The online dating industry is worth an estimated £2bn, but it doesn’t cater well to those with disabilities. Photograph: Alamy
After nearly four years of being single, I decided that I wanted to meet someone romantically. Instead of waiting for love to find me, as people often suggest, I decided to do what so many do these days: try online dating. I chose Match.com. I started looking at some of the available profiles and I eventually found someone that sparked my interest, so I sent a message introducing myself and asking more about them.
Receiving a reply from someone who is romantically interested in you can be a strong and positive feeling, especially since most of us, especially men, are familiar with embarrassing ourselves when asking someone out on a date. Starting any relationship is complicated, but it’s all the more so for those of us with disabilities.
I have Dypraxia, an autistic spectrum disorder similar to all-body Dyslexia. It’s not something that would be visible in photos or any other part of a typical online dating profile unless I disclosed it. When I finally met someone I liked, I was torn about when to admit my disability. I wanted them to accept me for who I was, but worried that she might dismiss me out of hand once she knew. In the end, I told the woman the truth because my disability, or rather, fighting to end the oppression of disabled people in society, is a big part of my life. I didn’t receive another message back.
Forming a romantic relationship can be difficult for anyone. For people with disabilities, it can be one of the hardest things you ever do. Most online dating websites do not ask users whether they have a disability. When it comes to meeting potential partners for the first time, it can come as a surprise if the disability has never come up in online conversation. For many disabled people, it can be embarrassing to talk about their disability so it helps if dating websites offer them the chance to say that they have a disability or ask other people whether they are willing to meet disabled people. I’ve certainly found that being upfront is less embarrassing than revealing this in the later stages of dating.
A few websites, such as UK Disability Match, do offer disabled people the chance to meet others like themselves. But such sites can be abused by non-disabled people with a fetish for particular kinds of disability (yes, this exists), such as amputations. It is hard to make such websites safe and comfortable for genuine users while keeping them open to non-disabled people who are looking to contact disabled people for different reasons.
For me, knowing that I have the understanding of any partner is liberating and lets me be myself. With the options available on existing dating websites, I feel exposed, vulnerable and inhibited. They aren’t conducive to conveying the sensitive, caring and confident image I would like to project and limit the usability of these websites. With nearly 20% of Americans affected by a disability, such dating websites are increasingly feeling alienating and obsolete for a significant number of users.
A disability is not part of your personality. Instead, like race or sexuality, it forms part of the context in which your personality develops. Often, disabled people are stereotyped, as if we were all the same. This replicates the experience disabled people often have in the education system, where schools tend to group together children with disabilities, regardless of severity or type. This may be practical for a school, but it’s often unhelpful or limiting for disabled pupils themselves. It can not only create unpleasant or very limiting experiences for disabled students, but also encourages a generalized fear of disability amongst non-disabled people, which persists even later in life.
After that first rejection, I updated my profile to include my disability. I am still receiving just as many winks and likes as I did before, but I am a lot more secure in the knowledge that people are taking an interest in me in spite of my disability. In fact, I would encourage others to be more open on their profiles. It hasn’t limited my prospects in the way I initially feared it would.
I know I am not alone. Others have surely found strategies that work better than mine. Dating websites now have a lot of data on their users and how they interact, and I hope they use their expertise to better advise users, including those with disabilities, on strategies that can be helpful in building profiles and initiating conversation.
Dating sites should also consider introducing a question about mental health difficulties and whether you have had difficulties in the past. It could even be an anonymous one that doesn’t show up on the profile, but helps in the algorithm many sites use that pairs people together. On disabled-specific dating websites, a profile question on why users want to meet other disabled people might be helpful to sort out why people are using the website and the type of person they hope to meet.
One of the most common bits of advice people give about dating is to “be yourself”. It’s what disabled people want as well, but the nature of online dating makes it more about first impressions, and some people don’t give those with disabilities a chance. Some subtle changes on dating websites could create better opportunities for users to indicate if they would at least be willing to date people like me. It would help disabled people relax in the knowledge that their potential date won’t judge them solely on their disability.