For most High School students with disabilities life is very lonely. Far more than at any time in our lives, adolescents want to be accepted and liked. Unfortunately, the code for this is, “You need to be like everyone else.” And, the kid with the disability simply isn’t “like everyone else.”
I never dated or had a girl friend while I was in high school. With what I know today, there could have been a different outcome but as they say, “hind sight is 20/20.” My high school experience is best summed up by that line from the Janis Ian song: “At 17” “To those of us who knew the pain, of Valentines that never came, to those of us whose names were never called, when choosing sides for basketball.”
For most animal species, the “survival of the fittest” doctrine favors physical and mental fitness. When your life is filled with concerns about protecting your young and your food supply this is understandable. Although we humans are, for the most part, past the need to consider our spouse’s ability to kill enemies, we are still genetically programmed to favor physical fitness and prowess. We are also programmed to not consider mates with physical disabilities. Our programming says, “They are not fit to raise my offspring.” That’s the blunt truth of it. So, when you’re looking for a sexual partner as a person with a disability, you’re looking for somebody who is smart enough to look beyond their programming. Like your mother always said, “You should see the person, not what they look like.” But, that’s a difficult hill to climb for adolescents.
Unfortunately, we’re talking about some very deep programming. We’re hard wired to look for particular mates and removing that programming can take a lifetime. But, if you keep an open mind you will meet people who can look beyond your disability and you yourself can help people see beyond it. There are some things we can do that do make a huge difference in our attractiveness to others, so let’s talk about them:
1. Dress like the people you want to attract. Clothes signal your personal values, cleanliness, interests, etc. So, think of your dress as a costume that will link you to those who like that costume. You’ll notice I didn’t say “be neat,” “comb your hair,” because you might not want to attract that kind of person. Just know that you’ll attract those who dress like you do, so, attention to detail in this area is important.
2. Unless you really like people with low self esteem, be aware that you will be seen by some of these folks as “all I can get.” On the upside of being different, those who value their differences and see themselves as not “part of the crowd” will also be attracted to you because of your difference. So, just be aware and decide for yourself how you want to proceed.
3. Don’t seek a mate at bars and night clubs. As a former bar and restaurant owner, I can tell you that, as a general rule, these really aren’t places to meet healthy people. “Picking up somebody at the bar” seldom results in lifelong happiness. But, perhaps you’re not looking for lifelong happiness, so, take your chances. Just be aware that the bar scene is about people looking good for one another–putting on a costume. If you have a visible disability you will have limited success in that scene.
4. Your place in society determines how attractive you are to many people. If you have the position of President of the club, Director of a program, Congress woman or company CEO, people will be attracted to you. So, take on positions of authority/leadership if you’re so inclined because they will help others see you as competent. It’s not just that you are being visibly competent, but, others are attracted to you because they say in their minds, “If others elected her to this position, they think a lot of her, so, I should think a lot of her as well.” Again, much of this is a bit ridiculous, but, it is human nature and you should know about it. I use to volunteer to be the Secretary of organizations. Nobody wanted to to it because it required work. It gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my skills and put me in front of the group. That was invaluable experience and also helped me make friends. Yes, sometimes even female friends.
5. People are attracted to competence, ability, and skill. If you have competencies in your life that set you apart, they will also make you more attractive. Being a good writer, speaker, dancer, woodworker, sales person or social worker all make you attractive. So, doing things well counts! In a bow to our genetic programming, it is fair for somebody who is considering whether to raise a family with you to want to know that you are competent at things that will result in security for children and one another. And, if you have measurable skills you are also employable. Jobs are another identity that make you attractive to others. The first question most people ask, after they know your name, is, “What do you do?” It’s that important!
6. So much of physical attraction is hard wired to rule out disability and difference that most people will not consider you a suitable mate. You just need to learn to accept that and move on. If it helps, just console yourself with the fact that you wouldn’t want to date anybody that shallow anyway.
7. Pattern to be ware of. “Big Strong virile male attracted to weak small female. “Oh,” she says, “My hero.” This usually produces miserable people. He wants somebody to do whatever he says and she wants the freedom to be something different than she initially portrayed. The reverse of this is “nurturing female” wants to take care of disabled male. This also results in miserable people. These relationships usually end badly because eventually one partner gets tired. That’s right. Relationships that work usually require some level of equity of contribution. So, as the saying goes, “buyer beware.”
8. Become comfortable with expressing who you are. People already notice you, so, make that an advantage. Attracting the opposite sex, or even the same sex, is best done through your being. Demonstrate honesty, kindness, humor and caring, and you will find people to love. Learn to tell people that you care. They won’t just figure it out. Go out of your way to do good to others. I know it sounds corny, but, use the visibility of your disability to become memorable as a person of quality.
So, there you have it! Eight rules to de-mystify the dating and mate search process for people with disabilities. Because of the world’s tendency to exclude us from their list of eligible candidates, we often find the mates who do understand us are those with disabilities. This is understandable and often preferable. But, I would suggest that one measure of progress for us as we look into the future will be the percentage of people with disabilities whose spouses do not have them. This will be a measure of the extent to which we are truly being accepted by society and the extent to which we are learning to manage the impressions others have of us.