Romance with a Disability

They say 'three's a crowd,' but what if the third person is your personal care assistant? A psychologist with SMA offers some dating strategies.

Article Highlights:

In this article, you'll find expert advice on navigating the dating scene with a disability.

by Danielle Sheypuk, Ph.D. on October 30, 2014 - 9:11am

Quest Fall 2014

“Samantha” is a typical 30-something single female who has a successful, fulfilling career in investment banking. Samantha also enjoys an active social life, but when she looks around her and sees friends and peers in romantic relationships, she can’t help but desire the same for herself.

Clinical psychologist Danielle Sheypuk

The fact that Samantha has been physically disabled since childhood, uses a wheelchair and lives independently with the help of personal care assistants might pose some complications when it comes to dating — mostly things others take for granted, like taking off a jacket or positioning and eating food. But it doesn’t make her desire for romance any less natural and, with a little pre-planning, any less attainable. Relying on a personal care assistant does not equal being single forever. Just as Samantha has built a successful career and social life with the help of her assistants, so too can she have a fulfilling romantic relationship.  

If you can relate to Samantha and have wondered, “How will a date handle all of this?” consider the following tips to help you successfully navigate the dating scene without (at least some of) the anxiety.

The dating mindset

1. A bit of anxiety is normal, even healthy. The first few dates for anyone are probably going to be awkward — whether or not you have a disability. Dating and intimacy are challenging for most of the human population, so embrace your nervousness but don’t overstress yourself.  

2. Dating is a two-way street. Heading into first dates, insecurities might compel you to focus solely on how your date is going to see and think about you. But, remember, you’re evaluating this person as well, and he or she likely will be similarly focused on that aspect. So don’t be so preoccupied with how a person is going to react to your wheelchair that you forget to check him or her out as well and decide if you’re interested.

3. Three doesn’t have to be a crowd. No one wants to meet a person to whom they might be attracted with a third party in tow. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate a date without your assistant and sometimes that is simply not viable due to one’s physical needs. The key in either scenario is to set a strategy ahead of time. Until you are comfortable with a new potential partner, having a specific plan for the first few dates will help you alleviate anxiety and build dateable self-esteem, allowing you to focus on getting to know your date — and having some fun.  

Here’s how to develop such plans and put them into action in order to get a little action (wink):

Strategy 1: Dating without your assistant

Even with disabilities that usually require a lot of assistance, as in Samantha’s case, there are ways to spend a few hours alone with just your date.

If your date is someone you don’t know all that well yet, keep it short and simple; this will take some of the pressure off. If eating poses challenges for you, choose a time and location that do not involve a full meal. For example, consider meeting at a park where you can just sit and chat. “People watching” is always a good conversation starter.

A coffee shop is another convenient first-date spot, but get there ahead of time, so you can get comfortable at the table. Have the barista put the coffee in front of you so you can sip it through a straw while you flirt. If your disability does not allow you the use of your hands and arms but you’d like to pick up the tab, give the waiter your credit card information in advance.

If the weather is chilly and you’re concerned about how you’ll get your jacket on and off, wear a stylish sweater, blazer or parka that can easily transition between indoors and out. Or have your assistant accompany you to the date spot early and take off your jacket. By the end of the date, you’re usually more comfortable with that person (possibly with the help of a few cocktails), and it’s easier to ask for a little help with your jacket. 

After the first few dates, if you decide that you’re interested in seeing this person further, you can broach the topic of your assistant. Able-bodied or disabled, intimate details are private until you get to know someone. 

Strategy 2: Dating with your assistant

Say you don’t feel comfortable without your assistant present or in close vicinity. Again, with a predefined strategy, your assistant can “disappear” into the background, leaving the focus on you and your date.  

Coordinating with your assistant ahead of time is important if you want him or her to sit next to you. A young, professional woman with type 2 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), for example, could instruct her assistant to bring food or drink to her mouth only when she gives a secret signal, so as to avoid having her conversation interrupted at inappropriate times. She could also politely tell her assistant in advance not to join in the conversation. 

Even simply having the assistant back away slightly from the table when not immediately needed can create a more private, intimate atmosphere.

With a little strategic thinking, fun and intimate first dates are possible regardless of the nature and severity of one’s disability. So the final tip when it comes to stress-free dating? Just get out there! After Samantha gets a few dates under her belt, it will become easier as she’ll know what works for her and what doesn’t — even if some of her dates are disasters (as can be expected when playing the dating game). 

The pursuit of romance is human nature and something we all deserve; once you’re dating with confidence, a disability or a wheelchair is no longer an obstacle to finding love. 

When physical intimacy becomes part of the equation in your relationship, knowing your partner will make it easier to ask for what you need and allow you to feel safe. Both of those aspects increase one’s comfort level, which creates the best possible sexual experience. If, due to your disability, you require help with such tasks as getting dressed and undressed, getting into bed and being positioned correctly, communication is critical — and the same approach applies to physical intimacy. Telling your partner exactly what he or she needs to do, rather than have him or her guess and you feel uncomfortable, can reduce any sense of awkwardness.  

Direct communication also is helpful if the assistance of a home assistant is necessary to facilitate a sexual experience between you and your partner. Physical intimacy is a part of being human, with or without a disability. A home assistant, as your employee, needs to accept this fact. Instructing him/her on what they need to do (e.g., helping you put on a piece of lingerie, lighting some candles, etc.), minus any feelings of embarrassment on your part, is best for everyone. An honest exchange with a trusted personal care assistant ahead of time helps establish boundaries and goals, so everyone’s comfort levels are accommodated.

Aside from these planning conversations, it’s important to realize that engaging in a sexual experience can bring about a sense of vulnerability, especially if you have physical limitations that make it difficult to protect yourself. Knowing your partner and engaging in a physical relationship when you feel ready will reduce feelings of uneasiness and increase safety. The point is for you to relax and enjoy the moment!

Danielle Sheypuk, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and former Ms. Wheelchair New York (2012) who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). In her innovative private practice, which uses Skype-based therapy sessions specifically for people with disabilities, she treats a variety of mental health issues, with a special focus in the areas of dating, relationships and sexuality. To learn more about Danielle Sheypuk, read 'Roll' Model.

For more on strategies and attitudes for dating success, check out Dating and Disability, archived online as part of MDA’s Public Webinar Series. Hosted by MDA’s Transitions initiative, the webinar includes three panelists with neuromuscular diseases sharing advice on dating and romance based on their personal experiences.

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