February 10, 2005.
"Going out with a blind person? Can't you get anything else?" That's what Geoffrey Long remembers being said to the girl he was with on his very first date. He was just 17 and remembers the shock he felt. It wasn't long before he realised that such a reaction was not a one-off.
Yet this experience did not deter Long, who was born blind, from choosing to date other non-disabled women.
"I had this thing of wanting to date girls to prove that a blind person could. I had this silly idea that if I dated a girl with full sight then that was some kind of kudos for me," he says.
Like many disabled people, Long had to think carefully about where he could go on a date that would be both enjoyable and practical. He says that given his blindness there was little point in going to watch a film, and so restaurants, pubs and walks were his preferred options. But even then, his blindness could cause him unexpected - and extremely unromantic - problems.
"On one date I had been with a girl to the pub and then a Chinese restaurant. It had all gone well and she had agreed to come back to my flat. The trouble was, I was bursting for a pee in the restaurant. I didn't know where the loo was and out of embarrassment didn't like to ask her. I only just made it back to the flat in time," he recalls, cringing at the memory.
Of course, it wasn't just when he was on the dates that Long's disability caused him problems - his disability also affected his preparatory work.
"If you are sighted you can scout the talent, look around the room, see what is available and then make a beeline. If you're blind you have to be introduced," he says.
Despite the added pressure, Long didn't have difficulty meeting women. But this isn't a familiar tale for most disabled people. Anne Pridmore, who has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user, is convinced that dating is more difficult for disabled people because of the way society views them.
"The main restriction is the attitude of non-disabled people to disabled people. We're in the 21st century but when it comes to sexuality you wouldn't think it," she says.
She remembers interviewing someone to be her personal assistant. The candidate was asking probing questions, and wanted to know how many times a week she took a shower. "I told her 'every other day and twice on Sunday, the same as I have sex'," says Pridmore. The shocked candidate didn't hang around.
Pridmore was married for 20 years. Her husband was disabled, but since he left she has been out with a number of non-disabled men. But she says that non-disabled men often just want friendship.
"You often find that non-disabled men find you a perfect vehicle to offload their problems but that when sex rears its head they are not interested. They don't envisage you might want anything more. And for people with a high level of support needs it can be difficult to portray the body language to move the relationship on," she says.
Pridmore's dates have come from a variety of sources - one she met when he came round to mend the video, another she contacted after seeing an ad in the paper. A good job, given that getting to places to meet potential dates can be a challenge for disabled people. Singles clubs are often held in inaccessible places on the presumption that disabled people would not want to come, says Pridmore, and some dating agencies refuse to even accept disabled people onto their books.
But it's not just on the dating circuit that disabled people face prejudice. A few years ago, Pridmore was trying to get an electronic gadget to close the curtains in her bedroom, where she had a double bed. On seeing the double bed, the occupational therapist remarked that if it were swapped for a single bed there would be room for a wheelchair to get around it.
"I asked her if she had a partner and she did so I asked her what made her think that I didn't have one," says Pridmore.
Too often, it seems, health and social care workers don't even acknowledge that their disabled clients may have - or at least want - a sex life. Dominic Davies, a psychotherapist who specialises in sex, says that not enough is done to help workers with this subject, and suggests that sex education training be introduced in colleges.
"Practitioners can find it hard to think about. People have their own sexual histories and that can get in the way of helping disabled people. They may feel protective if they have been exploited themselves, so we need to start with the self-awareness of workers," he says.
He adds that from a young age disabled people are often discouraged from seeing themselves as sexual, and are rarely given the privacy to allow a relationship to develop.
"If they want to begin to be sexual they have their relationships monitored by workers and carers who rather than facilitating disabled people end up policing them and inhibiting them," says Davies.
Where workers do want to help, management and policies often prevent them out of fear that the disabled person will end up being abused or exploited, says Davies. So discussions about sex only take place in the context of preventing and identifying sexual abuse rather than considering it as a consensual and pleasurable act.
Disabled people, like everyone else, have romantic and sexual needs. It is surely the responsibility of health and social care professionals to make sure that they are given every opportunity to fulfil them.
. Research for this article was assisted by Cupid Calls, an online dating service that encourages membership from disabled people. Visit www.cupidcalls.co.uk
Comments on dating from disabled people
"Care professionals ought to stop giving us platitudes and help us meet like-minded people on the basis of our intellect and interests instead of just likewise disabled individuals."
"Most females see my disability and get put off. With all the help I need I would have to know if my partner could cope with that. A lot of people just want the easy option."
"If you go to a dating agency, do you put down you're disabled or tell people after you have got in touch? I don't think you would get replies if you did say. I was told off by one man I was in touch with that I'd been misleading in my profile."
"I wear a night pad as I am unable to get out of bed without assistance to use the toilet. A pad does not make instantaneous lovemaking a possibility as there would need to be preparation and forethought."
Chris Thomas (not her real name)
"I live in a care home so don't always have a lot of privacy. Staff often want to know who my friends are which is fine from an informal point of view but in some cases can be a bit intrusive."
End of article.
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