Dating while disabled

A controversial new U.K. show follows disabled singles in their quest for love. Is it exploitative or progressive?

Topics: Love and Sex,

Dating while disabled

Shain, a 31-year-old with a learning disability, text messages a woman “I love you” before even going out with her. Luke, a 23-year-old with Tourette’s, first meets his dating coach and uncontrollably yells out, “Horny bitch!” Richard, a 37-year-old with Asperger syndrome, flexes his biceps until his date has to hint for him to stop.

These are just a few of the stars, and awkward moments, of the new British documentary series that sets up disabled singles with a leading matchmaker service and then follows their search for love. The premise alone is ripe for debate — and it doesn’t help any that it’s called “The Undateables.”

The show, which premiered earlier this month (you can watch the trailer here), caused an explosion of controversy across the pond, with the Guardian declaring that Channel 4 has “hit a near impressive level of crass” and the Mirror saying that “the producers dress it up with a touchy-feely script safe in the knowledge the folks at home will laugh like drains.” One writer described the popular public opinion that it is a “thinly veiled Victorian freak-show.”

The vast majority of the criticism has come from non-disabled people, though, so I reached out to a few disability activists and writers for their take.

The problems start with the title, says Ouyang Dan, a writer at the blog Disabled Feminists. She tells me in an email, “I would almost, almost be more forgiving if the show’s title didn’t make me cringe so viscerally,” she says. “Are we to understand that the people we are seeing are somehow not deserving or even capable of finding companionship?” Sure, the show might challenge the stereotype, and its own title, by showing that disabled people can in fact date, but she says, “I can’t escape the niggling feeling that a general population of viewers won’t see it that way, but rather as something to laugh at.” Indeed, plenty of tweeters are LOLing about the awkwardness that arises on the show.



Some people with disabilities have actually come to the defense of the title, including Hadyn, a 24-year-old with facial deformities, who will be featured in an upcoming episode. In a video posted on YouTube, he argued that the name simply reflects the fact that “many people in society think disabled people are not dateable,” and he points out that the show’s opening credits show the “un” in “undateable” dropping off to read, “The dateables.”

Lisa Egan, a Brit who blogs about disability issues, says, “Most of the people who’ve claimed that the title is offensive are either non-disabled people or disabled people who are in long-term relationships; often relationships that were forged before acquiring their impairment.” She points to a Guardian survey finding that 70 percent of respondents would not consider having sex with a person with a disability. “The reality is that I am undateable,” she says, adding, “I am undateable because we live in a world where disablist prejudice is ubiquitous.”

That said, Egan does take issue with the actual content of the series. “My problem with the show is its obsession with ‘confidence,’” she says. One of the issues with “the confidence rubbish” is that “there’s an element of victim blaming going on,” she explains. “If you’re disabled and you can’t get a shag it must be because you’re just not confident enough. ‘It’s nothing to do with our prejudices, oh no. It’s you. You must try harder.’”

Anna Hamilton, another blogger from Disabled Feminists, was turned off by the way the show presents people with disabilities “for the (televised) amusement of non-disabled viewers.” That “tends to support a really tokenistic version of multiculturalism where the ultimate test of being an ‘acceptable’ disabled person rests on how much you can make non-disabled people relate to your life experience.”

Whether it’s the title or the actual substance of the show, Ari Ne’eman, co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, says the most problematic aspect of the show is that it reinforces the stereotype that disabled people are loveless and sexless. That perception is “very damaging in very practical ways,” says Ne’eman, who has Asperger syndrome. For example, “it often means that disabled people tend do not have the same sex education curriculums that non-disabled people do,” which can make them “less aware of their reproductive rights and contraceptive options.”

It isn’t that disabilities can’t present unique challenges when it comes to the romantic arena, but Ne’eman says, “The existence of those challenges doesn’t mean that disabled people aren’t dating, aren’t having sex.” It also doesn’t mean that disabled people are the only ones who come to dating with personal hindrances and liabilities — because, hello. That’s part of why the show is so broadly relatable: First dates are awkward for everyone. The question is what else — aside from a few yuks and gratitude for being non-disabled — most viewers will bring home from the show.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>