Stephen remembers vividly the first time he saw Marietta. He was late for a dinner party one stormy evening in February. Marietta was among the dozen or so guests already seated at the table when he finally arrived, half frozen, snow still clinging to his hair.
“I couldn’t tell you who else was in the room that night,” Stephen said like a bashful teenager, years later. “She smiled at me, and the chill I’d carried in with me instantly vanished.”
They exchanged flirtatious glances all through dinner, seated too far apart for actual conversation. Finally, dessert was done, and Stephen began gathering the nerve to approach her. That’s when he saw a detail that stopped him in his tracks: Marietta was in a wheelchair. Her legs were small compared to the rest of her body.
Marietta seemed to know that it was a pivotal moment. She locked eyes with Stephen and waited.
“I’d been there before,” she said. “I was used to suddenly becoming invisible to someone I was interested in. Most men can’t see past the chair.”
Stephen froze, and for a moment it looked as if he might be like “most men” and turn away. “A thousand things went through my mind,” he recalls. “Marietta was looking at me, daring me to talk to her. I couldn’t take my eyes off this amazingly beautiful woman—and her wheelchair. Half my mind was telling me to run. The other half was saying, ‘What is wrong with you, moron? Go talk to her!’” He listened to the smarter half, walked over, and introduced himself. “I felt like I was crossing a barrier I didn’t even know was there,” Stephen said.
Without a doubt, dating with disabilities presents demands that the majority of people don’t ever have to face. But as lots of men and women like Stephen and Marietta have discovered, just because a relationship is physically challenging, it doesn’t have to be your cue to run for the exits.
If “dating with disabilities” is a boundary you are ready to cross, here are three things to keep in mind.
1. The heart works just fine, even if some body parts don’t. Romantic love depends on intangible qualities that can be affected by a person’s physical condition—but usually aren’t. Loyalty, kindness, understanding, forgiveness, humor—none of these suffer at all from bodily limitations. In the big picture of love and romance, internals far outrank externals in importance.
2. But don’t be naïve about the limitations dating with disabilities does impose. Be realistic. Account for the realities of the disability when planning dates together. Be honest with yourself and each other about the limitations a disability might bring to a relationship. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone—just keep your feet on the ground when you do so.
3. Above all, talk! By openly discussing the physical challenges as a couple, you’ll be working to overcome a far more common (and destructive) kind of dating disability: lack of communication. It may be a little awkward to talk about a disability at first, but that’s a hundred times better than avoiding the subject.
Post script: Stephen and Marietta have been married for 15 years. Their advice about dating with disabilities? Keep your heart—and your eyes—wide open. Sometimes romantic attraction takes an unexpected turn, which may just lead to life-long love.