Uploading photos to online dating websites causes everybody some level of anxiety, but what if—rather than worrying about how your hair looks in that picture—you worried about how your residual limb looks? For the 20 percent of Americans who have disabilities, this is one of the many challenges they face with online dating.
Stephanie Woodward, a 26-year-old lawyer with spina bifida, recently turned to online dating as a fun and cheap way to explore her new city. However, the online reactions from men to photos of her using a wheelchair have been nothing more than a “shitshow,” she says. Woodward chronicles these reactions on her blog “Step Funny Right Now.”
Some of the first-time messages she’s received from guys on OKCupid:
“…Are you handicapped cause in half the pics your [sic] standing and the others your [sic] not so I’m confused.”
“Hello there. why [sic] are you using wheelchairs?”
For people like Woodward who look different than the norm, these kinds of awkward first-liners are a fact of life. A day running errands in public can involve multiple strangers asking invasive questions about her body and her abilities. The anonymity of the Internet, however, gives the curious a new kind of boldness.
“It’s really kind of a hit and a lot of misses when it comes to online dating,” Woodward says. “I feel like, as a person with a disability, I get a lot more of the weirdoes or the people who feel entitled to ask questions before they know my name.”
There’s a special type of troll on dating sites. If you don’t have a disability, you’re unlikely to know they exist. But if you do have a disability, try sifting through the literally hundreds of messages you receive from people who aren’t interested in making a good first impression. They simply want to know how exactly you’re “broken” and whether or not you can still have sex.
After fielding questions like those day after day, you begin to feel like the people online are dating your wheelchair, rather than dating you.
This relentless disability trolling on dating websites can have a truly toxic effect. Woodward has caught herself paying more attention to her disability than she normally would. While heading to a first date, for instance, she often can’t help wondering if walking with crutches—which she can do for short distances—would be better than using her wheelchair. Normally, she says, she chooses whatever is most comfortable for her. But after navigating the minefield of online dating, this independent and successful young woman has begun to suspect that walking, even if it means physical discomfort, might make her love life go more smoothly.
Because of disability trolling, some people may hesitate to disclose their differences right away. Wheelchair users may only post photos that show their bodies from the waist up, or people with visual impairments may not mention their guide dogs and white canes in bios. Only when they schedule an in-person date with someone do they mention their disability.
Tiffiny Carlson calls this “dropping the D-bomb.” Carlson, a writer who uses a wheelchair due to spinal cord injury, has been online dating since 1998. “I always disclose my disability right away in my profile and photos,” she says via email. Just like a messy divorce-in-progress or the fact that there are three kids under the age of 10 waiting at home, Carlson feels that disability is an important fact that potential partners should know from the beginning.
Unlike Woodward, who feels the Internet can bring out more negative in people than positive, Carlson thinks online dating is actually a better, less scary way for guys to approach her. For people who’ve never interacted with a wheelchair user, the first time can be intimidating (especially if you don’t know proper etiquette). Exchanging a few flirtatious messages online, though, paves the way for a smooth first date.
With the incredible surge in popularity of online dating since its inception, countless niche communities have popped up. ClownDating.com, for instance, is a singles community for professional clowns, aspirational clowns, or people who just find clowns sexy. And for those ’80s kids who long for the days of “business in the front, party in the back,” MulletPassions.com exists.
Since there are 1 billion people with disabilities around the world, it should come as no surprise that a plethora of disability-specific dating sites exist. Phrases like “Find your disabled soul mate!” and “Playing disabled cupid” are sprinkled across websites like DisabilityDating.com and Dating4Disabled.com. While there are apparently hundreds of registered users on these websites, none of the individuals who spoke to The Daily Beast said they would use them.
“If you’re in a chair, that’s great. If you’re not in a chair and you can reach the top shelf in my apartment, that’s even better,” says Woodward.
“I think dating sites for people with disabilities is a terrible idea,” says Carlson, in the same vein. “I never used one and never will.”
Woodward and Carlson feel that their disability doesn’t—or shouldn’t—limit them to dating only people who have disabilities also. While society might view their physical difference as one big “Other” sign tied to their backs, these women merely view it as a key part of their identities, one that they’re proud of.
“I don’t know that you can make online dating better,” says Woodward. “You have to make society better.”
OKCupid is owned by IAC. IAC is The Daily Beast’s parent company.