I Use A Wheelchair & Dating Involves Way More Planning Than It (Legally) Should
Last weekend was my boyfriend’s birthday. We went to the same restaurant we always go to. It’s not particularly expensive nor particularly cheap, and while the food is good, it’s not amazing enough to warrant going back as often as we do. Every couple has their favorite restaurants to hit up for date night. That’s not unique. But our favorite restaurants haven’t been determined by the menu, price, atmosphere, or even the food itself. The main determinant of what becomes one of our regular spots is how wheelchair-accessible it is.
For his birthday, I searched for weeks for activities that weren’t cost-prohibitive that we could also do together. I asked his friends, my friends, and, of course, Google. While I was inundated with excellent ideas, affordable on a freelancer’s budget, few actually offered me any accessible options. For example, the month prior, he went and played bubble soccer — where you wear an inflatable bubble over your upper body and head — with his friends for one of their birthdays; the same friends who invited us on a double-date last year to go river-tubing. Another one of his friends gushed to me about a cool bar that had a game room upstairs, to which I responded by just smiling, knowing full well we would not be going.
Listening to my friends talk about their fun past dates and favorite date ideas, I’m excited for them, of course, and so happy for them for all the fun experiences they’ve had. But when we hang up, however, I can’t help but feel a nagging sadness, knowing these aren’t activities I’d ever be able to experience with my partner. Not to mention the feeling of guilt that I am holding him and others back from going where they want, doing what they want, and having fun the way they want. It often feels as if I am restricting their access to the world to match my own reduced access.
Tons of older buildings —from apartment buildings to smaller museums — haven’t been updated to be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) since its enactment in 1990. The majority of businesses are legally required to be ADA compliant. Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act mandates that any business providing what’s known as “public accommodations” (any business that provides goods or services to the public) is required by law to be ADA compliant. Restaurants, shops, museums, movie theaters, and schools are all under this category. Despite this, most wheelchair users will be able to tell you that very few businesses actually are ADA compliant. With this administration’s push to roll back rights protecting disabled individuals and with the passing of bills like HR 620, which limits the ability of disabled people to go to court over alleged ADA violations, businesses will be even less incentivized to comply with the ADA, and people like me will have even less access to public spaces. And while it’s certainly not the most important consequence of inaccessibility and this administration’s attack on disabled rights, it certainly makes going on dates a pain in the ass.
There’s basically no such thing as a spontaneous date anymore. There’s no driving around, seeing a restaurant that looks interesting, and going there. There’s no pulling off the highway because you see a sign for a museum or landmark you haven’t heard of yet. There’s no dipping into little holes in the wall, no bar where I won’t be staring at a sea of butts and a flight of stairs.
Disabled people aren’t supposed to expect accommodations and equal treatment; we’re supposed to be grateful for them.
I’m an ambulatory wheelchair user, which for me means that I can't walk every day or walk long distances, but on days when I can, I do. But being able to get up or walk a few steps doesn’t mean I’ll be able to stay on my feet for a while. (Besides, standing up from my wheelchair always comes with the price of turning myself into a learning opportunity for everyone around me as I explain the existence of ambulatory wheelchair users.)
My significant other and I often must compensate for lack of accessibility with our own solutions. After his birthday dinner, we headed back to our friend’s house. My boyfriend pushed me, navigating the cracked sidewalks. When we got there, I sat down on the porch while he carried my wheelchair inside. My boyfriend came back outside, helped me up, and acted as my human cane to help me up the four steps into the house, as I focused on not falling in front of everyone. On days when I cannot stand — and for those who cannot always or can never stand — even these often difficult, sometimes dangerous, and occasionally degrading options are not available.
My own birthday, six months ago, didn’t go much better. We drove around from place to place for nearly two hours, someone running out of the car to ask if the restaurant was wheelchair accessible each time, and each time the answer was no. I grew increasingly mortified that I had been so thoughtless as to not call ahead and ask if they were wheelchair accessible, and was now hauling around four hungry people who could have easily eaten at any of the places we’d been to. One restaurant told me they would only be able to seat me at a wheelchair accessible table if there were one fewer person in our party. I looked at my four guests — my immediate family and my boyfriend — and wondered who, exactly, they were hoping I would cut.
When my boyfriend and I took a weekend away the following month, the map of available Airbnbs suddenly cleared away when I added the “wheelchair accessible” filter. When I try to find wheelchair accessible hikes, I am met with a list of them on a national scale — not a local one. I’ve called ahead to ask a restaurant if it’s wheelchair accessible only to find that when they said “Yes,” what they actually meant was, “Yes, except for a couple steps and the close-together tables that actually make it very much not wheelchair accessible.” Sometimes, I’m just met with a frozen smile and a look of sheer panic as we enter the restaurant, the hostess hoping there’s a close, open table with a chair that can be pulled away.
Another classic date idea, going to the movies, is not as simple as picking up a ticket and popcorn for disabled patrons. Since some movie theaters started complying with the ADA and providing designated areas that are accessible to wheelchair users, not all have placed the accessible seating in convenient or enjoyable locations. Some have placed their designated disabled seating on the end of the front rows, or in the very back of the theater (you know — where no one would ever actually choose to sit), but some do not have any. The issue is not just with wheelchair accessibility, either: in April 2017, a group of 18 Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing people went to go see a movie in Warwick, RI, according to the Providence Journal. When they arrived, the manager allegedly refused to turn on the captions, saying the group hadn’t called ahead, but disabled people shouldn’t have to call ahead. In reality, disabled people aren’t supposed to expect accommodations and equal treatment; we’re supposed to be grateful for them.
I wish that, like non-disabled people, I could just expect to be able to physically access a building.
Planning ahead has become a pretty vital part of my life. Packing daily medications, emergency medications, medication lists, lists of local pharmacy numbers and local hospital and clinic locations is a necessity. Even something as simple as washing my hands before I take a bite of food is essential — being immunocompromised, just popping a snack into my mouth can mean putting myself in jeopardy of getting sick for weeks. I understand this is just something I need to think about, as a wheelchair user. But that doesn’t change the fact that I wish it was something I didn’t need to think about; that I wish automatic doors and wheelchair ramps and hallways that are spacious enough to be ADA compliant were everywhere. I wish that, like non-disabled people, I could just expect to be able to physically access a building.
It is hard enough to navigate a world that has been built to be accessible to the majority on your own. Finding places to go shopping outside of a mall, finding places to grab a coffee, finding a hair salon — these are all challenges I’ve had to deal with since I have been able to go back out into the world using a wheelchair. But it’s especially hard finding new, fun things to do as a wheelchair user, especially on dates. As hard as it is, though, I try to remember it’s not me who has limited my access, or the access of my significant other, or of our friends. It’s the establishments who have decided that disabled customers like me aren’t worth catering to.
This post was updated on Apr. 1, 2019