October 21, 2016
by Aimee Louw
Date venues. Restaurants. Bars. Parks. Those tiny steps into tiny venues where we want to go to hear tiny bands playing tiny instruments, like the ukekele.
Inaccessibility is not a tiny issue when it comes to dating.
Inaccessibility is found in the built environment—like stairs and fluorescent lighting, or lack of announcements on city buses; and in our social environment—such as the expectations of what we can and can’t do, the stigma that we experience in public or within our families, or support systems that are not the way we would design them.
Let’s explore how in/accessibility effects our lives, including our sexuality.
One facet is physical access to community centres, shops, friends’ houses, concert venues, medical offices, new hospitals. Getting to those places safely, and having the choice of which mode of transit we take, plays into how we feel when we get there—or if we even get there at all!
Access to home care and support for daily living can make the difference between feeling good when we leave our homes or staying in until our next shower, which may not be tomorrow. Home care services are being cut here in Quebec, and it’s worrying. More on that here.
Financial access and the opportunity to take part in cultural events like shows and concerts on a low income.
Not to be understated, the stereotypes and social stigma that some of us experience because we are perceived as different, helpless, non-sexual, infantilized (child-like), stupid, erratic, funny-looking, or whatever.
ACCESSIBILITY IS THE ABILITY TO FREELY ACCESS PHYSICAL AND SOCIAL SPACES WITH EASE, IN THE WAY YOU CHOOSE.
All of the above considerations can place a strain on our relationships or our dating options. Sometimes we overlook these strains; because we have been socially conditioned to keep our struggles to ourselves, or because we want to focus on the positive. But the strain that inaccessibility puts on our relationships can be significant and difficult, and it is important to acknowledge that too.
Inaccessibility is not our fault—we didn’t design the inaccessible infrastructure or plant negative stigmas in people’s heads, and yet it something that we have to deal with often. We bear the brunt of the bad decision-making and stereotypes of others.
What are some ways inaccessible social and physical spaces affect our relationships and dating options?
Imagine you have a hard time going to meet your partner or someone you are interested in because transit is hard to navigate. It takes a lot of energy or causes you pain, or you get lost a lot because the infrastructure is not accessible. In order to preserve your energy and well-being, you stay home more. You spend less time together than you would if the transit system were fully accessible.
When you do get together, sometimes you’re flustered, angry, or generally distracted by your transit experience. It takes a while to gather yourself when you arrive and meet that special someone. Sometimes you snap at them when really you wanted to snap at that rude Transport Adapté driver or the sighted person who gave you the wrong directions, and then you feel guilty and sorry and this is how your dates start out sometimes. All because the transit system is not accessible to you.
This can take its toll on a relationship. And with the hard work of people who are pushing back, these barriers will lessen with time, but in the meantime, think of it this way: because of these external pressures, more energy, attention, and love is required to counteract that negative stuff and keep things positive between you. That could be a positive thing in itself. More love isn’t a bad thing. It just takes a lot of care and energy to put out there. It’s also important to remember to replenish yourself as you also seek to pour love into your relationship.
Here are a few scenarios to help you think through dealing with ableism and inaccessibility while dating:
1. Say you’re deaf and your partner isn’t.
You two have developed a good way of communicating, you taught yourself to read lips as a kid, and your partner has learned to face you when they speak, always keep in good light and can tell by your expression and body language when they need to repeat themselves. Here’s the thing. Their friends often invite them out to theatre productions, and they then invite you.
You would love to go! Will there be interpretation so that you can have access to the storyline and dialogue? No, it is a low-cost production and they do not have interpretation. The question is, should you go so you don’t miss out on social time and making a good impression on your beloved’s theatre friends? Or should you say, how about you take me to an event or show that will be accessible to me? and on the night of the show go out with your friends from the deaf community who understand instead?
There is no right answer to this rather abrupt binary I’ve laid out. It depends on how you feel, your limits and comforts, the size of the venue, where the seats are, whether your partner speaks sign language and can interpret for you and about a million other factors. Probably, you make compromises as does your partner, and hopefully their friends would be conscious of the need for sign language and advocate that alongside you when they can.
