Updated: Jan 12
Any intimate relationship can be complicated. And being in an intimate relationship as a queer person often presents additional, nuanced challenges and considerations. This becomes even more complex when we introduce the topic of disability into our thoughts around relationships too. In celebration of Disability Pride Month as we explore identities and stories at the intersection of queerness and disability with added depth, Tatum Swithenbank (she/they), who has Muscular Dystrophy and Ryan Zaman (he/him), who has Cerebral Palsy, reflect on their lived experiences of being queer and disabled in the context of navigating a relationship - and how the dynamic between a disabled partner and a non-disabled partner can sometimes be different than a more conventional queer relationship.
It is important to note that this topic is something that neither Tatum nor Ryan have spoken about publicly before, and have never really heard of anyone else talking about either. With this in mind, they hope their insight not only helps others gain a better understanding of this intersection, but that their stories can also resonate with others who share similar circumstances and lived experiences.
NB: the term disability can be interchanged with neurodivergence/long-term health condition in this context
NB: every situation/relationship is different, and we don’t have a defined answer for everything - please use the content of this article as prompts to consider how things may apply to you/your relationship/your partner(s).
Bust the common misconception that disabled people are inherently non-sexual.
“As a disabled person, I definitely feel there’s a societal view that disabled people are less sexual than non-disabled people. As a result, a lot of my internalised thinking around sex and relationships growing up was undoubtedly influenced by this perception. This, coupled with the internalised homophobia before coming out, was a cause of a lot of emotion when I was a teenager.” - Ryan
“Society’s views of marginalised communities, especially the disabled community, has a massive effect on how we view ourselves. Through constant implications we see in our everyday lives, we are taught that disabled people are worth less, and therefore not as worthy of love.” - Tatum
While we all know this view exists, we must consider where it comes from, and what we can do to combat it (not just disabled people, allies too):
> Physical ability and appearance has always been at the core of how we view relationships, sex and their viability, since the very beginning of humankind, as we can see with the school of thought around ‘Survival of the Fittest.’ This is only intensified in the technology-led world we live in, and the demand for fast connection through the use of dating apps etc. that is based overwhelmingly on appearance and physicality.
For non-disabled people out there: How do we combat this view?
> Whilst some people might not be able to do some things the same way (for example, be physically intimate), it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to do them at all. Disabled people are very self-aware, and some of the most adaptive people out there. They problem-solve everyday, navigating a world that is not designed with them in mind. Therefore, if they want to do something, they will find a way (perhaps with the help of others).
> The best way to combat the perception that disabled people are not sexual/less worthy of love, ask yourself: ‘If I was disabled, how would I like to be treated?’ The answer is: ‘With the same respect as everyone else!’ Our Leaders also wanted to add, not everything has to be about a deeper connection: disabled people can look for more casual relationships, too.
When looking at the people that make up the We Create Space Queer Leadership Collective, a considerable number of people are disabled and/or neurodiverse - a nod to the fact that more than a third of the queer community are disabled - a significantly higher percentage than the straight community (around 22 percent). Recent studies have also found that between 70-80 percent of neurodiverse people identify as part of the queer community. This highlights that discussion on relationships is especially important, as part of the wider conversation on inclusion and accessibility within queer spaces.
It takes a lot for disabled people to open their heart up to someone in order to start a relationship.
Just like everyone else, disabled people make a lot of their decisions when making new connections based on past experience. The strong prevalence of ableist attitudes in our spaces quite often means that disabled people experience a negative reaction if they choose to disclose their disability to someone they are interested in getting to know intimately.
“Because of my bad experiences, I always feel like I’m waiting for someone to let me down, and that stops me from opening up. In the past, I often hesitated to tell people because I didn't want them to make assumptions. My disability is a massive part of my life, and will continue to be, as I have a progressive disease - but I had a fear that’s all people would think about when they saw me. Now, at the age of 29, I don’t have time to hide any aspects of my person. But I am careful about how I communicate with people and picking my moment when I’m getting to know someone new. It’s hard to find that moment though, because society tells us not to give people with disabilities a chance - it takes a lot to open yourself up like that - it never gets easier.” - Tatum
“Before I was in a long-term relationship, that fear of rejection from others because of my disability was very real for me. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that, but the feeling was really strong for me. When I was younger, for the longest time, along with questioning my worthiness of a relationship, this was definitely something that stopped me pursuing any romantic connections at all.” - Ryan
One of the most significant obstacles for disabled people is getting to the point where you can freely accept help when you know you need it, and it takes a long time to get to that place:
“Even now we probably don’t do it 100% of the time when we probably should. Showing your vulnerabilities is a very hard thing to do for anyone, especially if you don’t know a person that well yet.” - Ryan
Reframing mindsets: Disabled partners have as much to ‘give’ to a relationship as non-disabled partners.
