I gingerly stepped into the world of dating through dating apps from the comfort of hiding behind my screen. Terrified of my identity, I never wrote “disabled” in my bio because I was afraid no one would swipe right on me. At that point, I saw my disability an an inconvenience rather than as a significant part of my identity.
Often, I would be afraid to send voice-notes to people I have matched with and was getting to know, fearing that my voice was “too shrill” or “too disabled” for their liking. As a result, I would try to modulate my voice to make it sound less like it really was. By depriving myself of prominent aspects of my personality, I found myself creating an alternate identity online with which I could barely resonate.
I would arrive early at my dates, so they would not see me walking with my crutch. When some of them asked intrusive, rude questions about my disability, I found it difficult to say no: “No, I don’t want to answer because it’s just been barely two minutes that we’ve met and it’s rather rude that your first question to me is about my disability.”
I made a rule of texting my date two days earlier. I would tell them, “I hope you don’t mind but I walk with a crutch.” The language I used to describe myself is relevant here. I felt like I owed them an explanation for my disability. Moreover, I desperately sought their acceptance–their approval that they would take me as I am–“even if” I was disabled. Words like even if and despite are relevant here, in terms of how I saw myself. Remember, language that we employ for ourselves too, matters.
Reclaiming and redefining dating standards for myself
As a disabled woman testing the waters on dating apps, the road to discovering my sexuality was a lonely one because of the lack of awareness around conversations involving sexuality and disability.
I can speak from my experience, and for me, growing up with patriarchal and heteronormative notions of having a love life (which conditioned me into believing that I’m only relevant if I have a romantic partner), I sought acceptance from others before seeking acceptance from myself. And that is where I started to attribute my self-worth to whether my partner would accept my disabled self?
Growing up in an able-bodied world with able-bodied notions of dating, I remember my friend telling me when I was in twelfth standard, that “dating at our age means people attribute attractiveness to physical features.” My heart sank and inadequacy settled in as I heard her words.
Disabled teenagers often grow up with a worldview that our bodies are never meant to fit in, they are instruments holding us back from doing all the things we see our able-bodied friends doing. Exploration of one’s sexuality and preferences are a prominent part of it. There is a lack of disabled representation in dating, mainstream conversations of sexuality and media that shows disabled characters as engaging in sexual relations and not just being a character that takes on a secondary role to the able-bodied protagonist. Thus, disabled children often grow into disabled adults who have internalised false notions of dating that state you have to be of a certain ability and stature to be able to find an ideal partner.
How Visual Media Contributed To My Internalised Ableism
Ableist societal notions are such that it is expected that a disabled person, if had to marry, should marry another disabled person. There are categorisations within too. A man who is deaf and mute cannot marry a woman who is mute and vice versa, because how else are they going to take care of each other?
I have grown up consuming media that contributed to my internalised ableism and made me want to desperately “correct” my disability so that I could appear more comprehensible and attractive to people.
My earliest encounter with ableism was the movie Chup Chup Ke starring Kareena Kapoor Khan and Shahid Kapoor. In this movie, a man named Jeetu (Shahid Kapoor) fakes being deaf and mute in order to escape his current life circumstances. Shruti (Kareena Kapoor) is someone who’s mute in the film, but not deaf.
Her family wants her to get married but her muteness, according to them makes her an “undesirable match”. Jeetu has a fiancé called Pooja, whom he leaves and is all set to marry Shruti. Shruti’s brother (who doesn’t know that Jeetu is faking his disability) worries that a man who is deaf and mute cannot live with a woman who is mute because he cannot “protect” her (Cue: Another patriarchal gaze that projects a disabled woman as a damsel in distress). Pooja agrees to give up Jeetu to Shruti when she finds out that Shruti is mute, again indicating that she let Shruti marry him out of pity. The movie paints a very sorry image of a disabled woman who is destined to be alone unless she can find a knight in shining armour to save her from doom.
Cinemas, however much we argue are for recreational purposes, have the power to influence society and at the same time, is reflective of society too. The ableist depiction of disability in movies like Chup Chup Ke grossly invalidates the lived experiences of disability and categorises it as undeservable. Especially the plight of disabled womxn, who supposedly are not worthy unless they find a man who marries them despite their disability.
Beware of Devotees: A Person “Devoted” To Disability
While the common sentiment towards the disabled people in the dating world is apathy and dehumanisation, there is also a lesser known but just as humiliating concept of a ‘devotee’, ie., individuals fetishising persons with disabilities. Conversations with a devotee usually revolve around themes of disability: their date’s assistive devices, their date’s accessibility requirements and ways in which they can take care of their date. Such a person essentially fantasises controlling their date and every aspect of their life.
I dated a devotee once: My first boyfriend was a devotee who wanted to gain control over what I wore, who I went out with, who I interacted with. Devotees tend to use emotional manipulation as a strategy by obsessing over aspects of the routine that you’ve built around your life as a part of your disabled experience. So, a relationship with a devotee is definitely abusive, especially emotionally as they constantly try to convince you that no one in the world will accept and love you the way they do. The curiosity of ableist, emotionally manipulative men on dating apps enquiring about how we can be both “sexual and disabled” is a product of centuries of disabled womxn feeling inadequate in their bodies because of societal standards.
It Is Alright To Desire A Non-Disabled Body
Access jealousy is a real thing and doesn’t make you a bad person: you are only human. I’ve always wondered how orators would give elaborate speeches without taking a break or speak so convincingly without sounding confused, nervous and afraid. Earlier, I would yearn to fit myself into an able-bodied world: However, it is also a world which is too afraid and too aversive to any kind of difference. There is a certain discomfort with seeing different kinds of bodies thriving around and existing on dating apps. By the virtue of how these bodies defy standard norms and are unafraid of being their authentic self, makes them the deviant other.
However, acceptance and healing are processes that are neither linear nor smooth. It takes years of healing trauma and even when we do accept ourselves, it’s never consistent.
Work In Progress
The Nu that I am today is someone who’s empowered after years of unlearning, re-learning and de-conditioning. I have learnt to be kinder to myself over the years: to take care of my needs and put them before anyone else’s. I’ve learned to not let the men on dating apps determine my worth, or my self-image. Disability is definitely a part of my identity and I’m not afraid to put myself out into the world as someone who’s disabled, queer and vulnerable.
‘Taking Up Space’ is a column where the author writes about her experiences of navigating so-called mainstream spaces as a disabled womxn. Not an attempt to preach or inspire, she attempts to have conversations on taking up space within her own reality, in conversations and physical spaces such as classrooms, dating apps, grocery stores and by extension, in an ableist society rendering disabled individuals as persons with no agency of their own.
Featured Image Source: Upasana Aggarwal on Medium