Digital Love: How Disabled Folks are Revolutionising Online Dating

In early 2020, the UK entered a lockdown to lower the transmission of Covid-19. During that time, people turned to their computers, phones, and tablets for socialising.

While a lot of people adapted their social life to the internet during that time, for a lot of folks digital hangouts weren’t actually new at all. Whether it’s because of disability, chronic illness, mental health, neurodivergence, or a combination thereof, the online space is often the most accessible option. This applies to dating and romance, too.

When you think of online dating, you might think of invasive messages from strangers or swiping through endless photos of men holding excessively large fish. Admittedly, there can be a lot of that. However, the online forum is also an incredible way to hold space for innovative and largely disability-friendly dating.

Digital dating happens over a wide range of different platforms. For example, Cher Snyder has moderated a Telegram dating group for those with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E./CFS) since May 2021. She describes the group as being “like a dating app for M.E./CFS”. Cher tells me

“There’s a lot of people with M.E./CFS who are single and want connection, but don’t have the energy to date in traditional ways. We created this group so people with M.E./CFS who are looking for love, romance, and intimacy could find each other. We think of it like a ‘singles mixer’.”

It’s clear that there’s an immense need in the community for romance-specific spaces, with the group’s membership sometimes growing to just shy of 100 members. “It isn’t a support group since we ask people to leave the group when they are no longer single. We have other groups for long-term socialising community, where we can also interact as a group. I’ve seen it grow from 15 people and celebrated when people leave because they’ve fallen in love and committed to each other.” She says

The group specifically holds space for those who are single and left behind by other dating streams, online or otherwise.

Cher discusses certain barriers that can be faced when finding both connection and understanding when using mainstream dating apps: “Dating apps can be disappointing, because we have to wade through so many ‘healthy’ folks who don’t understand our limitations. (…) This is a way to connect people who are limited by energy deficits with each other.”

The group means that people can exist and have their needs met outside of restrictive, ableist structures.

We see a lot of new members who feel really insecure about what they have to offer in a relationship. Our ideas of what makes a relationship ‘real’ are often based on able-bodied ideals.” Cher says “Learning to be a confident person and good partner, while accommodating our illness, takes time. It may mean that our relationship looks different from what we expected, but it can result in more rewarding relationships.” 

Ableist notions around the legitimacy of technology, or in fact the validity of anything that deviates from the norm, are difficult to escape in society.

Since starting to reckon with my own internalised ableism, confidence around offering a ‘real’ or ‘legitimate’ relationship in line with my access needs has been a real problem for me.

Despite these worries, some of my favourite dates have happened while exploring someone’s Animal Crossing town – and they certainly haven’t felt any less real in the moment.

Although bug hunting on Tortimer Island or questing in World of Warcraft are simulated, there is no reason for an online date to be simulacra.

While the comets falling over the island may be made of pixels, the connection made while gazing up at shooting stars together is very real.

My chronic illness got exponentially worse around three years ago. For me, that mostly looks like experiencing persistent low energy and fatigue. Those symptoms combined with the relaxing of Covid-19 measures in the UK means that I spend a lot of my time at home.

While this experience comes with a great deal to unlearn and an immense sense of grief, it also comes with a fantastic sense of creativity and change.

Disabled creativity means that my love life during this period has been innovative, fulfilling, and exciting. Change is immensely frightening to me thanks to my particular cocktail of neurodivergence. But, just because it’s frightening doesn’t mean that it’s actually bad.

If anything, these changes mean that I now strive towards relationships that fit negotiated needs instead of a perceived norm or standard. ‘Should’ isn’t a part of my vocabulary anymore.

When I think of the change I’ve experienced in these past three years, I think of the meaning of Death: the most infamously misunderstood Tarot card.

Pop culture leads us to believe that the card’s meaning is completely literal. In actuality, it represents the death of an old way of life. The way I dated before hasn’t died, so much as it’s changed. Dating is now shaped entirely around needs that are negotiated between myself and my partners. That change is completely welcome.

Through necessity, Disabled folks have always been innovators. In the Socratic dialogues, Plato wrote “our need will be the real creator”: where there is a need to be met, creativity and innovation will ensure that that need is met in its own way.

Disabled folks are experts in taking innovation into our own hands across all parts of our lives.

Why would romance be any different?

Love our content? Want to help us pay disabled writers and continue to build this amazing platform? Find out how you can support us

all Columns Disabled and Sexual

Disabled and Sexual: Allowing Myself to be Vulnerable in Dating

Disabled and Sexual is a column by Hannah Shewan Stevens which will explore all the challenges, comedy, and fun that disabled people experience as sexual beings, even while we are desexualised by a predominantly non-disabled society.

I am in pain, like always. Except, now, I am lying in the dark beside someone that I barely know, wondering whether they are capable of handling the knowledge that every nerve in my body is screaming in agony. 

I can hear the subtle tug of breath that says they are seconds away from falling into a deep sleep. Part of me is thankful because I can mask symptoms far easier next to a sleeping partner, instead of a fellow insomniac. Another part feels the loneliness and frustration knocking at the door, informing me that they will be accompanying the pain until dawn breaks. 

all Essays Stories Uncategorised

Virtually Perfect – Disabled Queer Dating in a Remote World

I was diagnosed with Tourettes’ Syndrome when I was 10, though my disorder first manifested many years previously. Over the interceding period I was diagnosed and re-diagnosed and prognosed by anyone and everyone around me.

all Essays Stories

“How Disabled are you?” Queer Disabled and Looking for a Date

TW: This article features ableism, disability fetishism, biphobia and transphobia

I was fresh out of an almost 12-year relationship, I’d come out as queer and I was ready to fling myself headfirst into dating again. I hadn’t been on a date since the early 00’s, but how hard was this online dating thing really?