Again, because of ableist views, and the common depictions of disabled people in mainstream media, a lot of the narrative we see around disability and relationships (and disability in general) is centred around the idea that people with disabilities need a ‘caregiver.’ Of course, this can be the case for some people, however as everything exists on a spectrum, it’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’.
Having the mindset that everyone with a disability encounters the same struggles out there can be damaging. There are so many different types of disability, and even when you focus on one condition, people’s experience and how they are affected varies massively.
“I have worked so hard on taming my internalised ableism* to tell myself I am worthy of love. Just because I can’t do some things doesn’t mean I don’t contribute to a relationship in other ways. I think we need to move away from this preconception that it is really hard for a non-disabled partner in an inter-able relationship, and they carry a heavier burden - there’s difficulty for everyone involved, just in different ways. If we imagine a relationship as like the sky: sometimes it is clear and sunny - other times there can be a rainstorm. Deep, romantic psychological and sexual connections are complicated and ever-changing.” - Tatum
*you can find a definition in our article on 'Helping our disabled friends feel seen, heard and supported'
Disabled partners can teach non-disabled partners (and people outside of their relationship) so much over and above simple physical chemistry. Some examples of this are:
> How to slow down (both in a physical sense such as when walking, but also in terms of more considered decision-making and forward planning).
> The power of empathy in the everyday, and how this facilitates deeper connection.
“As disabled people we know what it’s like not to be listened to, so we don’t want to put anyone else through that. In turn, we are great at showing others how to truly be a good listener, be compassionate, and holding space - just as we would like others to do for us.” - Tatum
“Pulling your ‘weight’ looks different for each partner and a sense of equality could look different - just because one person does more things around the house, the other could show up differently, by arranging exciting activities etc. This is especially the case when a relationship is more established and you fall into a comfortable rhythm. This is when partners should use their intuition to tell what the other person needs.” - Ryan
What are the qualities disabled people look for in their partners?
The qualities disabled people might look for in potential partners can be considered as quite similar to what everyone looks for in relationships in general. From a disability perspective though, there is often emphasis on emotional intelligence as a first priority:
> A partner who understands the emotional significance of a disabled person being able to open up, when society tells them to keep their struggles to themselves.
> "When you have a disability it’s like a full time job - fighting for your rights, paperwork to get support, medical appointments - I need a partner who understands that sometimes I won't have the capacity to spend as much time with them as I want.” - Tatum
> A partner who offers the same grace and space that is offered to them. For example, when a disabled partner is in pain, they might snap:
“What we need is someone to say, it’s ‘OK, it’s fine - I won’t take it to heart, let’s take a breather.’” - Tatum
> A partner who understands that the help goes both ways:
“My partners in the past may have helped me carry my bags when I’m on my feet, but when I’m using my wheelchair and we’d go to the supermarket, we put all the bags on my chair, and they sit on my lap and get a ride in the chair if they’re tired.” - Tatum
‘Buffers’: How disabled people can protect their emotional capital when making new romantic connections - especially when using dating apps (we’re sure lots of non-disabled people do this too!).
Everyone has different signifiers they use to determine their compatibility with a potential new partner. This could be something as simple as paying attention to how someone treats a waiter, or similarities/differences in political views. First impressions mean a lot and help determine whether we want to open up further to another person. Disabled people consider this when thinking about whether they feel comfortable disclosing their disability (if it’s not immediately visible), or if they want to discuss it further.
“I don’t know why, but when you’re dating, especially for men, there’s a weird preoccupation with height - maybe it goes back to all of the physical aspects we’ve talked about. But, I would be open about my height (or lack of it). For people who were not OK with that, it meant I already knew that they probably wouldn’t be that accepting of my disability - something else that’s out of my control. This technique probably saved me a lot of hurt as I didn’t open up to many people who had a negative reaction. Even so, I was dating my boyfriend for a month before I told him about my disability. I also think that it’s worth mentioning for people out there that being short and having a disability doesn’t make me any less of a man.” - Ryan
“I always use pictures where you can see my body hair. If someone isn’t into that, they can go ahead and swipe left. I rarely use dating apps - because of the areas that I work in I am privileged enough to be able to make a lot of new connections in-person - but if I do use dating apps, I use a picture of me holding my walking stick, and mention I work in accessibility and inclusion so people can perhaps come to their own conclusion that I have a disability. This way, if I do meet with them, hopefully they have an interest in that too. Yes, it makes them a better ally from the beginning, but you would hope that there would be more of an awareness and understanding from day one.” - Tatum
“One of the best ways I would judge how viable a relationship would be or not was to pay attention to how someone I was dating would react if ableist behaviour pointed towards me in public. As disabled people, we are very strong at advocating for ourselves and trusting our judgement when we don’t feel something is right. We’re probably more self-aware than most other people. I also think we can apply this to how we conduct ourselves in our intimate relationships, too - to know when something isn’t how it should be and to be confident in our decision-making process as a result, whether this be breaking up with someone, or encouraging a reframing of boundaries within a relationship.” - Ryan
How can non-disabled people show up for their disabled partners?
