Why there's no right or wrong way to disclose disabilities on dating apps

How disabled singles on dating apps are navigating questions of how and when to disclose their disabilities, planning accessible meet-ups and more. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
How disabled singles on dating apps are navigating questions of how and when to disclose their disabilities, planning accessible meet-ups and more. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

“He ghosted me!” she exclaimed, sounding understandably frustrated. My friend was updating me on her love life after going on an exciting first date with someone new. She had gone home smiling, only for him to then immediately cut contact with no explanation.

She told me later that he might have ghosted because he wasn’t open to dating a disabled person. She hadn’t disclosed her disability when chatting online, but then when it presented itself on the date she had watched as he became very flustered. “I guess it was a bit of a surprise,” she conceded. “I didn’t tell him before we met as I thought he would cancel, but this actually feels worse.”

The advantages and disadvantages of "passing"

Unlike my friend, who has a disability most people probably wouldn’t notice in photos, I can’t really pass as non-disabled. I have achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, which is pretty obvious even in headshots. Despite this, I have been on a number of dates where the other person still seemed shocked on meeting me. One time a guy laughed as soon as he saw me and then spent the rest of the evening looking anywhere but in my direction.

A negative reaction on the first meet unfortunately isn’t uncommon for many of the disabled people I spoke to for this article. Sometimes the experience is awkward; sometimes the date is just plain rude.

Max recalls going on a date for the first time after getting a wheelchair. "It wasn’t in my bio because I hadn’t thought about it, I had no photos and I didn’t think it was an issue,” Max says. “I suggested a coffee place that I knew was accessible. She turned up, saw me, said 'sorry, I thought you were normal' and immediately left.”

As my disability is apparent, I don’t match with people often on apps, which can make the dating process a lot slower for me than for my non-disabled friends. I used to see that as a negative thing and I have wished in the past that I could pass as non-disabled, just so I could attract more prospects than JimBean69 who lives 65 miles away.

Now that I am more accepting of my disability, I think it’s pretty cool that it automatically screens anyone that isn’t open to dating someone with dwarfism. But, as I have learned, even though my dates know my disability beforehand, it doesn’t always prepare them for the reality of meeting me.

Awkward, rude or just misinformed?

There’s so much misinformation out there about all types of disability that finding someone who really "gets it" can feel like an impossible task. They know I’m a dwarf, but it’s very rare that they also know what any of my access needs are or even how to avoid saying The Wrong Thing.

Add in the fact that the disabled community isn’t a monolith, so we have different opinions on disability language and a huge range of access needs, and I’d say it’s pretty unfathomable that the non-disabled wouldn’t mess up at some point.

“I think it’s important to understand that someone who has zero experience with disability themselves or with others is probably going to use incorrect terminology or possibly ask the wrong questions,” says Claire. “I would usually give someone one to two passes with this kind of thing and once there was no deliberate disrespect or rudeness creeping in, [I would] instead take it as a chance to educate.”

I concur with Claire, but I also feel a bit cautious that education should solely rest on our shoulders — surely potential partners could put in a bit of effort themselves? Sarah agrees, noting that while she does "find value in supporting a partner to understand the niche aspects of my disability over time, I am not a classroom for men. For me, the ability to independently educate themselves on at least the basics of my disability is a good indicator on their sustainability long-term.”

I recently went on a couple of dates for which the people I was seeing looked up the accessibility of places in advance and then checked in with me, which I really appreciated. It told me that they were willing to make the effort, but that they also understood they shouldn’t assume whatever they read would be exactly right for me.

Nowadays, I care less if people mess up, I just need to know that my dates are open to learning when they get things wrong and not begrudging when I tell them I can’t do something because it’s inaccessible to me. They need to be someone I’m comfortable expressing my needs to without fear of judgment or criticism. Plus I’m a bit of a nerd for disability history, so they have to be OK with me talking about it. It’s like my version of Star Trek, or something.

Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to disclose our disabilities or information about them. Some disabled people have had amazing dating stories disclosing it upfront; others have also had incredible dates disclosing it later down the line. Sometimes people will react negatively, sometimes they’ll be OK. Ultimately, our medical information is sacred and personal to us. So the when, if and how we share anything pertaining to our bodies and our minds should be completely our decision to make in however much time we need.

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