Zoe Cross

“People with a disability should use a specialist dating site for the disabled. Achieving positive date matching outcomes for people with a visible disability can be challenging.”

This essentially was the message a female would-be customer of a dating portal received recently. The woman involved is a BBC journalist and a wheelchair user,  and had been quite open about this when making her application for membership. (Find the full tweet containing details of the correspondence here).

Some might say that the dating agency was only trying to be well-intentioned and protecting itself from any possible later complaints if the user had not had a satisfactory experience.

My stance on this is, however, somewhat different.

In fact, the dating agency in question then went on to say that they were considering offering a specialised service for people with disabilities, and that the would-be user might consider joining that service once it became available.

This response, while possibly well-intentioned, saddens me immensely. I myself have a very visible difference (significant facial paralysis from birth)  and had my fair share of experiences on online dating sites while looking for my partner, who I found online almost 6 years ago. Guess what the number one hint is for dating? SMILE! Can you imagine what it that feels like not to be able to smile for the camera, and show that actually, you are a kind and caring person?

But back to the response from the dating portal, and why I find this so very sad. Essentially, what is happening here is that, yet again, we have people perpetuating the idea that dating with a difference, as I sometimes like to call it, is a very challenging proposition, and that it might actually be better to either give up completely or to restrict yourself to specialised sites for people with a difference, whatever that difference may be.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I know there are people out there, looking for love, who would prefer to use specialist sites, if they were available. I myself tried out one some years ago, which specialised in welcoming users with different political views, gay and bisexual love, and people with mental health issues and disabilities of various kinds. I know from several friends that they actually feel safer dating on a site for people with disabilities, and I fully support them in that it helps them become active and have the courage to look for love.

However, that is not my own personal preference. As a date and relationship coach for women with a visible difference and with my own personal experience, I know only too well what it feels like to be rejected on the basis of your appearance, in spite of a profile which I had many compliments for. In fact, I was told by one person on the dating website that prided itself on tolerant and open-hearted users that he admired my courage because he would never consider leaving the house if he looked like me! But as a dating and relationship coach, I know that we need to be willing to look in all kinds of places. For me personally, limiting my search to a site for people with disabilities actually amounted to limiting the number of people I could meet, and I just don’t define myself via my disability. In the end, with my appearance, but especially because of the rest of my profile, I found my soulmate on a very mainstream dating portal, and he just so happens to have a disability too. But our love is defined by so many other things we have in common, and by where we complement each other as a couple.

What I find so saddening about the response from the dating portal is that they are thinking for the would-be customer, but from a very limiting perspective. If I had been that customer about 20 years ago, I would probably have been extremely discouraged. At the time, my mindset was more like “focus on your career, because marriage and dating is impossible for you.” It was only when I actually received some strong encouragement from a friend in my late 30’s that I considered I might still have a chance to find someone. I had my first kiss at the tender ago of 41, by the way.

Yes, dating with a difference can be very challenging. In a 2017 survey undertaken by Changing Faces, a UK organisation supporting people with a facial difference, 90% of the respondents reported that they had experienced some form of negative comments about their appearance while dating online. These statistics are harsh and need to be acknowleged, but at the same time, there are plenty of wonderful heart-warming stories out there. And it’s precisely because of the issue of rejection – which unfortunately is an issue for anyone considering actively searching for love – that we need to empower people to become active and find fulfilment and deep joy, rather than limiting their chances and discouraging them by our own limited perspective and experience.

If you know anyone who is finding it very challenging to find love with a visible difference or with a disability, please be kind to share this article with them. Please show them that, in spite of statistics, it is much more about what they think is possible for them and how deserving they feel, and that there is hope out there. In fact, I am currently looking for participants in a confidential survey on the challenges of finding love with a visible difference, and would really appreciate further volunteers who would be willing to take part in the survey, which of course is fully confidential. It would be great to hear from both people with a visible difference and/or disability who are in a relationship and those who are not, or maybe have never had a relationship so far. As a special thank you to anyone willing to take part in the survey, I am more than happy to offer a free 30-minute love and coaching inspiration session via telephone or any other means. The more people we can include in this survey, the easier it will be to speak on behalf of people with a visible difference, even to approach dating sites with some suggestions for improvement of their services. As a dating coach, I know I am not alone in thinking that often, too much emphasis can be placed on appearance, rather than on other matching points, both by users and services alike.

My message for Valentine’s Day:

Please remember that everyone, no matter what they look like or what abilities they have, deserves to find love, in whatever form suits them. The fear of rejection is known to all of us, but no more so than to people with a visible difference, who can receive negative comments on their appearance on a daily basis without even looking for love. Let us open our hearts and minds to the possibility of love in all shapes and sizes, and encourage those with a difference to realise that they too have choices which are for them, and no one else to make.

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