Is There Disablism in Dating?

Some women like to date effeminate men, other females are attracted to butch women, and everyone knows about tall males who gravitate toward tiny women. Preferences based on hair color, body shape, and personality type are the nuts and bolts of individual attraction and romantic partnering. Can anything based on such subjectivity involve discrimination? Do societal beliefs about disability impact the most personal of choices? Based on my personal experience, definitely.

My evidence comes in the form of the commonalities shared by all those I have known to be attracted to me throughout my lifetime. In each instance, the individual had reached maturity without acquiring all the beliefs mainstream society attempts to instill in us. Details illustrate my point best: the first two were both blind, the next string were all raised by single mothers who tended toward the unconventional, a few were raised in an atmosphere of abuse or mental illness, a couple didn’t fit into accepted standards of beauty, and several had learned to reject societal beliefs as they worked through their own sexual identity issues. Male or female, each lacked the subconscious tendency to place me in the same ‘don’t date’ category occupied by their siblings, parents, cousins, and anyone of a gender they do not find desirable.

There is no simple phrase to describe this propensity, but as they say “I know it when I see it.” It isn’t that these individuals missed the class about how one should view disabled people for a majority of them had other disablist attitudes when we first met. Neither did they consciously decide to see those with disabilities as potential dates. Something in the way they were socialized made their subconscious consider me in a different way.

There are a few ways this lack of acculturation manifests itself. Most people lump someone like me into the same category as small children and little old ladies — those for whom sexual attraction is not even considered. This is not the case for those possessing the Unnamable Trait.

Such people have also avoided internalizing societal standards of beauty as their criteria to judge attraction. In this way, my scars, asymmetrical face, and odd eyes are not necessarily detractors from my other charms.

A person must also be missing another piece of socialization that relates to seeing me as a potential date or mate. Society seems to believe that I will be dependent on any future partner in a way that is both onerous and unfair. I am a black hole of neediness with no valuable contributions of my own. Anyone who would consider me in a romantic role must either not have this perception of disability or not care in the first place.

Because the application of all these standards and beliefs happens in the cobwebby back of our minds that our consciousness does not monitor, I am out of the category of datable before the individual even considers the issue. It is not a deliberate decision which makes it the most insidious and destructive kind of discrimination.

Over the years, I have been told that not dating a disabled person is a matter of personal preference which supposedly removes any blame from the equation for nobody can reasonably argue individual tastes should be this or that. To me, it is a more fundamental issue about what we are taught to like and want. the demarcation between personal preference and socially instilled standard is more an vague concept than concrete juncture, but that does not negate the existence of the distinction.

Don’t find my curly hair and small frame attractive? Fine by me. Don’t even consider me as a person to date? That’s a problem with its routes firmly embedded in disablism.

For my emotional reaction to this reality, read Rest of the Story.

This entry was written for Blogging Against Disablism Day May 1st 2010

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

8 thoughts on “Is There Disablism in Dating?

  1. It is an interestin post, but let me challenge you on it a bit. I guess you are saying that if somone does not date someone who is disabled that they are a disablist.

    Then dooes this mean that if someone does not date someone from another race they are racist?

    Or if they, for example, are Catholic and, for example, do not date Jews they are anti-semetic?

  2. I have been on both sides of this quandary, worrying I wouldn’t get a date, and being hesitant to date women with disabilities. And of course the economics of disability are there to complicate things. I am now married to a person with a disability, and while our relationship is not based on disability, the shared experience of disability is a considerable comfort.

  3. It’s a tricky one, imo, because there is a difference between “I’m just not attracted to people like X” or “I’m only attracted to people like Y” and “ewwwww! X people are gross and totally undatable!” or “I don’t even think of people like Y in that way”. The first two ideas are more about preference and the last two are more about discrimination. But it’s a blurry line to figure out sometimes…

    As someone who is newly looking to date again after a long-term relationship ended, and who is more disabled now than when that long-term relationship began, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot myself. Good food for thought!

  4. Welcome everyone! I’m going to address all three comments in one large comment. Names at the beginning of each to help differentiate.

    I think naming the unnamable helps us talk about it in meaningful ways and there is a power in that. I also believe it gives us at least the illusion of having power over it. Also, we as a society tend to like having names for things. This all makes it easer to confront the issue and hopefully make meaningful progress.

    And, yes, children and our elders have sexuality and sensuality. We’re just not suppose to acknowledge it or look at them in those terms. Unfortunate but true in our society at this point in time.

    Wheelchair Pride,
    If someone doesn’t date a person because of their race, religion, or disability as a result of beliefs about that affiliation which have nothing to do with the person, then yes it’s discrimination. Personal preference based on similar religious beliefs, for example, is just personal choice.

    As I mentioned in my original post, the line between personal preference and socially instilled belief is not clear or exact which makes this hard to talk about in concrete ways. Does my attraction to men taller than me because their hugs feel safer come from my own preferences or something I was taught? Not sure and I think it’s impossible to figure out. Dating only women with red hair falls into the category of personal preference. Not even considering someone entirely because of their race seems racist to me. Am I making any sense?


    Now that’s what I like to hear – the times and ways it works out. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Sophy,
    Couldn’t have said it better myself and you used less words.
    Since you have given this some thought, I’m curious if you have come up with ways to address it in the broader sense?

  6. I’ve been with the wizard now for almost 20 years; I’m lucky. From time to time, I wonder what it would be like to date as a disabled person — I became disabled some years into our relationship.

    The question of preference vs discrimination is a complicated one: I’m mixed race, queer, and disabled.

    The way I’d put it is preference would be discrimination if it were systemic or legislative in some way. But because it is individual and connected to biological impulses that we don’t fully understand — if it were only conscious, I think we’d act differently. Biology and genetics are often adduced in strange ways — we don’t name it as such. Individuals are allowed to choose partners on whatever basis we choose.


  7. Wheelchair Dancer,

    I agree there are biological impulses we don’t understand and that people can use whatever criteria they want to pick a date. I feel like there is something in addition to biology and preference impacting peoples choices because I can’t explain the problems disabled folks have with dating with only those two factors.
    Maybe discrimination was a poor choice of words. I didn’t mean it in the legal or systematic sense.

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