Going on a date. He uses a wheelchair. Help me not be an idiot.
August 15, 2015 5:54 PM   Subscribe

I have a date coming up with a man who uses a wheelchair. He is super funny and smart and super hot. I have never dated someone who uses a wheelchair. In fact, I've never even known someone who uses a wheelchair. Help me not screw it up!

Obviously, I feel like the number one thing is treat him like a regular human being, because duh. Things like "don't grab the chair" and "don't try to help unless asked" and "don't say 'what happened to you?'" are also obvious, but I'm wondering about things I should keep in mind beyond that sort of common-sense stuff. I do not know why he uses the chair.

Also: I am almost certainly putting the cart before the horse, but in a situation with romantic potential there is the possibility (eventuality, if things go well) of sex. Things to keep in mind regarding approaching the topic of sex and the logistics thereof would also be greatly appreciated.
posted by dinnerdance to Human Relations (29 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

I have an older cousin who uses a wheelchair and at some point I realized that I'd bend down to talk to her, like you would with a little kid. She was kind enough not to say anything about it, but I'm sure it must have felt pretty infantilizing. I cut it out after becoming aware of it.
posted by mudpuppie at 5:59 PM on August 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Did you see this post on the blue? It's for people pushing a wheelchair, but some of the commenters had suggestions/experiences more generally related to interacting with wheelchair users.
posted by cider at 6:18 PM on August 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

Make sure that if you suggest a date location it is fully wheelchair friendly - wide spaces between the tables, no floor height differentials, handicapped bathrooms.
posted by bq at 6:19 PM on August 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Most people who use wheelchairs are more than happy to share with you the reasons they're chair-bound, once you get to know them. My sister is disabled and she says she knows everyone has some measure of curiosity about it. It's polite and tactful not to ask, though, as it makes it seem like 'getting to know your disability' rather than getting to know the person. Seconds on not bending over the chair; it's disconcerting, I am told. It's nice, on dates, if you can do something where for some part of the time you are both seated because it helps with eye contact. Just have fun and if it does get to sexy-times kind of fun, either he will have his own methods and strategies or you'll get to make some up together. Finally, from my sister's lips to your ears "Don't try to pretend his disability doesn't exist or is completely taboo to discuss or mention. It's a part of his life, all the time." Have fun! He sounds dreamy.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 6:21 PM on August 15, 2015 [20 favorites]

I have a close friend who's a wheelchair user from a spinal cord injury. Sounds like you're on your way by thinking of ways to make hanging out be about getting to know him, not whatever disabilities he may have.

Rolling Around In My Head is a great blog to get some sense of how people often treat men with disabilities in a weirdly infantilizing way- may raise your awareness in a good way.

Til you know his situation better, I think letting him take the lead on logistics will help, as he might be gently steering the timeline to manage physical needs without having to talk about them directly (for instance getting home before an aide arrives, or getting to a good restroom in time to be comfortable). So just casually let him choose the venue, defer to him on the date's duration, and pay attention if he directs you in little things like how to navigate doorways and elevators together- for instance, my friend will tell people "after you" at a door or elevator, because he wants to be able to see them so he doesn't whack their ankles with his chair, but a lot of people want him to go ahead of them, which causes tiny politeness tussles. So I guess try to notice if he's gently directing you to do something, he knows best how the logistics work.

But also, just have fun- you don't have to be in some kind of hyper aware state- most people are a bit awkward on early dates and with people who have different agendas than they do- mistakes happen and being kind, warm, flexible, and open is better than being "perfect" at logistics.

I think the main thing I've learned hanging around with people who have disabilities is to trust the person's expertise about their needs, and try to be a good communicator in verbal and non- verbal ways, and be open to feedback and adjustment. It really sounds like you already have those traits. Have fun!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:23 PM on August 15, 2015 [27 favorites]

Sounds like you've got things pretty much under control. He's the only one who needs to be an expert on his personal needs, you sound pretty interested in meeting him and a little awareness goes a long way.

The only tidbit I have is a little thing but... it's already been mentioned to avoid crouching. It's not how one treats adults. That being said standing too close to someone effectively a meter and change tall means that they're forever looking up. A little space helps the viewing angles a lot.

