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Disabled girls are easy

by Lucy Sholl

28th January 2007

Lucy ShollAt the bottom of a drawer, underneath twelve different brands of painkillers, four different types of tobacco, and in various stages of decay, I recently found a pile of love letters from my single days.
Well, love letters is perhaps overstating it; they included pages torn out of a soft porn magazine with notes scrawled on the back, sent to me by a retired neighbour and kept in case the situation got out of hand, along with an audiotape featuring what I presumed was the sender having some man-woman fun. Nice.

Nothing in the pile made me think wistfully of my unattached days. They were exciting times, but there must have been something about the combination of being a young, single, disabled woman (and living next door to a pub) which made my early twenties so full of confrontations, misunderstandings and even, occasionally, fear.
A love letter on a crumpled piece of paper, featuring a big red love-heart with I LOVE YOU scrawled underneath
Was this just the plight of every young, single female? Or did it, as I suspected, have something to do with my disability? My friends tried to convince me it didn't. But though they too sometimes found themselves in difficult situations, I was the one with crazy old men putting porn through my door, getting my knickers stolen from the washing line, and frequently finding myself in situations where men who I'd shown no interest in got pissed off because I wouldn't have sex/move in/emigrate to Iraq with them.

It's not that I'm complaining about the male attention; that would be an unwise thing for a single girl to do. But this type of man - the sort who sends you running to the Oxford English Dictionary for the precise definition of 'stalker' - wasn't exactly what I was looking for. Despite my obvious reluctance, these men seemed sure that I was their ideal woman, as long as my personality didn't come into it. I was a blank canvas onto which they could project whatever odd, antiquated ideas they had about men and women. I was to be a romantic heroine from a Victorian novel, coughing blood into the occasional handkerchief while he, the melancholic hero, carried his burden bravely.

I suppose for a certain type of man, the idea of a disabled girlfriend carries a number of advantages. "Well," they think, ""he'll always need me, she'll be grateful, and it'll be hard for her to run off with anyone else." Through friends, I also heard that a couple of men (30 years older than me, and of no fixed abode) thought that, while I'd be out of their league normally, they'd be in with a chance because of my disability. It seems your market value slips when you're disabled, and going for a disabled woman means you'll be able to get one who's a bit prettier, cleverer and younger than you would otherwise. A win-win situation, really.

After a few years of going out and meeting men in bars and pubs, I became quite cynical. It started to seem as though men's reactions to me could be fitted into three categories. The stalkers - those of the porn-and-emigration tendencies, for whom my disability was an advantage; the bottlers, who could hardly look at me once confronted with my disability; and those who were simply in denial and secretly believed that, given the chance, they could 'heal' me.

The bottlers were, of course, easy to deal with - the first hint of a crutch, stick or blue badge and they'd quickly transfer their affections to one of my friends. Simple, and fairly painless. They knew they couldn't deal with it and scarpered.

With others, I'd spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to convince them, in the spirit of honesty, that I really was disabled, and would receive responses ranging from bizarre to insulting. One man started laughing when I told him, and didn't stop until he'd asked every one of the eight friends with me to back up my story, at which point he stopped laughing, looked cross, and told my sister it must be "very hard for her".

At least that particularly fine example of manhood knew himself well enough to realise, once he'd finally accepted my explanation, that our acquaintance had to end there. The hardcore deniers won't stop at that, and instead decide that they must heal me. I've had men suggest everything from "just going for a run" to hypnotism, cranial osteopathy, positive mental attitude, mud baths in Fiji and, the most helpful of all, "consulting my GP". Some people find it impossible to accept that "I'm disabled" is a statement, not a topic open for discussion.

I've also discovered that people can be in denial for quite a long time. A few times I had boyfriends who I thought were coping unusually well, only to realise months down the line (when they suggested a long walk) that they just hadn't taken it in. A few years ago I dated a man for a couple of months who I'd known for a while, and who knew all about my difficulties. But the first time he woke up to find me in pain he was not happy. Perhaps he hadn't accepted my disability in the first place, or perhaps he was one of the healers, secretly convinced that spending a bit of time in the presence of his raw masculinity would (presumably through the power of his healing penis) miraculously bring me back to health.

He sent me the most incredible letter I have ever received - now among those in the aforementioned drawer - making it clear that he couldn't hack it, but that he also couldn't bring himself to break up with me just because I was disabled (being a liberal sort of chap and all that). Instead, he wrote pages and pages of prose explaining himself, including a helpful list of things which we would be unable to do together and which he thought necessary in a relationship. These included "canoeing on a lagoon", "running on a track until utterly exhausted", and "improvising a place to sleep on the spur of the moment". According to him, I wouldn't want to do these things even if I wasn't disabled, because I was just lazy. The temptation to imagine him dragging his canoe up and down the high street on a Friday night in search of that elusive lagoon, before nestling down behind the bus shelter in his bivouac, was overwhelming.
A love-heart
Though I now embrace the comic value of his letter, I admit that wasn't my first response. It upset me, not because I was in love with the man who wrote it, but because it felt like a horrible revelation. Looking back on my recent relationship history, I realised that the same thing had probably happened before. I'd had a series of two-month things which hadn't gone anywhere. Some ended because it clearly wasn't working, but I'm sure now that others did so because the man in question worked out that there was more to deal with than just my walking stick, and was too tactful to tell me. I'm usually all for honesty, but I don't know how many of those sort of letters I could have coped with, so it's probably just as well.

I'm sure a lot of the problems I've had must be down to my bad taste in men, and the exact nature of my disability - virtually invisible but incredibly restricting. But having met other women in similar situations, I don't think I'm alone.

I'm not saying all men are bastards but, from what I've seen, a disabled, 'vulnerable' woman brings out the misogynists in hordes. I wouldn't have regarded myself as a feminist before I became disabled, but I've definitely rethought that since.

Luckily, I've now found myself that urban disability myth: a lovely man who can't be fitted into any of the above categories and 'loves me for who I really am' (vomit). And, oddly, now that I'm not on the market, when I do meet men they don't seem to have a problem with me being disabled any more. Evidently now that I fall under the jurisdiction of another man, they don't feel the need to offer their services. For months, not one has backed away in fear, laughed or offered to 'heal' me. Now, they just smile and nod. Long may it continue ...

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