When we are in relationships with a partner, a grand gesture every now and then can be great, but it is often the small things that mean the most. Learning about the little things that can really help your partner (if you are disabled or not) will make a relationship stronger and more meaningful.
> Whether it’s paying more attention to the kinds of things to do on dates or the tasks you choose to do around the house, non disabled partners can make a massive difference to a disabled partner’s day to day through small choices/changes. A collaborative approach to things which considers abilities more mindfully is also a win-win! E.g.:
“When me and my partner are doing laundry, I’m not that great at standing up and bending down for long periods of time, so I tend to load and unload the machine and hang it up to dry, but he will fold everything and put it away.” - Ryan
> “[As a disabled person,] I’m not looking for pity, I’m not looking to be someone’s inspiration - all I’m looking for is some simple acknowledgement that some things are different for me - it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Normalisation is key.” - Tatum
> Understand there is nothing sinister around someone cancelling plans if their capacity is limited.
> Understand that a disabled partner may experience internalised ableism:
“On bad days internalised ableism can overpower my headspace - this can make me think negatively (however non-valid) about if I am a burden on my partner/family. This is where small verbal reassurances are really the most important in a relationship, and understanding the role internalised ableism, either on a simple or more complex level, can play in the thought process of someone with a disability.” - Ryan
How do their queerness/disabled identities interact differently with one another depending on who a disabled person is dating/spending time with?
“When I’m dating a cis man, I have these very deep-rooted expectations of how I should behave. I don’t abide my gender norms, and I think this is why my relationships with cis men have fallen apart because they struggle with the fact that I dont live in these binaries. When I’m with queer people, all of those expectations already don’t really apply.” - Tatum
“My attachment to prescribed gender roles have been stronger when I have dated cis-women. What that means for my disability is that I have noticed I am less willing to accept help from a woman (as that’s not “manly” to do). I know this is bad, but everyone is influenced by what society tells us to think. In my relationship with my boyfriend I am a lot more willing to accept help.” - Ryan
Communication is key: Tips for those in inter-able relationships.
”One of the biggest causes of a relationship breaking down - no matter who you are - is lack of communication. I mean, we’re always learning and no-one’s perfect. But there’s something about being disabled (or being in a relationship with a disabled person): you’ve got to be forthcoming about your needs. You have to be radical in your communication and I think that’s a gift.” - Tatum
When you are new to a relationship
> If you want to know more details after someone has disclosed their disability to you, DON’T GOOGLE IT. They know themselves best.
> If you would like to know more you could always send them a message a few days later - gives people room to reply in their own time.
Ask out of interest without intrusion - give them a reason and say "I care about you and I want to know how best to support you."
> Be patient - building a meaningful connection takes time - you don’t have to know everything straight away.
> It is important to have a common understanding that severity of physical symptoms and state of mind are very interlinked.
> Allow your partner to fully voice their feelings without interrupting or interjecting, even if they're saying something that is difficult to hear.
> All partners need to recognise their privilege in different areas.
> Acknowledge the difference between sympathy and empathy.
> [For non-disabled partners] It’s good to understand external factors have a lot more of an influence on the mood/capacity of someone who is disabled/neurodivergent, so it’s always worth planning ahead where possible. Use The Spoon Theory to talk to your partner about fluctuating energy levels/capacity.
When a relationship is perhaps more established
> All partners need the emotional intelligence of knowing when to pick up a conversation about something, but also knowing when to drop it.
> Nonverbal communication for support is key (if you’re a survivor or if you have a disability - someone could be non-verbal if they are neurodivergent for example) - not everything has to be spoken or heard. There is a lot of power in simply giving someone a look or a nod.
> When you or your partner is stressed or struggling with pressure, understand the importance of framing things as ‘support or solution?’ - check-ins are important to see what that person needs. Sometimes people just want a hug (i.e. support), and need a second to process before they start thinking about what comes next (i.e. a solution).
> [If you are a non-disabled partner] you need to intuitively switch between supporting someone where they need help, and just simply being their partner. Don’t lose sight of what should be at the core of your relationship, which is love and chemistry - if you lose sight of that, then that isn’t good for your relationship in the long run.
So what does all of this mean?
The most poignant discovery as a result of these conversations, is that most discussion, whilst centred around queerness and disability, are actually applicable to any relationship - no matter who you or your partner might be. If we see disability as a ‘layer,’ you could replace it with another element such as ‘long-distance;’ ‘difference in financial status between partners’ or ‘polyamory,’ for example. This shows that while we might have different life experiences, we are all human, and more similar than we might think at first glance…