Dating with a disability: Tips for navigating the dating scene


Dating with a disability: Tips for navigating the dating scene

One certainty in life is that dating is an exhilarating blend of excitement, curiosity, and vulnerability for many. It’s a universal experience, unrestricted by background, beliefs, or personal challenges. 

Even after acquiring a spinal cord injury in my early 20s, I’ve come to realise that, in essence, not much has changed about dating—it’s still about understanding ourselves and what we’re looking for in a partner.

My journey into dating post-injury has been filled with unique moments—like the time my catheter accidentally came apart during a hug with my girlfriend, leaving us both drenched. It was a situation that demanded laughter, showcasing that sometimes, embracing vulnerability is all we can do. “Dating with a disability introduces challenges, but it’s the mindset that often dictates our experiences. With the right approach, anyone can navigate dating successfully,” reflects Candice Care-Unger, a specialist social worker and psychosexual therapist.

Understanding our needs and wants

A pivotal step in dating is grasping our own needs and desires. Personality tests like Myers-Briggs or DISC Profile can offer insights and understand our attachment styles – secure, avoidant or anxious. “Dating is a selfish act,” a psychologist once told me during my rehab. This isn’t about disregarding others’ feelings but recognising our worth and what we bring to a relationship.

The role of representation

The media is catching up with more authentic portrayals of individuals with disabilities living regular lives. This visibility challenges outdated perceptions and underscores the capability of individuals with disabilities to form deep, empathetic relationships.

What springs to mind is Assume That I Can. In the lead-up to World Down Syndrome Day on 21 March, an international awareness campaign takes aim at the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding individuals with Down syndrome, particularly challenging the false belief that people with Down syndrome are incapable of engaging in sexual relationships.

Holly Fowler, CEO and co-founder of Wable, was inspired by the show Love on the Spectrum, highlighting the unwavering willingness of neurodivergent individuals in their pursuit of love despite various challenges. This inspiration led to the creation of an app to facilitate connections for friendship, dating and more that caters specifically to neurodivergent people, providing a safe and inclusive environment for them.

Navigating online dating

Online dating platforms offer a modern avenue for meeting new people. In 2022, over 300 million people worldwide used dating apps or dating sites to meet new people. However, they often lack features that fully accommodate users with disabilities. Presenting oneself authentically can be both a challenge and an opportunity. The question of how and when to disclose a disability in one’s dating profile is a nuanced aspect of digital dating that merits discussion.

Candice Care-Unger, a specialist social worker and psychosexual therapist and Director at Care Rehab, shares valuable insights from her professional experience on this topic. Candice observes, “I think my success stories are usually the folks who have worked out how to disclose their disability pretty early on, so they’re not wasting time. But also in a way that their optimism comes through, their resilience comes through, and their zest for life comes through. Something that kind of says, ‘I’m dealing with my own emotional baggage, and I’m available for getting to know people, and I’m fun, I’m interesting.’

Candice Care-Unger’s 2 May 2024 workshop aims to empower professionals in supporting dating with disabilities, focusing on fostering respectful relationships and communication skills for their target audiences.

Whether disclosing a disability or not, being authentic and clear about what you seek in a relationship is key.

Guide to writing a dating profile

  • Be authentic. Share genuine aspects of your personality. Let your humour, interests, and passions shine through.
  • Openness about disability. Decide how and if you want to disclose your disability. It’s entirely up to you how much detail you provide, but mentioning it positively and confidently can set the tone for respectful and meaningful interactions.
  • Highlight your best. Choose photos that show you in your best light—doing activities you love or sharing moments that make you smile. Visual stories invite others to see the world through your eyes.

Engaging in meaningful conversations

  • Find common ground. Use their profile as a springboard for conversation. Shared interests can spark engaging discussions.
  • Be curious. Ask open-ended questions to learn more about the other person, showing genuine interest in their experiences and thoughts.
  • Share thoughtfully. Gradually share more about yourself. Balancing listening and sharing fosters a connection built on mutual understanding.

Setting up dates

  • Choose accessible venues. When planning in-person meetings, suggest locations you know are accessible and comfortable for you. This removes uncertainty and ensures you can focus on enjoying the date.
  • Be flexible. Virtual dates via video calls can be a great alternative to first meet someone. They offer a safe and convenient way to connect deeply without the logistical challenges of physical meetups.

Ensuring safety and respect

  • Trust your instincts. If something feels off, it’s okay to step back. Your safety and comfort are paramount.
  • Share wisely. Be cautious about sharing personal information. Establish trust gradually.
  • Plan for safety. Let a trusted friend know about your date plans and consider check-in times, especially for in-person meetings.

Financial considerations in dating

Dating involves financial considerations, particularly for those on a pension. “Video calls as a first meeting can save money and energy,” Care-Unger suggests, “allowing compatibility assessment before in-person meetings.” She also advises attending interest-aligned events to meet potential partners affordably.

Support worker dynamics in dating

The dynamics with support workers can complicate dating. “Evaluating whether your support worker facilitates or hinders your dating life is essential,” advises Care-Unger. For instance, if you’re with a support worker of the same gender as you’re trying to attract, it might deter potential dates from sparking a conversation because they may think you’ve taken it. Clear communication about needs and preferences with potential partners and support workers can mitigate misunderstandings and foster a supportive dating environment.

Leveraging technology and community support

Technology offers invaluable tools for connecting with others, but it’s the support networks—friends, family, peer groups—that truly enrich the dating journey. Sharing experiences, seeking advice, and offering encouragement within these networks can provide a foundation of confidence and resilience.

Dating, with or without a disability, is an adventure of self-discovery and connection. It’s discovering a partner who sees and values you for who you are. As we navigate this landscape, let’s remember the power of vulnerability, the importance of representation, and the strength of community support.

“Go out and get lucky,” because in the world of dating, vulnerability is the gateway to shared joy and lasting connections.

Jacob Darkin is a passionate advocate for people with disabilities, using his own story of adapting to life after a spinal cord injury in 2019 to inspire and push for change. Once working in construction, his life took a new direction towards advocating for better accessibility and inclusion in areas like work, housing, education, and fun events. He believes strongly that obstacles shouldn’t stop anyone from chasing their dreams. Through his work and personal journey, Jacob aims to help others facing similar challenges and to make society more welcoming for everyone.