Columnist Joanna Buoniconti: What it’s like to date with a disability in college

Published: 4/5/2021 6:00:16 PM

I am 21 years old, a few weeks away from graduating from one of the top public universities in the country — with honors. But I have never kissed someone or been on an actual date.

As an infant, I was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular disorder that has stolen many things from me. But arguably, the most devastating obstacle I have encountered is being ostracized from the social interactions that have become akin to rites of passage for those in high school and college. And yes, this includes dating.

My first real crush began when I met a boy in elementary school, and it continued until I graduated high school. He was a notorious jokester who used to annoy teachers to no end and an outsider who I tricked myself into thinking could accept me. At the age of 9, I fell naively for his charm. A few months later, one of my best friends, thinking she was helping me, told him that I had a crush on him. Long story short, he laughed and I was humiliated. But that didn’t stop me from pining for him in secret for years.

The summer before my senior year of high school, our paths finally collided as a result of my younger cousin swiping my phone behind my back and accidentally sending him a Snapchat. I was secretly thrilled at the excuse to grow close to him — although, that disillusionment would fade quickly.

Throughout high school, we shared many classes together, and during our senior year, we had the same AP English class. He never acknowledged me during school, but showed no hesitation about messaging me afterwards. When I finally got up the nerve to ask him why, he told me that he didn’t want to talk to me because my voice could often be a challenge to understand.

I was completely devastated. It was the first moment where I began to truly resent my body because it had made me less worthy of his attention.

When I entered into my freshman year of college, I had extremely low self-esteem. As a result of my classes being primarily over Zoom, I was saved from even attempting to assimilate into the party and hook-up culture. I delved into my schoolwork and tried to convince myself that boys were an unnecessary distraction. But every now and then, the distinct feeling that I was missing out on important experiences would sneak up on me and almost swallow me whole.

The summer before my sophomore year, one of my best friends began dating a boy that she met on a dating app. And after some convincing, she coerced me into trying it out, too. I didn’t think I had anything to lose. But you know what they say, hindsight is 2020.

I ended up talking to several boys that summer and fall, one more seriously than the rest. And approximately a month into us messaging consistently, he asked me out. I was equally excited and shocked at the prospect of someone actually being attracted to me because I had spent years subconsciously thinking that the entire male population was not.

That fact would only be further cemented in my mind when a couple of weeks later, he became very distant and admitted to not thinking it would ever work out between us, due to my disability. At first, I just chalked it up to his just being a jerk. But when it happened again, with a different boy, I began to notice a pattern. They were the first of several slaps-in-the-face that I hadn’t seen coming, and for a while, they made me cynical.

For over a year I swore off dating apps, but then the pandemic hit. My belief that I was better off alone began to wear thin as the world began to disintegrate. And in a fit of loneliness, I decided to try my hand in the dating app circuit once more. I was fully prepared to participate in some virtual flings. However, I was unprepared to semi-convince myself I could fall for a boy who latched onto me like he was a piranha and I was the only edible bait left in the ocean.

We engaged in a three-month tumultuous virtual relationship that gave me more indelible scars than moments of happiness. There were a plethora of red flags, but I ignored them all at the prospect of being called someone’s girlfriend for the first time. None of the aspects of my disability fazed him; in fact, he accepted all of them in fully. I knew that aspect alone was extremely rare. So I took the opportunity against my better judgment and ignored my gut feeling that it never felt real because I had faith that it, one day, would.

The relationship ended when he admitted that he didn’t see us lasting through the pandemic. He wanted someone he didn’t have to be fearful of putting in mortal danger when touching. And I could never give him that, especially during this time when the stakes were exponentially higher.

Everyone knows that love is complicated. But for the disabled population, it is infinitely more so, in addition to being cruelly stigmatized. In many cases, we are seen as undeserving of any kind of romantic relationship. And I am just one person, of the many, who has internalized that misconception to my own detriment.

But in spite of everything, I have slowly allowed myself to rewrite that narrative in my mind. Ever since I was a toddler, I have dreamed of getting married and having children one day — and I don’t think my physical limitations should make me less deserving of that experience. And while I doubt I will find my Prince Charming on Tinder or Bumble, I refuse to give up on the idea that a love for me is out there.

Because now I know I am worthy of it.

Joanna Buoniconti is an English and journalism major at UMass.

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