As someone born both a disabled person and a woman, coming of age in an ableist and misogynistic society is a confounding place to be, especially in terms of love and romance. On the one hand, women are viewed as the counterpart to men. From as early as we can comprehend love, we’re made to believe that we’re incomplete without the love of a partner.
On the other hand, disabled people are desexualized so vastly that we’re assumed to be asexual. If we aren’t asexual, whoever decides to be with us is either a martyr or a saint. The only time a wheelchair user is a love interest on TV is if they’re terminally ill or an older person being taken care of by their heroic spouse. In these instances, the nondisabled partner isn’t only bringing more to the table, but they’re sacrificing themselves for being at the table at all.
Growing up, I wasn’t immune to either of these stereotypes. It sounds absurd to me now, but I’ll never forget the night I overheard my brother talking about me when we were teenagers. “I mean, who would want to date someone in a wheelchair?” he said. “Can you imagine having sex with someone like that?” My mother told him I was going on a date, and it was clear he realized for the first time that I was a romantic being. As outlandish as it sounds, coming from my own family, this type of ableism is far too common, and it shaped the way I approached relationships.
I was in my early 20s when I joined dating apps and threw myself into the world of sex and love. It didn’t go so well. While I met a handful of decent people, I also came across an absurd amount of ignorance. From hearing things like, “How can you have sex?” to asking about my medical history, the world of dating was a battlefield with landmines at every step. Men wanted to have sex with me, but only for a night or two; long-term satisfaction was a different story. The standards placed on women’s bodies are already unreachable, but when you’re viewed as incapable, they’re astronomical.
I eventually found someone who wanted a long term relationship, and we dated for two years. That person was a narcissist. There were dozens of red flags I overlooked because I wanted to be seen as a valuable partner. But they disrespected my autonomy, and I was never in control.
Unfortunately, I was used to this. No one had respected my choices when I was younger—they thought I was incapable of making them, or didn’t deserve them altogether. Neither was I taught how to choose or be a healthy partner, because the world didn’t think I’d find one to begin with. And because I wasn’t viewed as an option for anyone, there were no instructions about setting standards in relationships. I was seen as an object for sex, not as a romantic partner. And it’s especially easy to disrespect someone’s wishes and autonomy when you don’t see them as your equal.
It wasn’t until I experienced intimate partner abuse that I decided that no one would treat me that way again. The world may have told me that I needed someone to be complete, but it was becoming clear that only I could complete myself. The little spark of self-love that I always had inside me fanned into flame, and I began to understand what it meant to love myself completely. It was then that I discovered how attractive, valuable, and complete as an individual I am.
It might sound cliche, but it took loving myself first before allowing someone else to love my disabled body. After that, I was able to raise my standards and put myself back out there. And that’s when I met someone who loved me for me.
But I could only accept this love when I realized how my partner treated me was the standard. For example, in the first month of dating, I nervously asked him to help me use the bathroom. So many men in my past had either made this request uncomfortable or straight up refused. But when my partner said, “Only if you don’t think it will interfere with your autonomy,” I wanted to cry. It was the first time a partner had cared for and respected my autonomy. His actions weren’t extraordinary; they were baseline.
My partner doesn’t love me in spite of my disability, but because of it. He doesn’t wish I was nondisabled or view me as a burden. Instead, he continuously calls out how my disability makes me all the more valuable. Being disabled makes me a more insightful, creative, and emotionally intelligent partner, not to mention great at sex. Just as I am queer, funny, and talented, I am also disabled, and there is a lot of pride in that. When you find someone who appreciates everything about you, they will also respect all of you.
By loving myself first, I discovered I didn’t need to settle, because my worth wasn’t tied up in a partner; it already existed in my being. And besides, this disabled body is absolutely captivating.
E Jamar is a queer, disabled freelance writer based in Milwaukee, WI. E strives to challenge the status quo with their writing on ableism and trauma. When they're not writing, they can be found contemplating disability justice, consuming copious amounts of caffeine, or hanging out with their partner and pug puppy named Acab.