When you are trying to meet someone special, you will come across people who will judge you by the way you look. This emphasis on appearance can be frustrating for anyone. When you have a disability, it can be especially so. How do you get past that first impression to a point where you can connect with someone? And once you start a relationship, what does it take to keep it going?
Being comfortable with who you are
People are attracted to other people who are confident and comfortable with themselves. A debilitating injury can shake a person to the core and often leads to anger, depression and fear. Regaining a sense of yourself is critical to your recovery. When you feel good about yourself, others will feel good about you, too.
- Remember that your disability is just one aspect of who you are. Your disability does not define you. Yes, you are different from the way you were before — your world is different and the way you do things has changed. If you find yourself thinking of yourself primarily as a person with a disability, it’s important to think back to the way you regarded yourself before your injury. Remember, your essential nature hasn’t changed. You may now use a wheelchair when you fish or play basketball, but you still do those things.
- Write down five important things about yourself. This exercise will help you integrate your disability into your whole self. You might write, "I’m African-American; I’m good at math; I have a spinal cord injury; I work with computers; and I like to travel." This will remind you that your disability is only one aspect of who you are — that you are the sum of many skills and qualities.
- Write down ways you can continue activities you enjoyed before you were injured. "I can use hand controls to drive and use a sports wheelchair to shoot baskets." Of course, when you have a disability, you need to plan ahead more. Things may take more time, but they can almost always still be done with adaptations.
- Don't allow people who pity you or treat you as a hero get to you. You might hear comments like, “You’re so brave to go through life in a wheelchair,” or “It must be horrible to have a disability.” People often don’t know what to say and may mean well, but comments like these reduce you to either a victim or a hero and deny that you are a person first, just like everyone else. It can be hard to know how to respond to comments like these, but sometimes it’s enough to simply say, “It’s just one part of who I am."
- Make a list of all you have to offer someone. Your list might include statements about yourself like, "I'm funny and fun to be around," or "I've been through some things that have made me value life and other people more than ever before." Don’t forget to include some of the advantages of having a disability. "We get to go to the head of the line at amusement parks," and "We get to park close to the door," can serve as lighthearted ways to break the ice with a potential date.
Meeting someone compatible
Sometimes people with disabilities get into bad relationships because they feel they can’t be choosy. Be careful that you don’t shortchange yourself. Before your injury, you probably had certain criteria for dates. Maybe you weren’t interested in going out with someone who lived more than 15 miles away. Maybe you looked for someone whose sense of humor matched yours. As a person with a disability, the same criteria will likely apply, and you may want to add some new ones.
- Write down what you're looking for in a date. This will help you narrow your pool of prospective dates and guide you to the places where you have the best chance of meeting them.
- Do the things you enjoy. Unlike bars and nightclubs, group activities offer a low-pressure way to get to know people, because there aren’t expectations that a romantic relationship will develop. If you always liked to mountain bike and your disability won’t prevent you from riding, join a cycling club. If you sing or play an instrument, find a local orchestra, chorus or band to join. Group activities allow people to become friends, and friendships may evolve into something deeper.
- Find ways to meet people with the qualities you seek. If you’re looking for someone who shares your spiritual values, become an active member of your house of worship. Enroll in a class with people who share your interests. Volunteer with a charity, and you’re sure to meet people who enjoy helping others. You may also want to think about using an online dating service.
- Overcome a fear of rejection. While this may be easier said than done, you can learn to brush yourself off after a rejection and get back in the game. Talking with friends about your experiences – and theirs – can help you gain a sense of perspective.
Getting a relationship off to a strong start
- Admit when you're feeling shy. If you haven’t dated much since your injury, you may feel self-conscious or awkward. Meeting new people is often cumbersome, and we have all felt a little clumsy at first. Take it easy. You can work this out. Showing interest in the other person will get your mind off of yourself.
- Be open about your disability. Show that it is up for discussion. It may be something you need to get out of the way first, but try not to overwhelm the person. You might say, “Do you know anyone who uses a wheelchair? What do you want to know about me?” How your new friend feels about being in a relationship with someone who has a disability will probably come up sooner or later. Showing your friend that you are willing to talk about your disability makes it okay for him or her to ask questions.
- Be open about your special needs. Sometimes people with disabilities will ignore their own needs to make others comfortable. But doing so denies you what you need and keeps others from understanding you better. If you use a wheelchair, you might ask your new friend to sit down during conversations so you can face each other while you talk. If you can't read a restaurant menu you may end up with something you don't like, so ask for help.
- Research accessible destinations before the date. Is the restaurant truly accessible? If you have a visual impairment, are there large-type menus? Save yourself and your date from a possible inconvenience by checking this out ahead of time.
- Have meaningful conversations. Ask your new friend about his or her likes and dislikes, successes and failures. Seek his or her opinion about different subjects and issues. Maintain eye contact. Showing a sincere interest in another person builds intimacy.