Hope you two have a fantastic evening.
posted by mce at 6:36 PM on August 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Tell him, before the date, "I have no experience with people in wheelchairs. Please feel free to tell me if I'm doing something wrong or annoying."
posted by Etrigan at 6:45 PM on August 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

"I have no experience with people in wheelchairs"--

Though the intention is good, I think saying this would have the effect of making a person feel less comfortable, not more. It's a bit "othering" - like he's some weird entity that requires a whole new type of behavior that you could not possibly just adapt to via courtesy and common sense. I would feel weird if someone said that to me about any of the ways in which we are different... Better to just pay attention, listen respectfully if the topic of disability or helping comes up, and be present to any help he asks for, rather than blanket-offering to change all your behaviour ahead of time.

I don't think most adults would appreciate that kind of blanket reassurance as it kind of implies they won't "fit" with anyone without a lot of awkward feedback or lessons. He will know how to advocate for any needs that come up- guarantee he already does it every day just by navigating a world that's not particularly friendly to people with disabilities.

It would actually more reassuring to just be cool in small ways as things come up, and not make a big deal of any adjustments you need to make or new things you learn about his body.

One little point- it's more respectful to say "People who use a wheelchair" Rather than "in a wheelchair" or "confined to a wheelchair"- the chair is a tool they use, not a part of them or a punishment. (You already did this- another reason I think you're gonna have a great date!)
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:57 PM on August 15, 2015 [35 favorites]

Treat him like someone without a disability. And FYI he is a person with a disability, not disabled, handicapped, or a man in a wheelchair. Treat the wheelchair as part of his body . Look at the world with his eyes and discreetly do things like move chairs out of his way, head for the entrances for people with chairs, ask him in a normal way if it is better if he goes first or you do, etc. Re sex, I'd be shocked if he doesn't know just how it works for him. Use your words to tell him you want to explore his hotness, and let him take it from there.

I do think it is fine to ask if something is comfortable for him, or if he has enough room, etc. or what you can do to help, as long as you don't pelter him with those questions. Ask the way you would with someone who, as noted, doesn't have a disability.
posted by bearwife at 7:06 PM on August 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

First, congrats and good luck on your hot date!!

Second, you sound very self-aware and well-intentioned. I think mentioning what you wrote here sometime on your date, like not right at the beginning but perhaps at the first awkward moment for you. His being in a wheelchair is new for you but something he's been dealing with for a long time so I'm going to assume he's good at, or at least very experienced with, dealing with the reactions of people who aren't in wheelchairs themselves. In other words, please don't stress about this! (Easier said than done before any date, right?!)

As for sex, it sounds like you're clearly very interested in him and that's going to show! Clearly, he's interested in you, perhaps equally or at least a bit, because he said yes to the date! Everything else is good communication, which I think makes things even sexier (you know, expressing your sexual needs and wants is showing vulnerability, which is very attractive. At least with a good, caring partner!) I also recommend this article on sex and disabilities; it's intended for those 13-25 but really applies to everyone. Best of luck to you both!!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:10 PM on August 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

As much as possible, avoid conversing with you standing while he's sitting. Try to always find somewhere to sit when you are relating to him.

Aside from whatever power dynamics might happen, it's just uncomfortable for the sitting person to have to bend his neck to look up all the time.
posted by amtho at 7:12 PM on August 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Don't overcompensate and act like he doesn't haven't a disability, either. Be mindful of his needs, but don't make a huge deal about it. It's a balance. One of my exes is a wonderful man who happens to be blind, and I'd forget that I was holding his hand not just because he was my boyfriend, but because I was helping him navigate. Although his blindness was not a big deal, I definitely was too casual about it because I didn't want to focus on it, and I went too far in the other direction.
posted by Ruki at 7:18 PM on August 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Another thing to be aware of is that third parties will sometimes ignore the person in the wheelchair. Like, the waitress will ask you what he wants to order. So be prepared to redirect those people so that they address the question to him, with a minimum of fuss so it isn't more awkward for him than the waitress already made it.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:27 PM on August 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

My go-to phrase with my good friend who's blind is, "Do you want a hand, or you've got it?" Not NEED a hand, but does he WANT my help to navigate a tricky, I don't know, uneven pavement. It's hard to convey tone in text but "want a hand?" is the same casual tone I ask my mom if she wants help with the dishes, and "or you've got it" is with a tone like "you've got this!" to someone you have no doubt can kick the problem's butt. It's easy for him to respond casually, "oh, no worries, I've got it" without having to get into a politeness-off of offering and politely rebuffing help.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:31 PM on August 15, 2015 [20 favorites]

Hi, wheelchair-user here.

- wheelchair user is a much better term than "in a wheelchair" or "wheelchair bound". Most people with wheelchairs don't feel *bound* by them, but freed - wheelchairs make it possible to go out and do things, rather than being stuck at home/in bed!

