The shameless disrespect from players in this digital dating game is enough to make my thick skin crawl, but it’s the insults disguised as (backhanded) compliments that really get under it and stay there – until some self-reflection reveals that it’s their problem, not mine. I’d lose count if I tried to tally all the times I received messages that start with something like, “I wanted to drop a note and tell you how inspiring it is that you are living your life and looking for love…”
Gee, Thanks? Then there’s the guy who serves up this appetizer on a first date, “I’m happy I met you. Now whenever I have a tough day, I'm going to think of you and remember that you get out of bed every morning." That’s great because I’ve always wanted to be someone’s poster child for soldiering on through adulthood.
I’d be remiss if I forgot the crown jewel of them all, the infamous Disabled Chick Catcall: "Hey, you're so beautiful for a woman in a chair. The strength you have to put yourself out here is inspiring.” Hey, buddy, every person who wants it risks their heart for love. Having a disability does not make me a special case in this scenario. And while I have your attention, this wheelchair doesn’t call into question my attractiveness or my ability to love and be loved. It’s simply part of how I experience our world.
Yes, the experiences of others have the power to put elements of our own realities into much clearer perspective so that we can find renewed value and appreciation for our lives. But the predictable “you inspire me” response to witnessing a woman live life is so tired. Instead of complimenting me it subtly devalues my humanity. The subliminal message, unintentional most of the time, is "even though you're disabled you still manage to find purpose in your life – and that’s inspiring.” We all have purposeful lives, no matter where we’ve been. And to get where we’re going, sometimes we do need to pull inspiration from others. It’s what builds connections and networks of support and it’s what drives growth and change.
Ultimately, context matters most. I feel proud instead of patronized when I hear that my writing and other work has inspired people to think differently or to start exploring their own interests. However, when I'm called inspiring for getting out of bed in the morning or going on a date, I know the comment comes from fascination in my disability and not appreciation of my personal or professional merits or creative impact. That's when I have a problem.
From where I sit (pun absolutely intended) people, especially men on dating sites, don't always know the appropriate response to disability. The I Word has become a safe, albeit stale, placeholder in another's attempt to recognize and legitimize diversity. Lord knows our world needs more attempts to love and appreciate every person. But part of the issue with grabbing on to "Inspirational" to help stabilize a response to or grow comfort levels with differences is that for most people with disabilities it can easily feel disingenuous. We all want to be regarded for our whole person – there are thousands more descriptive words to choose.
What some pictures and a few words in an online dating profile might fail to show completely is that ‘disability’ describes only part of the woman I am. And if what that word means for my life inspires some guy to be a better man, that’s great and I’m sure his mom would thank me. But I want my life’s experiences to push people further outside the limits of their comfort zone. I want to encourage people to fearlessly go after what they want without second-guessing their worth. Above all, I want to empower people to proudly express their individuality without placing other people's opinions above their own.
That’s all so much more inspiring than my ability to drain smartphone data to find a date, isn’t it? If you're still playing the dating game like I am, first, Godspeed, my friend. It's rough out there. Secondly, dating is complicated, between the guessing games and compatibility tests; adding disability into the mix can make the tango of two hearts feel even more complicated.
The thing is, relationships -- interabled, or otherwise -- don't need to be so complicated. Dare I say, much of the confusion or notions about a person and their ways of living can be quickly eliminated or dissected through the-sometimes-lost-art of conversation.
Oh, the things we learn about each other, when we choose to connect more deeply, taking time to really know and understand a person before writing them off as "un-dateable" because of disability.
Besides, the way a person mobilizes themselves should be far less an indicator of their "date-ability" or "relationship material" than say, a serial cheater, right? But, you can be disabled and a cheating jerk. Point is, lower levels of physicality do not indicate higher levels of character, and vice versa.
Nobody's perfect. Date freely without assumption. You'll be surprised.