Stop calling me brave: On disability and dating

A month ago this Wednesday, I was turned down from a dating agency for being too disabled.

I have taken to referring to what followed – a viral Twitter thread, a Radio 4 interview, a discussion on the Last Leg – as A Series of Unexpected Events. I capitalise this phrase in my own mind in an attempt to mark the entire episode as somehow separate to my real, lower-cased existence. Reality resumes. I have carried on. I capitalise to make it discrete, singular, finished.

But it is not finished. For a month I have existed with the feeling that the very top layer of my skin has been peeled off and I am red and raw and vulnerable.

And for a month, I have suppressed harsh words aimed those who have labelled me brave for sharing what happened. I do not feel brave.

I do not want to be brave.

To be a disabled woman is to exist in a world that flings rocks at you and then praises you for labelling the resulting pain. It never seems to occur to anyone to stop hurling things.

Here’s what I have to say on International Women’s Day: For me, sexism and ableism are one and the same.

Countless kind people have been in touch to reassure me that the agency I spoke to was “wrong” – that disabled people find love all the time.

But it is hard not to notice that many of these people are, well, men. Women, as we all know, are primed by society to take on caring roles. Men, on the whole, are not.

I know from many, many Hinge conversations that it is not actually my wheelchair that puts men off dating me. It is my voice impediment. It is my wobbliness. And it is my reliance on care. They look at me and think: burden.

So I hate to have to tell you this but, horribly worded and unreasonably nasty as it was, that dating agency email did not tell me anything I didn’t already know.

And if that shocks you, you haven’t been paying attention.

Disabled women are routinely told that our bodies are unattractive, and even more regularly infantilised and desexualised. Disability and dating could be called the last taboo if only there weren’t the even more taboo subjects of disability and sex and disability and motherhood to worry about. If we as disabled women struggle not to internalise these messages, is it any wonder that (most) men on dating apps have accepted them as truth?

Acquired at 13, 19, 23, the knowledge of all this slowly does something to you – all those years of rejection and denial of that essential part of yourself that needs companionship and intimacy.

As those around you reach life’s milestones and you do not, it leaves you feeling guilty for being sad when your friends are happiest. It leaves you wondering if you will ever shake this loneliness that has persisted for as long as you can remember. In the worst moment it tells you that no matter what you do, the world will always label you: different, different, different.

And even when you have done enough painstaking mental work to know that the problem is not you but society, when you can deconstruct ableism in real time, yes, it makes you feel unlovable.

I have spent a decade harbouring all this, scared that if I spoke it out loud it would become more real. Only recently have I begun to be honest about how I have been feeling all these years and trying to do something about it.

Signing up to the dating agency was a last-roll-of-the-die effort to reclaim some control, get some help, and kindle some hope. That went well, didn’t it?

In the weeks since the Series of Unexpected Events, people have asked me what I’m going to try next. A different agency, a new app, post-pandemic singles events?

The answer is no. I have spent too much time being sad about this thing that is beyond my control. I am not doing it to myself anymore. I still hold out some hope of a chance encounter with a friend of a friend, a colleague or, ideally, a kindly stranger in a bookshop. But I’m not allowing myself to be continually hit around the head. Enough is enough.

Do I sound brave to you now? I hope not.

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