- don't touch or lean on the wheelchair without permission (among other things, the seating can flex and cause pain to the wheelchair user)

- don't crouch down

- people can be real arseholes to wheelchair users who are out in public or on public transport. So if your date seems stressed or tense (especially in the first 15-20 minutes of the date), consider the possibility that a taxi driver or a person on the train was just appallingly rude to him, possibly even threatening. His emotional state may well have *nothing* to do with you.

- if he tells you he needs to go X way or do things Y way, don't argue with him. He knows where the kerb cuts are, how wide a gap he needs for the chair, etc. Trust me, if he takes the long way round, it is because he needs to. If he asks someone to move their dining chair, it is because he needs to.
posted by Hot buttered sockpuppets at 7:38 PM on August 15, 2015 [30 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi everyone. Thanks for your comments. Keep them coming! Also, to clear up what may be a small misunderstanding: I do not plan to jump this guy's bones on our first date, ha. I was merely thinking about the future possibility.

(Although he is hot. Yep.)
posted by dinnerdance at 8:24 PM on August 15, 2015 [12 favorites]

You may already have thought of this, but in addition to more conventional resources, there's a whole genre of amateur erotica written by/for people with disabilities, and when I first started dating a guy who used a wheelchair (but before we were in a place where asking him a ton of questions about sex would have been comfortable for me), I found reading such stories both entertaining and educational. Obvious realism caveats apply, but they're the same caveats I'd apply to any genre of erotica so you will probably recognize them easily.

As with any new sex partner, have a sense of humor and don't be afraid to ask questions, even if they seem dumb. No one ever had worse sex because their partner asked them how to make it better!
posted by obliquicity at 8:38 PM on August 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Wheelchair users (unless they are very new to using a chair) have worked out systems for getting in and out of the chair, opening doors, getting up hills and so on. Don't try to "help" without asking if help is wanted. If he does want help give him time to explain exactly what you can do and how to do it.

For instance, don't hold a door open and then stand in the doorway and expect him to work his way through while you're in the way. I often have to stop people from being in my way when they're earnestly trying to help.

Some helping is not as tricky. For instance, it can be incredibly difficult to pick up a dropped object. I always appreciate someone picking things up that I've dropped.

I don't want to make it sound as if help is not wanted or appreciated. It can massively be appreciated, but just ask how to help before helping.

On the other hand, if you see him struggling or looking frustrated (me when putting on or taking off socks) let him know that you don't mind being asked to help. If he doesn't want to accept help, be prepared to wait patiently while he does his task.

And please do not bend down or crouch to talk to someone using a chair.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:20 PM on August 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

^^ unless you're going to kiss him.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:26 PM on August 15, 2015 [26 favorites]

handicapped bathrooms.

Erm, "accessible" is what they're actually called. So yeah, avoid saying things like that.

On that topic, you didn't mention whether the venue for said date is set yet, or if it's a dinner date, but if you're still deciding, you could casually throw out the question about whether or not he's got an opinion on accessibility at a particular restaurant or theatre etc. (that is, if you're batting ideas for places back and forth and it's a place you're suggesting, e.g. "Hey, I was thinking Blah Blah Bistro. You been? No? Food's wicked awesome. What do you think? Want me to give them a shout to check out accessibility then?")

That just says you've got accessibility on your radar casual-like, and that you recognize it's a necessary precondition to going somewhere and enjoying it.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:59 PM on August 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's been good advice here, so I'm just going to address the bit about "approaching the topic of sex and the logistics thereof". And possibly be less than entirely helpful, sorry!

The tl;dr here is that he knows how that works and we don't. (Probably. We, too, sometimes write Dan Savage or Dr Nerdlove or what have you.) That he's in a wheelchair by itself doesn't tell us much about where he has or doesn't have movement and sensation (if those are affected at all, which they may not be), what he likes or doesn't like sexually and sensually, if he has logistical needs around getting from his chair into a bed (or couch ... or the floor ... or on a table ...) or not, if he's allergic to latex (not terribly common, but more common than in non-wheelchair users). It also doesn't tell us if he's kinky or vanilla, likes to take it fast or slow in a relationship, or wants you to spend the night or leave before it gets too late.

Which is to say: this is going to be like any non-disabled partner where you have to figure out what they want (and what you want) by talking to them; there just may be an extra layer on top.

