Talking About Disability on a Date:
by Dr. Linda R. Mona
Discussing your disabilities on a date can be difficult: your new partner is probably curious about the extent of your sexual abilities. Can you have intercourse? What special needs do you have? What are your limits or particular talents?
The hardest part of this conversation can be deciding when to have it. How does one lead into the subject? Do you talk about disability at the onset of the first date, or wait until the second, third or fourth meeting?
People living with disabilities tend to worry about saying too much or not saying enough. Place these feelings of anxiety aside! Discussion about a person's disability typically comes up naturally within conversation. For example, a conversation could begin around a modified van, a Seeing Eye dog, the use of sign language or a prosthetic device or mobility aide. When these subjects arise, respond honestly and openly to questions, and your prospective partner will understand you are comfortable discussing your disability.
Ironically, while you are worrying about how and when to bring up the limits imposed by your disability, your date is no doubt struggling with questions, afraid of offending you, but wanting information. For example, your date may wonder what arrangements need to be made to accommodate your disability during an evening out. Can you walk a few steps unaided, or do you require your wheelchair at all times? Are you comfortable with having a menu read to you, or would you prefer to dine only in restaurants that offer Braille menus?
If he or she is unfamiliar with dating a disabled person, as many people are the first time they do so, your date may simply blurt out, "What is your disability, and what do I need to do to arrange a date?" Although some individuals feel comfortable with this direct approach, others may not know how to respond to such a remark. Be compassionate, and try not to get offended. Remember, your date is simply trying to ensure you both enjoy yourselves.
It is important to remember that these questions also come up when two people with disabilities date each other. Contrary to popular belief, the disabled are not all alike—we do have questions about our friends and dating partners with different types of disabilities.
Given the uneasiness that can surface, here are some helpful hints for people with disabilities, as well as for their able-bodied and disabled dating partners.
- Discuss your disability, don't lecture an audience.
Treat a date like any other social situation. Talk about your disability as it naturally occurs in conversation. If you are asked directly about it, answer with details that are informative, but don't launch into a 30-minute speech about your condition. If this date turns into a more serious relationship, you'll find plenty of time to discuss the specifics of your disability.
- Talk from a script.
If you feel ill at ease discussing your disability, think about what you may want to say ahead of time. Sometimes people practice with a friend how they plan to discuss their disability. If you prefer to practice alone, use a tape recorder or even a mirror to get an idea about how you come across and what words bolster your confidence.
- Plan your response to questions.
If it makes you feel better, think about what you might say if you were asked directly about your disability. Some people have a standard response they always give to questions; for example, someone may say, "I am deaf and this is why my speech may seem different to you." Some people may want to take this a step further and say, "I have 20% hearing ability in my right ear, so if you sit on my left side, I think we'll have a more enjoyable conversation." Think about what feels right to you, and go for it!
- Talk about your dating partner's disability.
Creating an environment open to discussion helps the person with the disability feel a sense of power over a potentially uncomfortable situation. Try something like, "I'm not sure if you feel comfortable answering this question, but I was wondering if you would mind discussing your disability?" This phrasing gives the person with a disability the choice of whether or not they'd choose to engage in these issues, and shows him or her you are comfortable discussing the matter.
- Refrain from asking overly personal questions on the first date.
One often assumes that it is acceptable to ask people with disabilities very personal questions. For example, it is not uncommon for people to be asked, "How do you go to the bathroom?" "How do you shower?" or "Can you have sex?" While many of us think that it is not unreasonable to ask for such personal information, it is important to keep in mind that people with disabilities are entitled to the same amount of privacy as anyone else.
Whether dating another disabled person or an able-bodied person, talk to each other and find out what arrangements need to be made. By showing your partner you can communicate comfortably about the "sensitive" subject of your disability, you are opening the door for more intimate conversations, perhaps those surrounding your intimate preferences!
Dr. Linda R. Mona is a nationally recognized expert, and well-known advocate, for disability rights. She has authored numerous presentations and papers on the topic of sexuality and disability, in particular, and often runs workshops on this very important topic. Dr Mona does not endorse the IntimateRider.