What do you consider before saying 'yes' to a date? So many of us have 'checklists' of ideal characteristics/jobs/interests... hell, we'll even turn someone down because they've got profile pics of them wearing a novelty jumper. And guess what? Being that picky isn't the best route to finding love.
But saying no to a date just because that hottie has a disability (that’s 19% of working-age adults in the UK, according to the charity Scope) is, to put it bluntly, prejudiced, just as is turning someone down because of their race or religion. That’s not you, right? It's known as being ableist, a term you might have seen on social media. But what does it mean? And how can you ensure you're not behaving in an anti-ableist way? Read on. We've got you.
What does it actually mean to be anti-ableist?
The term "ableism" came into usage in the 1960s and 1970s when disability activists first began to situate disability in a broader social and political context, explaining that it wasn’t disabled people's conditions that stopped them from fully participating in society but rather systemic issues such as discrimination, prejudice and physical barriers.
At a macro level, we can see the realities of ableism in discriminatory hiring practices or a lack of accessible buildings and venues - but what about at an interpersonal level, in our dating lives?
Well, for starters, you might not mean to be ableist or to discriminate against someone who has a disability or chronic illness, but you may feel unsure of what to say or ask your disabled date about their health, particularly if they have a hidden disability.
Dating and ableism
Imagine you’ve been on a few dates and you don’t feel the spark is there to take it any further. That’s not ableist, it happens to all of us in the dating game.
But as Andrew Gurza, a Disability Awareness Consultant who hosts the Disability After Dark podcast, explains, an example of ableism is; “you go on one date, but you never see them again because disability made them uncomfortable.” Essentially, if you feel embarrassed to be seen with your date because of their disability, or are worried what your friends might say, well gotcha. That’s ableism in action.
Being anti-ableist in dating terms means valuing difference, recognising that a disabled person does not need to be fixed or cured, challenging society’s preconceived assumptions, and respecting any needs your date may tell you they have – such as meeting in a bar with step-free access or needing a quiet venue. Basically it’s treating others as you would want to be treated.
Examples of ableism in dating
By now, you should have more of an understanding of what ableism is - but how should non-disabled people avoid ableism in their dating life? Here are some common mistakes you should steer clear of.
To begin, you should know that asking your date what’s “wrong” with them is a total turn-off. As Emma West, a BACP Accredited Counsellor who is herself disabled puts it, “Direct questions about things like the name of the disability and its effects are best left until you’ve got to know each other a bit better, as otherwise they could be perceived as intrusive.”
Ignoring any access needs your date has told you is another no-no. If your date explains they are deaf and need to lip read, don’t mumble and talk with your hand over your mouth, or, alternatively, shout at them.
Some other things to avoid: pushing a wheelchair user without their permission, not inviting your date somewhere because you assume they won’t be able to go (it’s up to them to make up their own mind and, if necessary, you to think of a more accessible alternative) or dismissing the needs a neurodiverse person tells you they have.
From my own experience, I can tell you that my heart sank when a date made a fuss about how difficult my life must be with my impairment, and it was a no from the off when another said I was pretty despite having a disability. Such comments are hurtful, the opposite of a compliment and are bound to ensure there’s no follow up date.
How to date in an anti-ableist way
Developing your anti-ableist allyship is an ongoing, life-long process, and so is applying these principles in your dating life. But some important jumping off points for beginning this process are:
Think before you speak and listen carefully to what your date tells you.
Question any pre-conceived ideas you may have about disability. Are you making assumptions?
Embrace your date’s disability or condition as part of who they are.
Take the lead from your date when it comes to discussing disability-related issues. If they need you to know something related to their impairment they’ll tell you. Don’t be nosy.
Communication is key at every stage: get in the habit of self-reflection and checking in with your date to see if you’re meeting their needs without making a fuss about it.
And finally: relax and enjoy yourself – dating is supposed to be fun!
How to have difficult conversations about ableism while dating
Whilst disability and ableism are probably not points of discussion for the first date - unless your date brings it up first - as your relationship progresses, honest communication about these topics is key.
If you’re concerned about being ableist or want to ensure you’re fully considering your date’s access needs, Emma explains that there is nothing wrong with being sensitive but direct, “If you feel like there’s an ‘elephant in the room’, the best way to deal with it is honesty and matter-of-factly [ie] ‘I don’t have any experience of disability so can you let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to do or not do?”
Your wider anti-ableist journey
In order to be anti-ableist in your dating life, you need to educate yourself on the issues facing disabled people and step up your allyship in every area of your life.
Ultimately, you are responsible for your own journey towards allyship: you shouldn’t expect your date or partner to educate you on disability issues and you need to do the groundwork yourself.
Don’t know where to begin? Here are some points to keep in mind:
Read up: as a first stop, disability websites such as Disability Rights UK and Scope have a good overview of issues affecting the disabled community today and campaigns to support then. The websites of support organisations that are impairment-specific offer information about those conditions, for example the National Autistic Society.
Follow the right people: Twitter is a good place to learn about being a disability ally - some disability campaigners to follow are Alice Wong, Baronness Jane Campbell, Sukhjeen Kaur and Isaac Harvey.
Check stereotypes at the door: realise that what’s right for a person with a condition may not be so for another. Just because your neighbour’s best friend’s cousin has the same condition as your date it doesn’t mean their needs and experiences will be the same. It also doesn’t make you an expert on the subject.
Remember there is no “end point”: being anti-ableist and a disability ally is a lifelong journey, not something that can be achieved by reading a few tweets or webpages. It involves critically evaluating the norms that you were brought up with and questioning your assumptions and actions to create a better world for all of us.
Penny Batchelor is a freelance journalist and author. Her latest thriller, Her New Best Friend, is published by RedDoor Press.
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