I assume your place probably isn't wheelchair accessible. Most housing isn't. It's not a big deal, really, except in that if your usual move when it's time is "come back to my place", you might instead be inviting yourself over to his.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:22 PM on August 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

- if he tells you he needs to go X way or do things Y way, don't argue with him. He knows where the kerb cuts are, how wide a gap he needs for the chair, etc. Trust me, if he takes the long way round, it is because he needs to. If he asks someone to move their dining chair, it is because he needs to.

Yep. My other half is blind. From the perspective of the able-bodied-person-on-the-date-trying-to-make-a-good-impression, I can say: ALWAYS back the play of the person with the disability.

My prep involved researching how to guide someone properly since I had a vague idea there was a right way and a wrong way an I at least wanted to get that right.

Sixteen years into this relationship, I'm pleased to report that the research paid off. Apparently I didn't come off as totally clueless the first time out.

Good luck!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:37 PM on August 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

In re. not crouching down: sitting down is kosher, yes...?
posted by kmennie at 7:05 AM on August 16, 2015

kmennie: sitting down is fine. The thing about crouching down is, people never crouch down except to talk to kids and wheelchair users, so it comes across as a) condescending/patronizing and b) weird.
posted by Hot buttered sockpuppets at 8:04 AM on August 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should talk to him. People in wheelchairs, are just that, people. For every "do" or "don't" you read about on the internet, there will be at least two wheelchairs users who want the exact opposite. Just talk to him, explain that you have no experience with wheelchairs users, leave yourself up to learning his particular preferences about his chair and, most importantly, go have fun date with a hot dude.

Any sort of sexual needs he might have should be talked about before ending up in the bedroom.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:01 AM on August 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hi! I'm in a wheelchair and have dated and am in a super groovy relationship with an able-bodied person.

So to TMI all over the place, my sexuality changed with my spinal cord injury; it went into hiding a little bit. About I don't know three years after my spinal cord injury I rediscovered it, and I was constantly surprised by the fact that my body could feel X. Luckily, I had a very kind partner who was very into helping me rediscover sexy times. I wouldn't know how to say, 'do this' because as a sexual being, my knowledge of my body was limited.

Now with fourteen years in a chair under my belt, I know how I want it, when I want it. I have to really trust somebody to be interested in sexy times, unlike my former self, a wild child who was very immeshed in the hook-up culture.

Also, don't assume what a person can and can't feel, if they are paralyzed. On my right side, I have feeling to the tips of my toes, although I'm paralyzed.

Also, be aware there might incontinence issues, related to his disability. This was my biggest fears in addressing stuff with sexual partners.

Finally, a good book is Moving Violations by NPR journalist John Hockenberry. He's very open about his sexual experiences, along with various frustrations encountered by wheelchair users (he once attacked a taxicab that refused to stop for him, bashing in its windows, which I would not advise people to do but made him my hero forever. That, and as a journalist he followed the Kurdish refugees on the back of a burro at the end of the First Gulf War)

Again finally, humor goes a long way. Not laughing at your guy, but laughing at yourself if you find yourself ignorant of something, laughing with the guy if it's funny to him, laughing at the assholes of the world who block curb cuts and are just asking, begging to be keyed.
posted by angrycat at 9:51 AM on August 16, 2015 [14 favorites]

Brother in a chair, friends in chairs. Please, please remember: they're people. They have to sit in a chair with wheels. My grandma uses a walker. She's my grandma, we just have to figure out how to help her with the damn walker. These are NOT handicapped-people, just people with devices.

So: as straight-forward and casual as you can manage. I strongly prefer the upfront statement. "I'm not familiar with wheelchairs, just let me know if you'd like me to do or not do something."

NOT "people-in-wheelchairs." Just "wheelchairs."

I have actual physical handicaps: vision problems, have to sit with my back to strong lights; hearing problems, I have to read your lips; bowel issues, I have to sit on the aisle in the theater; balance problems, I have to hang on to you or a wall or a parked car when stepping up or down. I say what I need, people go "okay," and life goes on. Your new friend may also have issues like these (spinal cord injuries are unbelievably varied), but they have nothing to do with his chair. And you'll get used to them. Especially if he's really hot. :-)
posted by kestralwing at 12:28 PM on August 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Re. sex, Hot, Wet, and Shaking is an awesome, funny, informative book about the intersection of sex and disability.
posted by ITheCosmos at 6:16 AM on August 18, 2015

So how was your date? (I think there should be a rule, like the rule about not asking pet questions without photos, that if you ask for dating advice, you have to follow up to tell us how the date went.)
posted by decathecting at 4:26 PM on August 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

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