Dating Poker

Place your bets — it’s time to play

Article Highlights:
  • Dating can be tricky business for anyone, but your disability doesn't have to ruin your chances of "winning" the dating game.
  • The article offers some words of wisdom from three adults with neuromuscular disease who are playing the game, including questions they've had to ask and when and what they've decided to say about their disability.
  • Their experiences illustrate that not every hand will be a winning one, so you've got to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
by Abby Albrecht on March 1, 2007 - 10:27am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 2

Dating. It’s a touchy subject — especially for people with disabilities.

Which isn’t to say it should be avoided. Approached cautiously, with a strong sense of self-identity — yes. But never avoided. That way leads to living alone with 40 cats, all named Muffin.

So, what can you do?

Dating is a lot like playing poker. But instead of asking poker champ Phil Gordon for advice, here are some words of wisdom from three adults with neuromuscular diseases who are players in the real-life game of dating poker.

The players

Jessica Keller Ryan Levinson Yvonne Nieves
Jessica Keller, 40, Fresno, Calif., artist, central core disease Ryan Levinson, 34, San Diego, triathlete/emergency medical technician, facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy Yvonne Nieves, 47, Avondale, La., central core disease

The ante

Your chances of winning the dating game aren’t ruined because of your disability. Just Google “dating” on the Internet to see how universally troubling it is for everyone.

In other words, you’re equal to everybody else in the game, so ante up.

Jessica: When I was a child I was very self-conscious of my scars [from muscle biopsies and hip surgeries] and refused to wear shorts. Now, I couldn’t care less about this. In fact, I’m very proud of my scars. My disease doesn’t define me but my disease has helped make me who I am today.

Ryan: Your disability is just a physical condition you have, it doesn’t define you unless you let it. Keep it in perspective.

Yvonne: If you’re judged because of a disability, then it’s not you with a problem.

The deal

Are you playing Texas Hold 'Em or Seven Card Stud? It’s time to find out. Among the questions players ask themselves:

  • Do I want to date as many people as possible, or am I looking for a one-and-only?
  • What is a make-it-or-break-it requirement in a partner?
  • Do I want to look for dates by signing up for an online match service, bar hopping, joining a club, going to a convention, taking a class, taking a cruise, flirting at an amusement park, volunteering, asking friends to set me up, or all of the above and more?
  • How much physical help will I need on a date? What kind of vehicle can I use and who will drive? What are some fun, acces-sible places to go?
  • How honest will I be about my disability? When? How will I explain it?
  • Should I stick to public locations, for safety's sake?

Place your bets

How you approach the game determines how well you'll succeed. People pick up on your attitude.

Jessica: I have a saying, "Like the words in a good book, scars tell the story of my life and, oh, what a life I've had!"

Ryan: By far the hardest thing for me to come to grips with is being intensely aware of my body image. There is a definite difference in the way women respond to me now than just a few years ago. [For a while] I became self-conscious of the effect MD had on my sex appeal.

Yvonne: I always say, "What you see is what you get." I smile, make eye contact and have a very positive attitude.


Not every hand leads to love. Sometimes you just make a new friend. Other times you may consider faking medical trauma to get away. Were you dealt junk? The faster you lay down your cards, the faster you can meet someone better.

Jessica: I meet a man and he pursues me. He flirts and shows interest. Then he asks the question, and it's always the same question: "Were you in a motorcycle accident? Were you hit by a truck?" These reasons for having a limp seem to be acceptable, but when I tell him the facts about my limp I see a look of disgust or fear wash over his previous look of intrigue or excitement.

Ryan: Early in my disease I met a woman and we ended up back at my place. We started kissing and the clothes started coming off. She was responsive, clearly having a good time, until my shirt came off. When she saw my atrophied chest and lack of abdominal muscles she looked confused for a second, then immediately got cold. Literally pulled back and made an excuse for why she had to leave.

Yvonne: He proposed marriage to me and I accepted. Things were going great until the problems with my lower back and legs began. The more I tried to educate my fiancé, the more he pushed me away. He said he couldn't bear the thought of taking care of me all the time. He said that it would be too expensive for him. He broke off the engagement, asked me to move out and I did.

Call, check or raise

Do you have a great hand? Congratulations! Or is it just a middling one? You can still play along a while to get used to the game.

Jessica: A great fear that I have always had is growing old and dying alone, of never finding that one person who will love me for all my broken parts. I've realized this person doesn't have to be a spouse. I've realized that as long as I have my family and good friends I will never be alone.

Ryan: I was dating a different woman who was clearly not bothered by my body. In fact, she seemed to relish it. She told me that the other guys had nice bodies and were nice to look at, but it was my brain that made her hot. The way I tease, flirt, my confidence, my intellect, humor, whatever it was she saw in me, there is no question it worked for her.

Yvonne: The couple of male people that I have gone places with since my breakup were not actually dates. They are just friends of mine that I knew before I met my ex-fiancé, and they asked me to dinner or to go shopping with them.


What are you going to say about your disability, and when?

Jessica: It's difficult. I want to tell people about my disability during introductions. This way I can weed out the shallow people who aren't worthy of my friendship. On the other hand, I want to force them to get to know who I am on the inside rather than the broken outside. We all have secrets about ourselves. If asked, I always tell the truth. I just don't make it the topic of conversation in the very beginning.

Ryan: I don't think you should "hide" your disability, but don't focus on it. Definitely don't make it an issue. Part of the game when first getting to know someone is to highlight your strengths — so to speak — without spotlighting your insecurities.

Yvonne: I would not tell my date unless I knew that there was a connection and the possibility of future dates. Then I would tell him when the time was right. I don't regret being honest.


So, will you win? Will you have a great date that leads to more great dates? Only if it's in the cards.

Jessica: It's better to live life to the fullest and take chances rather than sitting in a corner getting bitter. At least I can say I've done my best and lived my life to my own standards, and if that means growing old alone . then so be it!

Ryan: We're human. We're meant to touch and be touched. To love and be loved. We're meant to face our fears, our insecurities, and to conquer them. We're meant to interact, to feel excited, to feel loss, to feel hope. To share ourselves. We are alive! It's time to get off our asses and act like it!

Yvonne: People keep reassuring me there will be another special person who will come into my life and not judge me for having a disease, and who will love me for the person that I am.


Ryan is proof that friendship can lead to love. He’s engaged to a woman he met in college and kept in touch with over the years, who shares his love of physical activities.

Jessica hasn’t given up on love but says she’s no longer focusing on finding love. “I’m just living life as it’s handed to me each day while trying to make the most out of what life has given me.”

Yvonne says she has come to terms with the effect of her disability on future romance. “When I do start dating again, which I will be doing tomorrow night, my date already knows that I have central core myopathy and he is definitely OK with it. If someone does not like me for the person that I am, then it’s their loss.”

Abby Albrecht is a freelance writer from the San Francisco area. She has spinal muscular atrophy. For another view of dating, see From Where I Sit: Sex and the City, Disability Style.

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