Like many other people who have an online dating profile, I’ve tended to open the inbox of my OKCupid account with some trepidation when I notice a new message. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “It’s only a matter of time…”
Until what? Until I have to talk about my autism, and usually have to deal with being given a series of non-replies, polite excuses, creepy fetishization, or outright rejections. It’s the common experience of those of us who choose to be open and honest about our disabilities, and after a while, the rejections are expected, but still not pleasant to deal with. Each time it happens, I start over again with somebody else. My good friend and occasional partner in online dating woes, who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, once, with a healthy dose of irony, called it our “Lather, rinse, repeat” routine.
I wish I didn’t have to be so paranoid. I wish the word “autism” didn’t come anchored with a variety of damaging misconceptions, falsehoods, and ableist notions of what I was like as a person and a potential dating partner. (“Ableism” is discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.)
At first, I left my disability off my profile, and decided to speak of myself in extreme generalities, hoping to attract more people. After about two weeks, I realized that this wasn’t a suitable dating strategy. So I modified my profile, got specific and proudly self-identified as being on the autism spectrum. Within a twenty-four hour period, the number of messages I received daily (or even hourly) trickled to an absolute stop.
The more time I spent on OKCupid, the more I realized just how invisible and ignored the subject of disability was on there. The only real discussion of disability that came up for me was on one particular “match” question, which asked, “Would the world be a better place if people with low I.Qs were not allowed to reproduce?” I answered “No” and filled my explanation box with an angry screed about the evils of eugenics. The question turned out to be a useful barometer for determining who was worth my time. Anybody who answered “Yes” was automatically disqualified from entering my matches. But that was the extent of the conversation surrounding disability.
Even people who very obviously had some sort of a disability seemed to go out of their way to disguise the fact. I saw many people pass by my profile who were wheelchair users employing creative camera angles, forced perspective and other methods to disguise their use of a wheelchair. Mental health was only mentioned in the context of admonishments along the lines of, “I don’t want any drama from crazies (sic) message me only if you’re normal and stable.” To be disabled was to be invisible, to be mentally ill was to be undesirable.
I settled into a pattern. I’d get a message, or message somebody, we’d get to know each other, and then I would try to casually drop my autism in the conversation in there somewhere, and never hear back from them. If I didn’t mention it, eventually, those messages would result in a first date, where I could no longer hide my odd mannerisms, stimming (repetitive body movements), speedy and somewhat incoherent speech, and other hallmarks of autism. I’ve yet to get a second date.
It’s been four months now since I started up my OKCupid profile. I have a date next Saturday with someone I met on that site. We’re going to go to a lovely park with a bottle of wine to talk about feminism. I plan to mention the importance of including ableism in any discussion about discrimination.
I’m also exchanging messages with someone who is, like me, proud of their disability and talks about it frankly on their profile, a rare sight indeed! Honesty about living with a disability will not necessarily make me the most sought-after date in my city. But it will grant me the chance to learn, through trial and error, about what it takes to find a partner who will, I hope, respect me as a person with a disability, and share that ideal mix of love, respect, and desire with me.
I hope that by writing about this, I can offer other folks with disabilities who are out there dating right now a chance to make the whole process a more rewarding and less tricky journey. Audre Lorde, the black lesbian writer and activist who was also legally blind, once said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and embrace those differences.” While I don’t expect to change the entire landscape of online dating to become a haven for those with disabilities, I hope I can at least learn to recognize, accept, and embrace those differences, and have other people join me in doing so. Maybe then we’ll get lucky and have The One come into our inbox.
Leah Grantham is a full-time student and part-time advocate at the University of Victoria, or a full-time advocate and a part-time student, depending on how you look at it. She’s passionate about issues related to autism, self-expression, feminism, disability rights, art, philosophy, and history. When she’s not studying or advocating, Leah enjoys painting, writing poetry, reading, and blogging. Her personal blog can be found at quixoticautistic.wordpress.com.