Disability no barrier to love

Disabled people face physical and societal barriers to dating, but some do find partners who embrace the challenge

Growing up, Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh did not know of any disabled people who went on dates.

Neither did she see people with disabilities portrayed as being in relationships on television or in the movies.

So, to her, the thought of finding romance as a disabled person had always seemed elusive, fictive even.

"Society did not paint a positive picture for people with disabilities," says Ms Goh, 30, who is single.

The athlete - whose many sports medals include a bronze in the 100m breaststroke SB4 at last year's Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro - was born with spina bifida and is paralysed from the waist down.

Assistance in areas such as employment and caregiving is often offered to disabled people and their families. The Government said in Monday's Budget announcement that it will spend about $400 million a year on a five-year national plan with initiatives to support people with disabilities.

But few have spoken about the challenges people with disabilities grapple with when it comes to looking for love.

Mr Jake Oh Wei Jian's patient and caring ways make his fiancee, Ms Jean Ling Ching Yee, forget her disabilities. PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR, LAU FOOK KONG, VENESSA LEE, COURTESY OF JEAN LING

Disabled people interviewed by The Sunday Times - those who are single as well as those who are in relationships - say physical limitations, a lack of confidence and societal expectations can be obstacles to dating, though they can sometimes be overcome.

In fact, the issues faced by people with disabilities may not always differ vastly from those faced by their able-bodied counterparts.

For Ms Goh, her desire to find out more about dating as she entered her teens prompted her to go online to read articles and join forums and chat groups that catered to dating as a person with disabilities.

She realised that some people seek disabled partners "out of pity" or date only people with specific disabilities.

But that did not deter her from online dating, which she started in her mid-20s when she felt she had more free time. She had begun training competitively at age 12.

When using websites such as OkCupid and apps such as Tinder, she always posts a profile picture of herself in her wheelchair.

She says: "I've never wanted to hide (my disability). That's always been clear from the start."

As she is upfront about her disability, she believes it has not been her main challenge in finding a partner.

She says some potential dates seem to prefer sending messages than meeting face to face, while others lack emotional connection.

Once, someone's first question to her was what it felt like to be in a wheelchair, which she thought was rude.

Her condition also limits where she can go on dates. "I always have to find a location that is wheelchair- accessible, especially if we go out at night. For example, it's harder to find wheelchair-accessible toilets at night. And shopping centres, which have toilets, may be closed," she says. "In such instances, I don't feel free to stay out late."

Love remains elusive for her. Apart from casual dates, she has never been in a relationship, though she says she has not given up on online dating.

Some people with disabilities feel that dating is not even an option for them.

Mr William Eng, 29, who has Becker's muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, says: "I don't really think about it. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. My first thought is that I would be a burden (to the other person)."

Apart from rare outings with female schoolmates in secondary school, he has never been in a relationship.

His condition is characterised by progressive muscle weakness. He cannot walk or lift his hands and needs help with daily tasks such as getting dressed. He also finds it hard to ask strangers for help in public for fear of being looked down on.

Another challenge to having a relationship, he feels, is his lack of income.

"I'm trying to improve myself, to see whether I can get a job in the future," says Mr Eng, who dropped out of school at about 16 after his condition worsened.

Most days, he goes to the Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore, where he learns computer and other skills, and takes part in sports such as power soccer and boccia - ball games played by wheelchair-users. He hopes to get a job in IT one day.

Sometimes, parental expectations throw a spanner in the works. That was the experience of Mr Eric Ting, 45, a freelance trader who became a quadriplegic after a car accident when he was studying in Australia. He was 25 then.

After the accident, he had two serious relationships that lasted several years, but they eventually failed due to objections from his girlfriends' parents.

"When others date people with disabilities, some may think it's quite special. But when it comes to their own children, there's a 'not in my backyard' mentality," he says.

"Generally, society is still quite narrow-minded when it comes to people with disabilities - for example, parents thinking we're unable to support their daughters."

He did finally find true love, though, when he met Ms Sharon Tan, a 44-year-old post-natal therapist, on dating website Match.com. They married a year ago.

His wife, who is able-bodied, says she was drawn to his looks after seeing his profile photo, as well as his optimism and self-sufficiency.

Mr Ting occasionally contributes articles and videos to Able Thrive, an online resource platform for people with disabilities and their families.

He says confidence on both sides helps strengthen the relationship.

"I was looking for someone who is not bothered by what others think. Self-confidence is important too, otherwise it can be draining on the other half (to support you physically and emotionally)," says Mr Ting, adding that pity or charity has no place in any relationship, disabled or otherwise.

"You have to ask yourself, is this what you want for the rest of your life?"

Administrative executive Jean Ling Ching Yee, 34, became a paraplegic after a car accident in New Zealand, where she was travelling with her ex-boyfriend in 2014.

Unable to cope with her disability, he left her, which caused her to lose faith in love.

"We're afraid that we will give trouble to people, such as not being able to use escalators, but having to find a lift. We always think, when are they going to give up on us?" says Ms Ling.

But Cupid was not done with her. She met her fiance, engineer Jake Oh Wei Jian, 27, about two years ago through mutual friends.

"He doesn't complain at all. I've never heard him say, it's troublesome (to have to tend to my needs). He moved me with his patience and care. He gave me the confidence to give love another shot," she says.

"I show him my affection by holding his hand and hugging him in public. He makes me feel ablebodied again."

Paralympic sailor finds a keeper

When they met four years ago, Ms Anna Cher, 35, was hesitant about entering a relationship with Mr Jovin Tan, 31, because she was not sure if she would be able to care for him.

Mr Tan, a national sailor who has competed in international competitions for athletes with disabilities, including the 2016 Rio Paralympics, has cerebral palsy - a condition that affects movement, motor skills and muscle tone.

But he convinced Ms Cher to give the relationship a go.

Just two weeks later, he realised she was up to the challenge when he needed her help going to the toilet and she was unfazed.

The couple, who have been together for more than three years now, met through the Social Development Network, which replaced the Social Development Unit that was set up to promote marriages among graduate singles.

Mr Tan, who uses a wheelchair, started dating at around age 14 and had 10 girlfriends before meeting Ms Cher, a customer service officer.

He reckons that most of his previous relationships - which lasted from a few months to a few years - ended because the women did not want to deal with his disability in the long run.

They face their fair share of social pressure and misperceptions.

Some of her friends have asked why she is dating a disabled person. And sometimes, when they are dining out, waiters automatically hand her the bill or menu, or ask her if they can give Mr Tan a menu.

But these are minor blips in their loving relationship.

Mr Tan, who works as an administrator at a human resources consultancy, says his girlfriend has learnt to "fight" for his rights. For example, she asks able-bodied people who are crowding him out of the lift to use the escalator instead.

Ms Cher says her boyfriend is caring and picks her up from work when he can.

"If you let me choose again, I'll still choose him," she says.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline Disability no barrier to love. Subscribe