I believe in trial and error, so for the past year, I have “tested” out various tactics to disclose my invisible disabilities to potential romantic partners. I went about my romantic life as normal–a date here and there when the opportunity came about. But what also came about, quite a bit, was ableism.
After tweeting about my disclosure and dating app experiences, my Twitter thread about this topic grew into quite the conversation. People shared how disability stigma impacts their love life and expressed the complexity of disclosure. So, I wanted to dive deeper.
Even though I’ve made mistakes, what failed me the most was assumptions about disabled people and dating. First, there are the assumptions that disability causes a tragic life, that dating us is a burden because we are “needy.” Dating us makes non-disabled people saints taking on a charity case. Second is the false notion that disability and sexiness are at odds. We might be “cute” in a pitiful sort of way, but never desirable. Lastly, there is the stereotype that disabled people have limited futures, so dating us is signing up for limited options and compromise.
While being disabled has sometimes complicated my love life, it’s ableism that is the problem, not my disabilities.
Dating with invisible disabilities is a waiting game that presses at the limits and costs of disclosure: Do I have to tell? Am I ashamed? What if they don’t want me? How will I ever find real companionship and respect? I don’t have all the answers, but I can share my experiences:
Disclosing on the First Date
They ask, “so what do you do?” to which I reply, I study disability and promote disability rights. Then, they get a curious look and ask, “Why disability though?” A few times I tried being direct: “I am disabled and here’s how.” This generally turned out poorly, sparking replies such as “No, don’t call yourself that!” or “But you look so beautiful.” Ugh. Other people just nodded silently and then changed the subject. The more I thought about this, I realized the other person may get confused by this direct disclosure by thinking that I already overly attached to them on the first date because I’m sharing tons of personal information.
Openly disclosing on the first date is certainly not something I will do again. So now, when they ask, “Why disability though?” I simply say, “because disabled lives deserve equal rights and representation, any objections?” Anyone who argues with that doesn’t deserve my companionship.
After a month or so of dating, my attempts at planning an intimate moment of sharing my disabilities often led to misguided replies. For instance, after disclosing my anxiety disorder, a date said, “Oh, my mom has been deaf for years,” as though the “disabled experience” is some monolithic category. Another date replied, “Well, everyone has problems.” But I never said my disabilities are problems. It really killed the mood.
The downside of intimate disclosure is that you risk framing your disabilities as some exceptional secret rather than a part of everyday life. Moreover, waiting for the “right moment” is not something we can always do because our access needs may “out” us first.
Casual Disclosure Over Time
Here, I would take an opportunity as it came to me to share. We’d be watching a movie, for example, featuring a disabled character and I’d more casually say, “I can relate in a way because…” Or, I’d explain a certain access need when it became relevant. In this way, I was simply sharing information about myself without making a big deal. While my dates had questions, it was often more of a conversation than an interrogation. One partner even took my disclosure as a chance to share something personal about himself, and this built trust. Most importantly, I felt like I chose to disclose, because the situation did not pressure or mandate my disclosure.
The fact that I have the choice to disclose my disability results from my disabilities being largely invisible. While not disclosing at all was tempting at times, it always led me back to the same question: Why do I want to hide such an integral part of my identity? For me, disclosure means sharing who I am, and accepting the scary fact that some people will not accept me.
The best advice I can give when it comes to disclosure is to consider your limits, assess your patience, and account for your needs. Are you ready or do you just think you should be ready? Is it your choice or external pressure?
When I disclose, I’m not just sharing my disabilities, listing them out like a grocery store receipt; I’m explaining the concepts of disability pride and identity. Disclosure is a vital act of agency and maintaining control over our rights, while still leaving ourselves open enough to love and be loved.