'I've had people ask, can you even have sex?' - challenging misconceptions about disability
Dating with disability in modern Ireland brings about unique challenges, as two singletons tell our reporter
Paddy Smyth was casually flirting with a guy he'd just met on a night out when he found himself rudely interrupted.
"He said, 'You've been really hard done by. You have a really good-looking face but I couldn't get with you because you're disabled.' What are you meant to say to that?" he laughs in disbelief, looking back on the awkward encounter. "I just laughed it off and said, 'You're okay, I wouldn't want to get with you either'."
Paddy (28), from Dublin, has cerebral palsy in his legs and uses crutches to walk. He learned to use humour in response to such ignorance at a young age, and says that while each rejection stings, he tries not to dwell on it.
"Rejection will always hurt, no matter how confident you are. Being disabled and being gay, you have to deal with rejection a lot, so I suppose I'm quite used to it. My story is, we shouldn't have to be used to it," he says.
Paddy describes the prevailing attitude towards disabled people as desexualising, assuming that they are "not interested in" or not able to have sex.
Census figures from 2012 show that at least 13pc of people in Ireland are living with a disability, and yet Paddy says able-bodied people typically feel that they shouldn't be attracted to someone with a disability. He says the feeling is difficult to describe, "but you can tell when you're with them that they feel weirded out by finding you attractive".
"People treat us differently because they don't know. I've called it innocent ignorance. They're ignorant to the fact that we like being treated like normal people, we like going out and drinking. All they're thinking is, 'poor them, they're disabled'. But we're exactly the same as you guys, we just have to deal with something that maybe you don't have to," he says.
Paddy runs a popular Snapchat account under the handle @paddyysmyth, which chronicles the ups and downs of what he calls '#MyDisabledLife'. Since he started the account last year, Paddy says he has become much more confident, but that he struggled with dating and sex for a long time before.
"I found it really tough. It was almost my own vulnerability as well, I didn't feel confident going up to lads, but that's my own insecurity. Obviously people can sense that and when they come up to me, I'm feeling sorry for myself, so it's this weird circle of rejection and insecurity and sadness.
"When I did get with people, it was because I could, not because I found them attractive," he says.
Earlier this summer, Paddy decided to conduct an experiment on the dating app Tinder where he would arrange dates with six men, and disclose his disability to all but one of them. While the five he told made various excuses to get out of the date, he ended up having a great evening with the one he didn't tell.
"Dating online is different and it's a weird one. Obviously, everyone puts their best foot forward, so the whole conversation of saying 'Oh, I'm disabled' before you meet them can be awkward. How do you pick the right time? Do you tell them at all?" he says.
"I've had people say on dating apps, 'Why would I get with you? You can't even have sex' or 'Can you even have sex? You're disabled'. (...) I just put it down to, well they don't know. They haven't been around disabled people enough or socialised with them, let alone be sexual with them, so they feel like it's weird or odd."
Lana Kurasidse (31), originally from Riga, Latvia, but based in Ballymun, is a wheelchair user and describes dating sites and apps as "the only way for me to meet guys, because there is no chance of somebody coming over to me on the street when I'm out".
The former model and hostess was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) in 2006. It is a particularly aggressive form of cancer, for which Lana underwent three operations, along with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and rehabilitation. She now lives with cerebellar ataxia, a neurological condition that developed after she was diagnosed.
On her online dating profiles, Lana mentions that she uses a wheelchair, and says most men are only interested in casual sex.
"I'd say the most you can have is a one night stand actually, in my situation, because guys do not usually want to go for serious relationships," she says. "They don't see a fully fledged woman in me to build a relationship with, it's only one night stands that they're looking for."
While Lana has met several dates online, she says men tend to ignore her on the street: "When I'm going down the street, I feel like a sexless cabbage in the wheelchair, because nobody is looking at me. I'm not an equal woman for others."
She finds these attitudes incredibly frustrating, because she "doesn't feel disabled at all". "I'm the same woman as everybody else. For me, there is no difference," she says with a shrug. Tired of being desexualised, Lana decided to challenge the misconceptions about people with disabilities by arranging a photo shoot of her own, in which she poses seductively in lingerie.
"I was very afraid we were going to cross the line and that it would look vulgar, like it was to satisfy perverts. But finally we made it the way I wanted.
"It looked very nice - innocent and sexy at the same time," she says of the images, captured by David Fraine. "I got a comment from the photographer, 'I never thought that a wheelchair could look so sexy,'" she laughs.
"I would love to be in a relationship, I would love to have somebody who would support me in what I'm doing, and not bring me down and make me nervous about this relationship," she says.
"Dating is pretty difficult," she admits, adding that she feels scared before meeting men and has to take certain precautions ahead of her dates.
"You never know who you're going to date, and I'm not able to just stand up and run away. It's just impossible for me. So I'm kind of afraid when I'm dating somebody. I have to ask for a full name and a date of birth to leave it with my care assistant, and not all the guys are okay with that of course."
Selina Bonnie, a wheelchair user and academic who specialises in sexuality and disability, argues that disabled women in particular are desexualised and seen as at risk of abuse.
"There is an issue where the sexual needs of disabled women are not being acknowledged," she says. "Sexuality is recognised more in disabled men, whereas disabled women are seen as more vulnerable and to be protected."
She lives in Mulhuddart, Dublin, with her husband of 21 years, Robert, and their nine-year-old daughter Saira Noor. "I've lost count of the amount of times that my husband has been referred to as my brother or my carer or my friend," Selina says, rolling her eyes.
She believes that disability campaigners have been "so busy fighting for public rights, in relation to housing and employment and independence, that the private rights, the more fundamental areas that quality of life is built on, have been left to the side".
One way to tackle this, she suggests, would be to improve how children are educated about sex and disability. "I think it's very important that sex education is inclusive of all people in the room and of all people's needs. It's not a case of one-size-fits-all," she says.
"When you grow up as a disabled child, you get so used to being on display and being examined by professionals. If you don't get the proper education on what is appropriate attention and what isn't, and your right to say no, then you're not going to be equipped to protect yourself or to go on and lead a fulfilled life.
"There are two aspects to it, it's about being able to explore your wants and desires while keeping yourself safe.
"All people have a sexuality, whether they choose to display it or express it is their own business," she says. "We're all sexual beings, and we should be accepted as such."
* For video and more on this story go to independent.ie/disabilitymyths
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