Ableism (Noun): discrimination in favour of able-bodied people.
I had the inspiration to write this article from societal observations to my own experiences of dating with a disability.
When I roam the streets, through the usual mire of ableist stares and heckles I see an aesthetics-obsessed population: the way able-bodied individuals interact with one another betrays the foundations of an ableist social structure. You hear people talking about their "ideal qualities" and outlining a list of traits they want in a partner. While many may believe their “requirements” are harmless, these lists indicate an unconscious aversion to anything outside our false idea of what is “normal”.
You have legions of people all wanting a partner of a particular height, weight or body type. Adding disability to the scenario only serves to make this a far more frustrating concept.
I know that I will most likely never meet many of the objectives I have set for myself (though not for want of effort). I have resigned myself to the existence of a system that will act as a socio-economic barrier to many of my dreams. However—like so many others—I desire companionship, spiritual connection to another human, someone to create lasting memories with. Especially at a time like this, with many marginalized communities living in a world of uncertainty, the promise of companionship means more to me than it probably would if I were able-bodied. When you know you have a life-limiting condition, everything seems far more urgent.
In all honesty, I don't know if I will ever find someone who truly accepts me in that sense. I have always been the joke where I live: the person in a wheelchair, the object of mockery, the epitome of isolation. In homogenous areas that are imbued with conservative ideology, people with disabilities often are almost like living skeletons. We “exist” in the strictest sense of the word, but are we truly given the ability to exist freely? That is the question I keep asking myself. As a community, people with disabilities are still living with the remnants of archaic ideology that defined us as “genetically inferior”—we are still living in the shadow of this institutionalized ableism.
When it comes to toxic public perceptions of disability, I still see elements of the same ignorance that past generations showed towards people like me. The common and casual usage of slurs like “lame”, “cripple”, and “retarded” are examples of this, but sadly nobody seems to take it seriously. They believe language is just thrown out and does not have repercussions. However, this language sets a precedent that affects how people view disability.
How this applies to dating and romance is pretty simple: when it comes to what people find “desirable” or what the media propagates as being attractive, disability is rarely if ever presented as being such. Why do you think so many movies have antagonists with some form of disability? These stories are subliminally telling you that disability is detrimental.
I have had many interactions with people who have identified what they see as physical flaws within me and then used their understanding of these “flaws” as a way to undermine what I offer to the world. When I have tried to date, for example, I have been met with a barrage of really offensive questions and statements:
“Would you be a burden?”
“I wouldn’t want to go out with someone who can’t look after themselves.”
“You are ugly.”
“Can you have sex?”
All of the above were regular statements I received either in person or online, all of them slowly chipping away at whatever scraps of self-confidence I have left.
Here’s what happens to people with disability: our humanity has been replaced by a noun. The largely-ignored truth is that many see us as broken, rather than seeing that we are just human beings who are dealing with something incredibly difficult. (What is more human than struggle?) The reality is that our disabilities do not lessen our desirability, and they don’t diminish who we are: they heighten our humanity. To rise above scorn every day, and continue to try and live, is as human as you can get.
Speaking from my personal experience, I battle with regular feelings of self-loathing. All I see and hear is abuse: even if people do not recognize it, the things they say to me typically amount to belittling any facet of who I am. Some days, my annexed mind forgets that I am its owner. I look at my reflection and degrade myself verbally because I feel worthless.
Many will question me and say, “Why are you hard on yourself?” In theory, I don’t need people’s validation, but if people do not regard me as equal then I can never ascend above a certain level. Sometimes your efforts to know who you are can get hijacked by people constantly telling you what you aren’t. I am not a “useless cripple” who is “ugly and disgusting”, but when you get told something often enough, it really does invade your mind.
We all deserve to feel loved and respected, but I think we as a society need to look at ourselves and really evaluate who we truly are as people. We are so obsessed with aesthetics, and it feels very Victorian in how it manifests. Whilst I may not passively allow people to designate me as part of a “freak show”, it feels very much like that’s how many people see disability.
Who knows if I’ll ever find someone who truly values me in a romantic sense? I just hope that there is a revolution of consciousness, a paradigm shift where we realize that physical appearance does not truly represent inner beauty. Beyond disability, there are so many capable, talented, loving, and wise people who just want to share themselves and their lives with another person.