You know that feeling you get when you start to like someone? It starts as a little twinge in your belly that you know is there, but you simply ignore it. Then, every time you see them, your heart beats a millisecond faster than before. No big deal, right? It's nothing. But before you know it, you're spastically throwing drinks in the air when they arrive in the room, you're dressing up just to see them, and every pop song referring to anything remotely romantical is magically attributed to them (at least if you're me). It is quite possibly the best worst feeling ever -- no contest.
If you are a boy or girl in a chair, you will have all these feelings just like everyone else does, but you might also have one extra feeling that you can't quite account for. Amidst all your awkward stumbling and pauses, you may also hear a tiny little voice that reminds you that you are a person with a disability (PWD) and that this other person (who, up until this voice appeared, was going to be your life partner) therefore could never, ever possibly have any interest in you. The voice usually comes calling right after your attendant care person has put you to bed and you are just about to shut your eyes, reminding you that you are going to bed alone, yet again.
Internalized ableism is something that has drastically affected how I have viewed my relationship potential, and I felt it necessary to talk about it so that people understand it a little better, and so that any PWDs who have experienced it will not feel so alone.
I cant even count the number of times that voice has told me that I am not allowed to feel the way I do about somebody -- if even just for a brief moment. Every single time I sidle up to someone cute I may be interested in, that voice is right next to me, keeping my feelings at bay, reminding me that I am nothing more than a "boy in a chair." Because of that, I have been scared to enter into a relationship of any sort, because I believed that I didn't deserve it, that whatever feelings I harbored couldn't possibly be genuine or, heaven forbid, reciprocal.
As one of my followers (I sound like I am starting some sort of "cripple cult," right?) stated, the internalized ableism causes a "cluster-fuck" of emotions for even the most confident PWD. You start to feel as though any time you approach the object of your attraction, you are a burden or a bother of epic proportions. Internalized ableism takes whatever feelings you have for someone and then amplifies them a million times, as a defense mechanism against the crushing fear of being rejected for your disability.
Moreover, it can be difficult to allow yourself to feel sad or depressed about your unrequited love when you have a disability, because there is an expectation that your disability is already tragic and you should be angry. There have been many moments that I have convinced myself that I couldn't be upset over a guy I liked because it would just confirm stereotypical assumptions. Truthfully, all that did was make me that much more upset.
The effects of ableism have caused me and many other PWDs to romanticize the idea of "the one." Every year since I was 16, I've told myself, "This year I will find the one." (I'll readily admit that my obsession with Meg Ryan films didn't help here.) What I have come to discover as a queer person with a disability is that I no longer want "the one." What I want so much more than that trumped-up fairytale is to be given the chance to try: I want to get horribly dumped, painfully rejected for something other than my wheelchair, and bitch about ex-lovers like Taylor Swift does in every single. Rather than dreaming about what might happen, I want a dose of reality with my romance.
Probably the most insidious part of ableism is that it often takes PWDs out of the equation for other PWDs. In my work and in life, I have made it my mission to "make disability accessible to everyone," but when it comes to my own relationships, there have been times where, even if I liked a fellow PWD, I fell back on the argument that having a relationship with him would be logistically impossible. Kind of a dick move, right? I would also convince myself that I couldn't be with a PWD, simply because that is the only type of relationship people assume I could be in. If I can snag a "walker," I will have hit the jackpot and proved to the world that I can be in a "real" relationship. Completely crazy, I know, but it is a very true concern for many PWDs. A fellow PWD once confided in me that I was, in fact, "too disabled" for him.
I think it is critically important that PWDs be given the chance and spaces to address and access these feelings alongside potential partners, so that we can understand that ableism affects each and every one of us in very different ways.
The next time you're eying me in the checkout line or on Grindr and wondering, "Why won't that cute guy in the chair say hello to me, since he's been giving me eyes, throws his cookies (literally) when I enter a room, and can't stop smiling when I'm around?" just know that I might be trying to deafen the voice in my head.