Dec 11, 2011


Rob from Durham, North Carolina asks:

How hard is it for people with disabilities to form relationships? ... Is it hard to make friends? ... What about dating?


That is a very good question and topic. The answer is both simple and complicated. On one hand, having a disability is a disaster for relationships, both for friends and romantic partners. But on the other hand, it can strengthen those relationships. I will answer based on my experiences as a wheelchair user (rather than other disabilities), since that is what this blog is about.

First, I will talk about friends.

After I acquired my disability and started using a wheelchair, something happened. People who used to interact with me started tapering off. E-mails started to go unanswered. Phone calls ignored. Even a greeting gesture on the street would go unnoticed. Having a disability (pardon the term) sucks when you lose friends as a result of it.

The reason for that can vary. Some simply do not want the added hassle of having a friend with a disability. Some cannot handle the thought of their friend having a disability. There are also others who do not wish to associate themselves with people with disabilities – cruel but true. You really get to see the true natures of many people.

On the other hand, there are friends who are the opposite and will stick by you no matter what happens. While I lost a lot of friends, there were a few who remained despite everything and I have always been grateful for that. These are the friends who will consider my situation when thinking about what kind of things to do; they will be okay with not going to a place if wheelchair accessibility is a problem, or with taking the scenic route to a place because of obstacles like stairs, or helping to push your wheelchair up a slope if it is too steep to handle, and so on.

In that way, having a disability is perhaps a great "friend filter" as it filters out your genuine friends from those who are not. The strength of a friendship depends on whether you, as a person, matters more than your disability.

What about romantic relationships?

I have not pursued a romantic relationship for a long time but have encountered a situation before involving an old high school girlfriend. She was working on the SkyTrain system here in Vancouver as a station attendant. She recognized me but I was too terrified to say that it was indeed me. Why was I terrified?

The main reason is because in public, most females who are my age (mid-20s) have looked at me with the two looks I hate the most – the pitying look or the look of sadness. It is difficult to describe but it is basically a look that either says, "Poor guy, ending up in a wheelchair and all" or "You remind me of what horrible things can happen to someone in life, and that makes me sad."

I hate that. I do not know if I am the only male wheelchair user who gets that.

However, it seems (to me, anyway) that those two looks come most often from women, and not so much from other men. That kind of look gives me the impression that male wheelchair users are often NOT the target of romantic relationships because of the overlying feeling of pity or sadness which undermines any feelings one would otherwise have for a male. (I cannot speak for female wheelchair users though, since I am not one; if you are, feel free to comment about your own experiences.)

Now, back to the encounter on the SkyTrain.

My old high school girlfriend recognized me but I was terrified to identify myself. But one thing that stuck out in that encounter was that she lacked the look of pity or sadness that I often see from females who look at me. Instead, she seemed to see me as a person first; the disability was secondary and perhaps mattered very little.

That sounds like something that should happen more often but for some reason, it does not. It is, therefore, not surprising that it is incredibly difficult for wheelchair users to find romantic partners. It is far from impossible but it is notoriously difficult, partly due to people's prejudices and perceptions of disability as a horrible thing to be avoided.

Again, these are my own experiences. Others may have different ones.

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