What it’s like to navigate sex and dating with a physical disability

Regardless of the specific type of disability, the misconceptions around inter-abled sex and dating are plentiful and often dismissive

Being carried into a movie theatre on a date might sound like a romantic gesture, but not if it’s because you can’t climb the stairs on your own. Dating and sex can be awkward enough as it is, and a physical disability adds a layer of complexity disregarded by many. Kae Tran, like thousands of other Canadians, experiences this complexity first-hand.

“Most people stress about what to wear on a date. I have to focus on if I can even get into the building,” she says.

Tran lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disability that weakens her physical strength year after year. Her muscle lethargy started when she was 14, she was diagnosed at 17 and at 28 she walks with a cane and could foreseeably wake up one morning unable to lift her arms above her head. Simple tasks like getting off a chair are challenging, so even picking a date spot is complicated.

According to Statistics Canada, almost 3.8 million Canadians aged 15 and older report having a physical disability, ranging from mild to severe. Tran, for example, is physically disabled and mentally able, where others suffer a combination of both mental and physical disabilities that change over time.

Sexuality meets de-sexualization

Regardless of the specific type of disability, the misconceptions around inter-abled sex and dating are plentiful and often dismissive.

“People just decide that we’re not sexual beings, that we’re incapable of being aroused, that we don’t have physical desires or fantasies,” Tran explains. “Men and women in wheelchairs are often de-sexualized entirely.”

While North American pop culture has become more sensitive, especially around paraplegics and intimacy, references like the infamous episode of Family Guy with Stephen Hawking can reinforce misconceptions indefinitely. Offensive content abounds on social media and can serve as a catalyst to unite bullies and further isolate those seeking support.

Do I put this in my Tinder profile?

According to Tran, deciding to publicly disclose her disability on a dating app involves walking a fine line between being a buzzkill and accidentally catfishing someone.

“Talking about it upfront is important but it can definitely eliminate some of the fun and allure of flirting,” she says. “Sharing my biggest weakness right away isn’t sexy. The only silver lining is that it quickly filters out who to keep investing my energy into.”

Determining how and when to share such a detail is also difficult.   

“Two years ago, I decided to put it right in my Instagram bio because we all know how dating works these days. The second a conversation starts, you’re going to creep that person’s profile. I don’t want to be a downer by bringing it up, so I share it explicitly and let people find out on their own,” Tran says.

In the past, Tran would wait to share until her conversation with someone intensified, which ultimately, came with challenges as well. “Men would say my disability was no problem and then I’d never hear from them again.”

Publicly disclosing a physical vulnerability (on a dating app or otherwise) also poses real safety risks. Voices of the physically disabled have not been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement, but there have been numerous cases of disabled folks falling victim to predators who either fetishize disability or prey on their increased physical weakness. Violent crimes such as sexual assault are almost twice as likely to affect people living with physical disabilities, and even more likely to affect physically disabled women. 

Inter-abled love is abound

Creating understanding around inter-abled love is as simple as a search online, where thousands share stories of healthy, positive romantic inter-abled relationships. These stories serve to educate the unfamiliar and also to support those who may feel “abnormal” or “unlovable.”

Many Canadians are also leading efforts to promote education and intimacy health among the physically disabled. Sensual Solutions is a Vancouver-based company that pairs its disabled clients with intimacy coaches. Soulful Encounters is a London-based agency providing disabled individuals with a social networking community. Spencer Williams, a 26-year-old Canadian living with cerebral palsy, hosts a radio show called All Access Pass covering sex and disability. Efforts are well underway to de-stigmatize sex and dating among the disabled, in Canada and abroad.

Proof of concept

Tran is now in a long-term relationship with someone she became friends with through work, and they recently moved in together. 

“He asked me very honest questions before we moved in together, about everything from my daily routine to the accessibility of different condo buildings and houses. There are added responsibilities and challenges that come with dating me and with being my roommate,” she says. “But in so many ways, my partner and I have a very normal relationship. We laugh together, we have arguments, we support each other emotionally. Those are important pillars in any relationship, even if he does need to help me off the couch.”

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