Women with disabilities were less satisfied with their dating frequency, perceived more constraints on attracting dating partners, and perceived more societal and personal barriers to dating than women without disabilities. Women with disabilities who were less satisfied with dating tended to have certain types of disabilities, such as stroke, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or traumatic brain injury; acquired their disability earlier in life; had more severe functional limitations; and had hearing and speech problems in addition to physical limitations. These women also tended to have higher educational levels and lower self-esteem.
More than half (58 percent) of the women with disabilities were single, compared to 45 percent of the women without disabilities. Regarding sexual orientation, 87 percent of the women with disabilities were attracted to men, 4 percent to women, 7 percent to both genders, and 2 percent to neither gender. The majority have been sexually active; 92 percent have had sex with a man, 16 percent with a woman, but 6 percent had never had sex with anyone. Women without disabilities were slightly more likely to have had sex with a man (94 percent), but were significantly more likely to have had sex with a woman (23 percent), or with both men and women (21percent).
Women who were disabled earlier in life tended to begin dating later than women who were disabled later in life or who were not disabled. Women with disabilities also tended to move away from home later than did women without disabilities. When the woman lived with her mother and her disability began in childhood, she was particularly susceptible to being overprotected. The women with disabilities whose parents encouraged dating and going out with friends tended to have more effective social skills.
The most troublesome problem for women with disabilities was attracting partners to date. Factors that were associated with problems in attracting partners were having low self-esteem, less education, communication impairments, and societal barriers to dating, such as someone being interested but not asking her out because of what others might say. Women who reported societal barriers to dating were those who had communication problems, a high level of functional impairment, and personal barriers to dating, such as rarely getting out of the house to meet people. Women with cerebral palsy, low self-esteem, or a high level of functional impairment perceived that they had personal barriers to dating. Even when women with disabilities were socially outgoing, with strong social skills and many friends, friendships were less likely to evolve into romantic relationships than they were for able-bodied women.
The timing of onset of disability, and the response to disability of family, friends, and society in general, were critical in establishing patterns of dating behaviors for women with physical disabilities. Parents who encouraged their teenager daughter to go out and meet people, who gave her the expectation that she could marry someday if she wished, who equipped her with the information and social skills she needed to attract dates, and most importantly, who made her feel valued and attractive, set the stage for having positive dating relationships. Laying a strong foundation for future adult relationships gave the woman with a disability the strength to deal with social prejudice against her dating as an adult. Conversely, parents who overprotected their daughter, who told her not to expect to date or to get married, or who were neglectful or abusive set the stage for unsuccessful attempts to establish dating relationships, repetitive exploitative relationships, or unplanned pregnancy.
Acquiring a disability during or immediately before adolescence disrupts dating, a crucial time for sexual rehearsal. In some cases, dealing with disability during this time period postponed dating or ended it altogether. In others, the girl strove to date anyone she could get, regardless of how badly he treated her, in an attempt to disprove her fears that she would never again be worthy of love.
Women who were injured or acquired a chronic disabling condition as an adult were faced with the challenge of learning how to date all over again with an often severely altered appearance and new functional limitations. They feel as though they have been thrown back to a situation akin to first dating as an adolescent. Women reported having no experience in how to interpret and deal with unexpected responses to their disability from potential dates. They must learn again to take risks, knowing that potential dates may reject them outright when faced with visible signs of disability, such as a wheelchair. Some women with disabilities who became involved in a relationship were overly agreeable to the partner's desires in an attempt to hold onto the relationship at any cost, even the loss of their identity, economic security, or safety.
For those who are already involved in a romantic relationship, the partner may not be able to deal with her disability and break off the relationship. Not knowing whom to trust or how to approach dating as a person with a disability, some women gave up and eschewed romantic relationships. Others adopted the societal view that they are no longer eligible for dating, that they have become asexual and should no longer expect anyone to be attracted to them.
The woman who is able to successfully master the challenge of dating with a disability achieves a new stage of personal growth. Despite such obstacles, many women reported eventually forming a long-term relationship with a partner who accepted their disability while cherishing the unique characteristics they had to offer.