Dating With a Disability

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I may be coming at this discussion from a different perspective, but I think it’s an important one. I have cerebral palsy, which made traditional dating a little tough, to say the least. I’m lucky in that my case is extremely mild. The only visible indication is that I quite noticeably walk on my toes and am pigeon toed. But I do also have to deal with muscle, hip and knee pain, plus the occasional shakes.

None of this has stopped me from living a full life. I have a BA, have traveled through quite a bit of the country (though not nearly enough of it, or the wider world), performed Moliere and Shakespeare on stage, enjoyably got my ass kicked in many a mosh pit, lived on my own, and, much like many other people, was moderately successful in a cubicle-drone type of job that I didn’t particularly enjoy.

But I had always had trouble dating.

Being the shy, introverted soul that I am, walking into a bar, club, party, or any other similar social situation was nerve wracking at best. Couple that with the fact that I naturally draw unwanted attention simply by walking into a room, and my already high amount of social anxiety shoots right off the charts.

On the few occasions where I managed to gather myself and approach someone in a setting like this—usually with the help of a not inconsequential amount of alcohol—I was generally greeted with awkwardness and embarrassment after the inevitable “so … why do you walk like that?” question. Then it usually devolved into polite disinterest from them and one or both of us walking away. There were even a few instances with some variation on “oh, I just thought you were slow or something,” which didn’t bode well for future interactions.

Workplace romances also always seemed to end particularly badly for me, so I also swore those off by my late 20s. So my teens and early 20s were, without fail, dismal failures on the dating front.

Enter online dating. I initially hid my cerebral palsy from my profile and messages, fearing I would scare people off. And I assumed it would be no big deal to reveal this once we actually met. If we were already hitting it off during a date, why would it be a problem, right?

Well … after a couple awkward first dates where I was accused of lying by not disclosing this fact, I decided to put my CP front and center, recognizing the dishonesty in my thinking.

After these initial missteps, the beauty of online dating for someone in my situation really presented itself. Being able to communicate with someone who’s fully aware of who I am and everything that entails before committing to an in-person meeting made things far less intimidating and awkward when we finally did meet. We could have days or weeks of in-depth conversations, to the point that we feel like good friends before ever laying eyes on each other in real life.

I had my first real, serious relationships with women I met online, and while obviously not all of them turn out perfectly, I did eventually strike gold. I met my wife online and am now more in love than I ever thought I would be. We met shortly after exchanging a few messages and have never looked back. (And yes, like your other reader, we were matched by the OKCupid algorithm.) I enthusiastically followed her across the country so she could follow her career, and now I get to stay home and spend all day taking care of our 18-month-old twin girls and their two-and-a-half-year-old big sister. I couldn’t be happier.

I’m certain there are others out there with CP or a different condition who can light up a room with their raw animal magnetism and have no problem finding dates and relationships. I was not one of those people. For this shy, nerdy kid with CP, online dating really did save me. I have no doubt that I’d still be single if not for OKC, and for this I thank Mr. Rudder. I obviously can’t speak for everyone with disabilities or severe social anxiety, but I imagine that others in similar situations have had similar experiences.

If you have, let me know.