The only constant is that your comfort and pleasure should be one of your major concerns, and pleasing the hearing people around you doesn’t have to be paramount. It is not your fault that there is not yet a publicly-funded interpreting service for the arts.
2. Say you just met this sweet person and you really like them and would like to go out.
They seem to like you too, and you’re thrilled and sweaty and nervous. You exchange phone numbers, and sure enough, they call to invite you to a gathering with their friends in a noisy bar. You’re happy because they called, and stressed because the atmosphere of a bar will be horrible and make you feel sick and anxious and you’ll need a full day to recover the day after. Do you go, sacrificing your needs and desires in order to not miss an opportunity with this cutie pie, or do you decline, embarrassed, and hang up really fast?
Well, how much time do you have to recover the next day? If this an expenditure of energy that will be worthwhile, and you feel up for it—go for it. If not, why not suggest that cute tea shop around the corner from a nice park you could go prance around in after? Try something like, “I would like to meet up for sure, how about somewhere a little quieter so that I can hear all the brilliant things you have to say!” This response is flirty and makes it clear that you want to spend time with the person, without having to go through an overwhelming and anxiety-inducing experience to do so.
3. You’re on a dating website and this person thinks you’re cute.
You think they’re cute. Every time meeting comes up in conversation with a particular suitor, you skirt around the issue. Not because you don’t want to meet, but because the common places where people go out in your small town all have stairs leading to the entrance.
Timing and privacy are important considerations, and sometimes it seems like disabled people are constantly planning, making provisions, and otherwise accommodating for the inaccessible infrastructure and system. So what do you suggest as a first date? If it’s warm out, suggest taking a stroll at a particular meeting point. Plan it so that you know you’ll end up at an accessible spot at the end of your walk, like an ice cream shop with a patio or a coffee shop.
The thing is, at the end of the day, if you have a connection with someone it doesn’t really matter where you go on dates. If you can be creative and think of novel ways of making the space fun, I promise it will be a good first date. Even if it is awkward at first. If your potential lover is unfamiliar with issues of accessibility, they are deferring to you to be the leader. Take that role, you know you’re good at it.
REMEMBER: INACCESSIBILITY IS NOT OUR FAULT.
Let’s not beat around the bush: it can be really frustrating not being able to get into or stay in an environment for a first date or date with a long-term lover. Sometimes we feel like giving up and just going home. Sometimes that’s the best option. We know what a vibe-killer inaccessibility can be sometimes. The thing that I’ve learned is that creativity and commitment to having a good time are a good antidote to steps and fluorescent lights and other lacking accessibility features.
There are ways to have dates that are accessible for everyone involved, and you have the knowledge necessary to make that happen. Also—if you and your honey resist ableism together it gives you a common purpose and something to work on together. And that ain’t bad either 😉
As we continue to advocate for accessibility, let’s create our own sexy spaces and ways of doing dates that work for us. I suggest getting out there and planning dates in the way that works for you, keeping a balance between your well-being and the desire to have fun and connect with people. In other words, don’t sacrifice your needs just to go on dates with other people. When you’re in a position where you can, be flexible and suggest new fresh ideas that are derived from inaccessibility. That’s how innovation happens.
Loving each other in this inaccessible environment is a revolutionary act! So take care of each other, you’re contributing to the struggle every time you smooch 🙂
Aimee Louw is a writer, filmmaker, communications scholar, and radio host. Her media practice spans topics of accessibility, sexuality, Canadian cultures, and feminism. In recent years, Aimee has been a part of the growing accessibility advocacy community in Montreal, Canada, focusing on accessible transit and cultural spaces. Her favourite place to be is in water. You can find her work on her website, blog, and on Twitter.
Image: Graffiti artist Stewy produced this piece of Robert Wyatt in a wheelchair.
Article was published in a slightly different form on the ACSEXE+ Sexuality and Disability blog,