Take me for who I am, wheeelchair and all

The first time I forayed into online dating, I let my wheelchair show just a little in my photos.

The good guys, I hoped, would be so taken by my clever profile and witty banter that they would be able to look beyond my disability, if they even noticed it at all.

I eagerly began swiping, quickly matching with an attractive man whose profile picture showed him sporting an enormous iguana on his shoulder.

Thinking that would make for an easy conversation starter, I messaged him. A few minutes later, he replied: "Are you in a wheelchair?"

I told him yes, but I was much more interested in the back story of the iguana. Unfortunately, he was not interested at all. "Sorry. The wheelchair's a deal-breaker for me."

His blunt reply stung, but the feeling was nothing new. Because I was born with my disability - Larsen syndrome, a genetic joint and muscle disorder - I had already gathered a pile of romantic rejections seemingly big enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool by the time I downloaded Tinder.

This particular rejection, however, unleashed panic within me. A few months before my initial swipes, I had gone through a messy break-up with a man I dated for over two years.

I believed he was the person I would marry and that I would never have to worry about rejection again.

When I found myself newly single, I turned to online dating in the hopes of easing my fears that no one else would ever accept me as I am.

Not one to be deterred, I persevered, downloading every possible dating app. But I became skittish about revealing my disability because in an already shallow dating culture, I believed my wheelchair would cause most men to write me off without a second thought.

So, I decided to hide my disability completely. I cropped my wheelchair out of my photos.

I kept up with this facade for a while, messaging matches who were none the wiser. Once I thought I had spoken with a guy long enough to establish his interest, I would choose a moment to strike, telling him about my disability.

I would send a long-winded explanation divulging my wheelchair use, reminding him that it did not make me any less of person.

After dropping the "wheelchair bomb", I braced myself for their reactions, which were always a mixed bag, from indifference to ghosting. Occasionally, I would receive an accepting response.

One man whom I connected with on Coffee Meets Bagel was incredibly apologetic when I first told him about my wheelchair, as though it was the most tragic thing he had heard.

I ended up going on one date with him and then another. For the second date, my bagel suggested a painting night (a social event that involves paintbrushes, canvases, acrylics and, usually, wine) as I told him how much I enjoy them.

He found a Groupon and I researched a location, picking out a restaurant in New York that was supposed to be wheelchair accessible.

As it turned out, the painting class was in a room upstairs. We spent our entire date sitting directly below the painters, eating dinner and making strained conversation with wine-fuelled laughter and painting instruction in the background.

Following that disaster, I promised my date I would get his money back. As soon as the company refunded our tickets, I never heard from him again.

It was painful to realise that the hard part is not over once someone learns that I am disabled.

Going on dates with me can be a crash course on disability and I recognise that is not always easy for non-disabled people to process. But I was not helping the situation by keeping the existence of my disability concealed, springing it upon people only when I thought it felt right.

I felt like a hypocrite. In every other area of my life, my disability is front and centre. I write and speak endlessly about being a proud, unapologetic disabled woman.

So, I decided it was time for a change. I started gradually making references to my disability throughout my profile, then adding photos in which my wheelchair is visible.

I tried to keep things light and humorous. For instance, OKCupid asks users to list six things they cannot live without. One of mine is "the invention of the wheel".

Finally, I took the leap I had been so afraid to make, opening up about disability to strangers whom I hoped would appreciate my honesty. Prominently in my profile, I wrote: "I'd like to be very upfront about the fact that I use a wheelchair. I realise some people are hesitant to date a human who experiences the world sitting down. But I'd like to think you'll keep reading and dive a little deeper."

Once I added that paragraph, I felt liberated. There have been plenty of matches that have not worked out and whether that is because of my disability, I will never know.

But I had a nearly year-long relationship with a man.

My dating life remains a comedy of errors and I still struggle every day with the feeling that my disability means I will not find love, but at least I am being true to myself.

I am putting myself out there - my whole self - and it feels good to be proud of who I am.


• Emily Ladau is a disability-rights activist, writer and speaker. She is editor-in-chief of Rooted In Rights, which produces videos and social media campaigns on disability-rights issues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'Take me for who I am, wheeelchair and all'. Print Edition | Subscribe