NEW YORK CITY (WOMENSENEWS) –It happened six years ago, but Jasmin Thien remembers it clearly. “At 14, I had a boy say directly to my face in class, ‘If you weren’t blind I would be so into you,’” If that wasn’t bad enough a classmate added salt to the wound by adding, ‘That’s definitely true;”” Thien remembered recently.
Thien, now 20, is blind from retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer she had as an infant. She attributes her blindness to be the reason she never dated as a teenager.
“I think that my blindness renders me unattractive; boys see me as ‘the blind girl’ instead of a potential crush,” said Thien, a college student who lives in Brunei, a predominantly Muslim country surrounded by Malaysia.
Some of the desexualization that Thien feels can be attributed to her specific surroundings, but not all. Between stereotypes of undesirability, lack of information about sexuality and parental discomfort with the issue, dating can be a challenge for girls with disabilities.
“One stereotype that is particularly detrimental is that as a teen with a disability you are either an angelic little angel or a helpless object of pity,” said Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, a licensed psychologist and disability rights activist. “Under this stereotype, it is hard to see yourself as a sexual person at all, let alone really explore that sexuality and/or be curious about different sexual identities.” Sheypuk, who has spinal muscular atrophy, type 2 and has used a wheelchair since she was young, is an expert on sexuality and disability.
This is Thien’s reality. “Probably the biggest misconception about visually impaired people, at least in Brunei, is that we are ‘different’ and therefore unrelatable. I am seen as the clever, inspiring, strong blind girl, but that is all,” she said. “It is common for family members – parents, aunts, uncles and cousins – to become suspicious or tease a girl when she gets close to any boy, but I never receive this treatment as the thought of any boy ever dating me is completely ridiculous and no one even considers it to be a possibility.”
Parents in particular can be a huge barrier to girls with disabilities trying to begin dating, according to Sheypuk. It’s hard enough for parents to see their daughters as sexual people, but “for parents with children who have physical disabilities, it is even harder,” she said. “This can make it really difficult for teen girls to explore and become familiar and comfortable with their sexuality.”
Emely Recinos, a New York University student on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, noted how she has felt patronized because of her disability. “Often people are like ‘Oh you’re blind and small. You’re so cute.’ We’re viewed with pity rather than as sexy.” Recinos, who has a severe visual impairment, also noted how she’s had experiences with potential romantic partners where they’ve seemed uncomfortable and unsure of how to deal with disability in general. “I think that it makes people scared a little bit and that’s why they are very hesitant to approach someone who’s blind and see them as a potential partner because they think: ‘is this person going to be so dependent on me?’”
Sylvia Colt, a 15-year-old from Oakland, California, had a similar experience when she encountered people that assumed she wasn’t sexual because of her wheelchair. “I had this realization that even though I see myself a certain way in terms of my sexuality, people have a hard time looking at me past my wheelchair. I just couldn’t really understand how my disability could affect such an separate and personal thing,” she said. “In my eyes, my disability and sexuality don’t really intersect, so I always find it odd when they do for others.” Colt has Bethlem myopathy, a progressive neuromuscular disease that has caused her to use a wheelchair since the fourth grade.
Media representation has a lot to do with this disconnect, said Bryn Healy, a 14-year-old from northern New Jersey. “Someone in a wheelchair is not supposed to be looked at as sexy or as someone that you’d be into,” she said. “If they are even [in the media], which is a rarity, they are the funny sidekick or someone who happens to be really talented and you’re supposed to be surprised because there disabled.” Bryn suffers from a painful nerve syndrome called reflex sympathetic dystrophy. While her disability is now invisible, in the past she’s had to use a wheelchair and confront all the societal misrepresentations that came with it.
Just as some have used Bryn’s disability to distance themselves from her, others have used it as a way to forge inauthentic relationships. “I had multiple friends over the years where all they want to do is care for you,” she said. “They want to show the world that ‘Hey I’m inclusive, I’m dating someone with a disability. So you can’t say I’m ableist or I’m in some way prejudiced against people with disabilities.’”
This inability for people to see beyond their disability is the hardest part of dating for these girls. “You can’t just read a book by its cover. You have to learn about people before you can make any judgements or assumptions,” said Bryn.