When Aussie Paralympian Dylan Alcott was named Australian of the Year in January, it did not just turn the spotlight on the disability sector and the state of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Alcott’s sporting and disability advocacy position and honest outlook on life has also opened the door to open and honest discussions about the previously hush-hush world of dating, love and sex as a person living with a disability, as MARINA REYNOLDS discovers.
His moving acceptance speech on Australia Day, was a glimpse into Dylan Alcott’s personal life and the hint of a shift in public perceptions to come.
Alcott’s never been one to shy away from the media spotlight - in perhaps an honest, Aussie, Aclott way.
The six-time Australian Open champion’s previously candid sex relevations with his long-term partner and sexologist Chantelle Otten have been forthright. They have shared their sexual experiences to help break down misconceptions about what sex is like for disabled people - a subject seldom discussed publicly let alone at all.
Dating, sex, love and disability used to be almost a taboo mix but the world is warming to the discussion with ambassadors such as Alcott, an ever-increasing media awareness and a disability sector that is increasing education and awareness, leading the charge.
There are many online avenues to dating and finding sex partners in today’s society, but really the journey to a healthy love life in the disability sector comes down to self-love - which takes us back to Alcott’s January acceptance speech.
Here’s an excerpt of what he said back on Australia Day, thanks to @ABC for the full transcript:
"I've been in a wheelchair my whole life. I was born with a tumour wrapped around my spinal cord that was cut out when I was only a couple of days old."
"I've known nothing but having a disability, and if I'm honest with you, I can't tell you how much I used to hate myself."
"I used to hate having a disability. I hated it so much, I hated being different and I didn't want to be here anymore. I really didn't."
"Whenever I turned on the TV, or the radio or the newspaper, I never saw anybody like me."
"And whenever I did, it was a road safety ad where someone drink drives, has a car accident and what's the next scene? Someone like me in tears because their life was over."
"And I thought to myself, 'that's not my life', but I believed that was going to be my life."
"And I'm so lucky that I had one of the best family, some of the best friends, my beautiful partner Chantelle and my whole team who told me that I was worthy and that I was allowed to be loved."
"And when I reached the end of my teenage years, I started seeing people like me.”
Alcott went on to say he now “loves” his disability - which was a statement that surprised a few people on social media who live with disabilities themselves on social media. Some commentators also failed to understand how he could love his disability.
"I love my disability. It is the best thing that ever happened to me. It really is, and I'm so thankful for the life that I get to live,” he said.
"I get sent stem cell research on all this stuff and you can honestly not pay me enough money in the whole world to ever do it, because I love the person that I am and the life I get to live and I'm the luckiest guy in this country, easily.”
And there’s that word, LOVE, again.
There’s been a few variations of the quote “To fall in love with yourself is the first secret to happiness” over the years but the bottom line is the same. And that seems to be what Alcott has achieved: Be comfortable in yourself, in your disability, first and the rest should follow.
Even though Alcott was secure and in love with himself, there was still the word SEX causing confusion.
Alcott told Good Weekend last year the distinct lack of information available on sex with a disability when he was younger lead him to the internet which wasn’t exactly the best tool for someone in his position.
“Googling sex and disability, there was nothing there,” he said. “You’d watch porn and think, ‘Well, I can’t do that!’ That adds to insecurities you already have,” he said.
“But one thing I’ve learnt is that people can have sex in any way. And obviously, I must be doing something right if I’ve managed to lock down someone like Chantelle.”
Without going into too much detail here (check out the full interview here), Alcott believes it’s important to continue being open about his sex life, saying he and his partner are “proud to talk about it and break down those barriers”.
“I want to change the misconception that (disabled) people can’t have sex or be in relationships or fall in love. The only way to destigmatise it is to talk about it.”
Which leads to other “complications” and confusion. HOW do you tell a prospective match on a dating site that you have a disability? How long do you leave it to mention it? Do you state it on your online profile? There are lot of “ifs”.
While the focus of this article seems to be on Alcott, it’s because he’s a very public face and vocal advocate of the disability sector, but remember while these are his feelings, his concerns and his challenges, they do mirror those of many people living with a disability across Australia.
