As a sort of catch-all term for a host of both visible and invisible conditions, disability can refer to any type of chronic impairment that causes someone&aposs mind or body to work outside what’s typically expected—so anything from depression to lupus to cerebral palsy. No two conditions or individual experiences are the same, so all disabilities come with their own host of unique challenges—especially when it comes to dating and letting someone know what exactly they might be signing up for.
I’m autistic, and at 25, I’ve had to describe what that means to my fair share of romantic partners, but the hardest part about having that conversation is always deciding when to disclose that information. Should you include it in your profile, and risk turning off a bunch of potential matches before they even finish reading your bio? Do you wait until the first date? Try to bring it up in casual conversation before an in-person meeting?
The trouble with Tinder
Not that dating’s ever been particularly easy, but now that apps represent the most common way couples meet, you could make the case it’s more fraught than ever. For people with disabilities, that’s especially true. When everyone is making snap judgments as they swipe their way through potential matches, something as insignificant as a poorly-framed picture can be enough cause for someone to say thank you, next. To someone unfamiliar, including a disability on your dating profile could prompt someone to swipe left immediately, or may invite unwarranted curiosity about a disabled person’s sexuality.
On the other hand, getting it out in the open as early as possible means you don’t waste time on folks who can’t see past the label and potentially saves you from an uncomfortable or painful conversation later on. It’s for that reason that Jeffrey Lane, a car detailer who’s autistic, writes about his autism in his profile to help ease people into it.
Online and in my career, I’m openly autistic, but when it comes to romance, I tend to have in-depth discussions about my autism with partners only on a need-to-know basis. However, the internet reveals my disability status after a simple search of my name, so I either have to initiate the autism conversation early on, or pray that whoever I’m out to dinner with mentions it because they Googled me and are excited to have a conversation about it with me.
Similarly Lance Allred, the first deaf person to play in the NBA, has 80% hearing loss. Allred uses dating apps, but he doesn’t mention his hearing loss, hoping he can connect with someone who won’t be judgmental prior to meeting in person. His hearing loss also means he chooses quiet restaurants for first dates where he can initially read lips.
Wait until it comes up naturally
Others use more straightforward approaches with varying degrees of success. Bill Wong, an autistic occupational therapist, has been unlucky in sharing his disability on dating apps, recalling an instance where he mentioned his autism after four or five messages in with a woman, only to have her cut him off immediately afterwards. Josh Galassi, a public relations account executive, has cerebral palsy and adopts a similar approach to Wong, choosing to wait until there’s a little bit of rapport built up. “I like to wait because I feel like as soon as someone hears the word ‘disabled,’ they immediately assume things or have an image in their head for what that looks like,” Galassi says.
On the other hand, delaying the inevitable conversation until you’re face-to-face can be just as daunting as telling them beforehand, depending how much a person considers disability to be part of their identity.
Emma Sothern, who has hair loss and blogs as Lady Alopecia, but didn’t always feel confident living with her condition. She has been with her partner for 9 years, but initially hid her hair loss from him with head scarves and wigs She says once she told him, his support following the disclosure helped her accept her alopecia.
Not all disabilities are concealable and thus happen more naturally. For Cynthia Zuber, a type 1 diabetic who’s also autistic, that’s been the case. Though she’s married now, historically she wouldn’t mention her condition before meeting someone for a date—she felt reluctant to let it define her to someone she hadn’t met yet. “My diabetes usually came up in conversation when I would either reach into my purse to pull out my blood sugar monitor or access my insulin pump,” she says. Her dates were typically understanding and would move on fairly quickly: “Surprisingly, it has never been a dealbreaker.”
Sothern observes upfront disability conversations can bring about emotional intimacy because the other person “will open up about their own insecurities too,” which can kickstart a genuine, supportive dialogue—a pretty ideal starting point from which to build a trusting relationship. Sothern says she had never felt happier or more confident in herself than after telling her partner about her disability—they’re about to get married, nearly 10 years later.
Consider a prepared statement
To simplify the process of disclosure, Galassi, the public relations executive, copy-pastes a note from his phone to potential partners online: “If we meet though I should probably tell you something: it’s a thing I explain to EVERYONE I meet—but I have a physical disability. It’s not a huge deal and never has been a huge issue with previous boyfriends; I just walk a little funny like a drunk person would. Hopefully that’s not a deal breaker for us meeting but yeah.”
The candor works. “Most guys have been receptive to that, as was my boyfriend when I told him,” but Galassi acknowledges disability biases exist. “Every now and then you will get someone who is just like, ‘Sorry, not into it’ and you just have to move on,” he says. “Why bother wasting your time on someone who won&apost love you for all of you, disability and all, you know?”
According to Bobbi Palmer, a dating coach with multiple sclerosis, Galassi’s approach is known as a prepared statement. “It’s something you have scripted that helps you share the information in a positive way, while maintaining your boundaries,” Palmer advises.
Allow the conversation to unfold over time
Personally, I’ve never had a prepared statement, but I do usually try to find subtle ways to hit on key points about my autism as it pertains to setting up dates. Sometimes that means telling someone to communicate directly with me and not expect me to read between the lines too much, or that loud and crowded places can overwhelm me, or I will only eat certain foods, so it’s best we pick a specific type of restaurant.
Regardless of when you have the initial conversation, disclosure is ultimately an evolving, ongoing conversation. Once at a college basketball game, the squeaking shoes were sending me into a sensory overload, and I had to explain to my then-boyfriend why I was feeling overwhelmed. We left the arena and headed home after I calmed down. When we had a similar experience at a J. Cole concert, he was understanding albeit a little disappointed about missing the rest of the show.
No matter how or when it happens, disclosing a disability is a highly personal and unique decision for everyone. At the end of the day, it’ll probably always be a little intimidating, although having something prepared in advance can help offset anxiety around the actual conversation. Ultimately, there’s no better feeling than expressing your most vulnerable quality to someone and receiving support and understanding in return.
Originally Appeared on GQ