• In episode 7, former professional dancer Julie gets to know former auto electrician Chris, who sustained a spinal injury and is now a paraplegic. (Undressed)Source: Undressed
On episode 7 of Undressed, Chris and Julie's date is filled with warmth and respect, and should be used as a blueprint for those hesitant about dating someone with disability.
Carly Findlay

7 Feb 2017 - 12:54 PM  UPDATED 7 Feb 2017 - 4:51 PM

Dating success stories are rare. You don’t always get a perfect match when you’re searching for a mate on Tinder. And despite the professional matchmaking behind the dates on SBS’s Undressed, not every couple strikes it hot.

But the date featured on episode seven of Undressed, between Chris – who acquired a disability from a motorbike accident three years ago – and his date, the able-bodied Julie, was a success.

While Julie told the camera she wondered about how Chris’ disability might affect their relationship, she asked him polite questions and offered help. She never pried. And Chris appreciated it, saying he liked that she saw beyond the wheelchair. The respectful date and successful couple match demonstrates that people with disability lead everyday lives and are worth getting to know… and date.

However, the fact is that Undressed is a television show that’s less than 30 minutes long. Each episode focuses on two couples, so there isn't enough time to explore the big issues, like whether the other person's disability affects people's decisions to say yes or no.

"I think it’s easy for people to wrap their minds around if they can just think, ’well, that person is just like me, just sitting down is all’. But for someone like me, who has Cerebral Palsy (CP), it’s a lot more complicated than ’I’m just sitting down.’

So while I think it's a great step to cast disabled people in a show aired across the nation and show the challenges of the unconscious bias that we face, the physical attributes of disability shown on Undressed is only part of the picture the nation needs to discuss.

In my mind, the disabled contestants still have a beauty privilege. Chris (and Johnny, who featured in an earlier episode) are conventionally good looking. What I'm not seeing is people with the sometimes confronting disability traits that make some able-bodied individuals uncomfortable - stimming, dribbling, the need for support workers, speech differences, loose skin flakes and more.

American disability activist and writer, Cara Liebowitz, has written about the concept of the "ugly disabled"  – a term which she has used to describe herself. She doesn't consider herself ugly in a beauty sense, she tells SBS. "I don’t have the type of disability that’s palatable to people, that’s pretty," she says. 

Liebowitz tells me she has only been in relationships with disabled men. She also believes the media feeds us a certain image of disability. She sees many “pretty disabled” people in the media, and thinks it has consequences on the way disability is perceived.

"I think it’s easy for people to wrap their minds around if they can just think, ’well, that person is just like me, just sitting down is all’. But for someone like me, who has Cerebral Palsy (CP), it’s a lot more complicated than ’I’m just sitting down’,” she tells me.

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"My limbs curl up and my hands get all fisted and I can’t sit up straight (I almost fell out of my office chair at work the other day. That was fun).  And my voice is very loud and kind of shrill because of the way the CP affects my mouth and throat muscles.  I have never – NEVER – seen someone like me represented in the media.”

This lack of representation across many television networks, online and print publications might be why people without disability are uncomfortable or say the wrong thing around people with disability - or just don't give them a chance.

Some people might never have encountered a disabled person, and so they are uncomfortable or say the wrong thing on their first meeting. But casting a diverse range of people on TV shows like Undressed can guide viewers in how to talk to disabled people, breaking down the stigma around disability.

I asked my friends about their dating horror stories on Facebook. It seems that no matter the type of impairment, disability can make the date uncomfortable. And many friends have received rudeness or abuse for simply being them.

 "I once dated a guy who would continually ask me to put my wig on because the sight of me without it was so ugly."

Annie Nolan, who is now happily married with a young family, tells me she asked a guy to read her the menu on a date as she is vision-impaired. "He told me I was a "spastic" and then proceeded to read out all the meat options sarcastically knowing I was vego [sic]." Nolan told me she left while he was in the bathroom.

Another friend, Brittany Dunlop, who has Ichthyosis (the severe skin condition I have) said her ex-husband treated her very badly.

"He was great our first few years, and thereafter told me I disgusted him, and he couldn't stand my shedding", she tells me. "When a dog sheds too much, you get rid of it..." he would tell me. “We divorced last year and I got rid of him." She too has moved onto a loving partner. "I have literally found the love of my life! He runs my bath, rubs my lotion on me, and babies me when I hurt."

And Shea Giordimaina, who has alopecia, said "I once dated a guy who would continually ask me to put my wig on because the sight of me without it was so ugly." 

Despite being with a long-term partner (who "doesn't care, not one bit" about her lack of hair) and having two children, this experience shook Giordimaina's confidence. "It would break me and now I have such a complex about it,” she says.

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But what's just as bad as a date not wanting a relationship with a disability? A date who tells us how we should feel, and play the comparison game!  Bridgett McDonald, a wheelchair user, said "I once had a guy tell me how I should view my disability (you know the ones, they think you automatically hate yourself and they need to save you from feeling so bad about your life), and then say 'at least you don't have something horrible'."

"I stared at him blankly", to which he replied "oh, you do..." McDonald said. The date ended not long after that.

Just like Chris automatically disclosed his disability by being in a wheelchair, my red face, caused by Ichthyosis, is a giveaway too.

Even though I consider myself attractive, I also probably fall into the "ugly disabled" category. I am married now but I spent years dating in my late teens and 20s: mostly online (where I played down my severe skin condition in witty emails, but guys were shocked by my skin when they met me in person), but I've pashed a few guys in pubs, too.

Apart from a few friendships formed, dating was awful for my self-esteem. I remember that a few dates were blatant about my skin being the reason they wouldn't take things further. But most would just not return calls, or even stay at the restaurant once they met me (apparently, something always came up and they had to leave the date early). I suppose my skin flakes and redness made them uncomfortable, so they didn't want to spend any more time getting to know me. Maybe I was just not a friendly or attractive date? The truth is that I’ll never know the reason because they never said it.

While the disability spectrum is diverse - in impairment, appearance, and accessibility - everyone wants to be loved and treated with respect. 

These stories, in my belief, are not rare. In fact, I believe that mine and my friends' experiences are all too common. When I put the call out to my friends with disability, chronic illness and facial differences on Facebook for dating stories, I received responses from 25 women in two days. I couldn't include them all. I asked for stories of bad dates - and added that I want to see good outcomes too. There was some magical love stories told by the 25 women who contacted me but most of them told me how they were insulted, misunderstood and rejected. The hurtful experiences stuck with them, even once they'd found love.

The dating stories I've shared here are quite horrific. But Dunlop, Giordimaina and Nolan are all now in loving relationships - as am I. McDonald tells me she thinks she's happily single, though she's questioning how to disclose her hidden disability when it comes time for her to date again.

While the disability spectrum is diverse - in impairment, appearance, and accessibility - everyone wants to be loved and treated with respect. Chris and Julie's successful date was so kind and respectful - viewers can look to this episode of Undressed next time they're unsure about dating someone with a disability.

Carly Findlay is a proud disabled woman. She's a writer, speaker and appearance activist. Find @carlyfindlay on Twitter.

Undressed airs weekly from Monday 16 January at 9.30pm on SBS. Join the conversation: #Undressed. Catch-up on episodes online via SBS On Demand here or watch Chris and Julie below:


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