Mr. and Ms. Average Aussie living with autism, Down Syndrome, para or quadrapegic, bipolar, amputation … Alcott’s early struggles with sex and love can be mirrored in their own lives as they navigate the dating scene, and life.
So, how do people living with a disability deal with dating, love and sex?
Bringing a disability into the already intimidating and judgmental mix of the online dating world can be challenging.
Perhaps honesty from the outset is the best policy, if you take a leaf out of Alcott’s book, while history has taught others to be cautious and sound out their dates before revealing their true selves.
There is no right and wrong answer: It depends on where you are with your life and how you feel - about yourself and your disability, maily - as to the steps you take to protect or reveal yourself.
Last year, the ABC brought us a moving story about a couple who met those challenges head-on.
Jodie met Paul online, and it was love at first swipe, but it wasn't until months later she told him — just before they met in person — she used a wheelchair.
“Yes, I use a wheelchair but apart from that I am a normal woman with normal interests and hobbies, and I am able to hold a normal conversation when I chat to people," Jodie says.
Paul's response to learning she used a wheelchair was “no worries”, and almost five years on they’re very much in love.
"He is my best friend," Jodie told the ABC."
But it is that fear of being rejected that makes those living with a disability reluctant to disclose their disability - to potential dates and even employers.
You can find out more here about this reluctance and psychotherapist, counsellor, relationship expert and couples therapist Melissa Ferrari’s take on the touchy subject.
And have a listen to this interesting video, also from the ABC, on disclosing your disability on the first date.
7News recently carried a story about a married couple who faced backlash and sly comments when they got together.
“People judge a book by its cover. They never bother to read the pages, but Susie did... and here we are,” Philip said.
Philip lives with a form of muscular dystrophy known as Bethlem myopathy - a genetic disease that causes progressive weakness and the loss of muscle mass.
He relies on a special electric wheelchair to move around.
“For 29 years, I never thought I would find love,” he told @7News.
Then he met Susan and they wed in 2018.
Susan says she never even noticed his wheelchair.
The Adelaide couple is seeking to change people’s perceptions surrounding inter-abled relationships - where one individual is abled and the other lives with a disability.
They say they’re just an “average Joe” couple with a “pretty normal life”.
“We have a house, we go to work, we live a suburban lifestyle, we have a Siberian Husky,” Philip says.
“Nothing really to see - if anything, it’s a little boring.”
With large followings on YouTube, the couple uses the platform to answer any questions about their inter-abled and inter-racial relationship.
Read how they met and fell in love in the full 7News story here.
Finding love online and meeting people
If you’re looking for love, there’s dating apps and websites galore these days - Disabled Singles Dating, Tinder, Disabled Mate Australia, EHarmony and Zoosk to name a few - check out https://abcdisabilityservices.com.au/dating-sites-for-people-with-disabilities-2020/ for a more comprehensive list.
Chattii.com is also a popular dating app and growing in popularity within the disability sector - “Chattii is here because sometimes, the internet sucks. It’s judgemental, bigoted and generally unwelcoming to people who are different. Our platform puts you first and treats you like a human, with the human need for love,” is their mission statement, which seems to reflect what many in the disability sector feel too.
For people living with disability, casual sex or a no strings hookup isn’t out of the question - there’s an app or three out there for Aussies too! Red Hot Pie is one, but there are others, depending on where you live.
But, online dating aside, there are more ways to meet that special someone including at university or school and even at the gym or social/community activities.
The Council for Intellectual Disability says:
There is lots of information online about dating and relationships:
The last word on love and sex as a person living with a disability comes from Alcott himself.
He believes it’s important to continue being open about his sex life, saying he and Otten are “proud to talk about it and break down those barriers”.
And even though you’d think he’s immune to pressure having played tennis on the biggest stage and won all four grand slams, the 30-year-old admits there were plenty of nerves during his first time with Otten.
“The first time we had sex, I was extremely nervous,” he told Good Weekend. “I thought, ‘You’re doing it with the best!’
“But we’re both sex-positive. It’s important to me to talk about it.”