely. To avoid loneliness, I stayed involved by organizing and DJing for dances, but I sat on the sidelines, making myself less accessible to discourage people from asking me to dance. Even when I wanted to socialize, I usually needed to stay seated, sometimes away from the main centers of activity. It was much harder to get to know members of the community when I had to isolate myself this way.
I’ve never been much for traditional dates but my disability made coming up with date ideas even harder. Time and resource limitations reduced my options for dates in the same way it made it hard to meet people. I also have Celiac’s disease. Ingesting any trace of gluten could get me sick, making eating out at restaurants a risky undertaking. Anything physical like dancing, hiking, wandering around an outdoor festival, was out of the question. Even going to a theater could result in a painfully stiff back after sitting in a chilly room for 2+ hours. Most date options are developed with able-bodied people in mind!
Financially, after nine medical appointments and a cabinet full of medications to pay for every month, my wallet didn’t have much left in it to spend on fun activities. My best option was having people to come to my place, but that’s not always a comfortable or safe option for a brand new partner, and can be an awkward date setting if my long-term romantic partner is home.
Sex with people with disabilities is a subject that squicks out a lot of people, but I promise that it happens! Even though sex includes a lot of physically risky movement for me, my physical therapist encouraged me to continue having it (thank god), because the happy chemicals produced during sex are beneficial enough to my health that it’s worth the risk of losing alignment. However, sex is still challenging.
Flexibility and stamina are both things my body isn’t very good at that are needed for sexy times: even the easiest positions can be hard on my hips and back, and just a few minutes of the same repeated motion can be enough to tire me out. Arousal increases your pain threshold, enabling me to get away with more than I would normally, but that also comes with a cost. I never know just how badly I’ll be hurting when sex is over when I try to get up.
I get a lot of enjoyment out of sex, but it’s physically taxing. I avoid doing it on days I’m scheduled to demand a lot of my body, which is not ideal for spontaneity, and sometimes I’m just not physically up for it. Pain can also be an arousal killer meaning there will be more occasions when I’m just not in the mood.
When it comes to sex with a new partner, before-hand communication is 100% required. Sex can be nerve-wracking enough without also worrying that my new partner might inadvertently injure me! My disability is tricky for others to understand because my body is a chaotic bag of small, medium, and big issues that are constantly changing in size and relevancy. What was easy for me to do last week may be dangerous for me this week. Just about every joint I possess is affected by my disability, so it’s not enough to say, “be careful with my arm.” Understanding what my body can and can’t do, for how long, and which questions to ask each time requires a lot of time and patience. New partners need to be willing to take the time to do that.
Even though disability is much more common and varied than most people are aware of, the majority of able-bodied people have no idea how to talk about it. This lack of awareness can lead to insensitive comments, which makes it really hard to trust people who aren’t already well versed in my disability. When I’m with a romantic partner, I want to let my guard down. I don’t want to have to worry about educating them on the nuances of my condition all the time. When you hear the same set of microaggressions day in day out from strangers, it can hurt a lot to hear one of them from a person you’re starting to be vulnerable with.
Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of pursuing a partner while disabled for me is the fear that the social stigma of disability will disqualify me as a good potential partner or make me a less valuable one. Being disabled comes with a constant fear of being a burden to those around you. I need help carrying heavy things, getting rides around town, and even getting basic chores done when I’m at my worst. I have to rely on the people around me to get through the day. Will my date be okay with that?
I also had to wrestle with the implications of no longer being a mainstream attractive body type. I gained weight as a result of my disability because cardio exercise became impossible, and my general activity level was low. I was too poor to replace my ill-fitting clothes and had to accessorize my outfits with braces and special clunky shoes, making me feel really unattractive. Societally, disabled bodies are not considered sexy.
I find myself wondering: What if my new crush thinks I’m too needy because of all the things I can’t do? What if they think that people with disabilities are inherently unattractive? Why would a partner choose to commit to me long term when they could be with someone able-bodied instead?
I strive to embrace and take pride in my disability. I had to tackle these questions for the first time just a few years ago after moving through the world as an able-bodied person my entire life. I had to reset my expectations and spend a lot of time sitting with myself and my sense of self-worth. Dating while disabled means feeling solid in yourself, taking the lead in communication and education, and opening yourself up to a lot of potential hurt. It means believing that the obstacles you face in forming a partnership with others will not be insurmountable to everyone.
Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator and writer for, Yopp!: a social justice blog that connects education, critiques, calls to action, and personal stories into one resource to lift up marginalized people and help non-marginalized people understand how to help them. For fun, Kella organizes and DJ’s at an Argentine tango dancing event in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, bakes gluten-free masterpieces, sings loudly along with pop music, and makes cat noises. You can find her on facebook, twitter, or Instagram.