Online Dating Sucks. This App, Designed For People With Disabilities, Makes It Suck Less

There is one seemingly small detail that makes it a total game changer.

After graduating college, Jacqueline Child — like so many other busy 20-something Americans trying to find a partner or a hookup — dived into the tumultuous world of dating apps. In 2019, a few weeks after she started actively trying to meet someone, she matched with a guy on Bumble. When they decided to meet in person, he suggested they go for a walk. Jacqueline responded by telling him that she was recovering from a surgery, so a picnic would be better.

When he inquired about the surgery, Jacqueline told him she had a connective tissue disorder. He then responded, “Well… I hope you’re not planning on having children because that would be really selfish. That’s how genetics work.”

This was just one of the dozens of offensive messages Jacqueline, a Colorado native, had to stomach as she tried to navigate the toxic world of dating culture as a woman with a disability or chronic illness. And that particular message is not all that uncommon — as a young stroke survivor, I’ve even been told that online by strangers before, too.

Disabled people attempting to enter their online dating era have to deal with much more than the ignorant comments. There are personal safety concerns (especially for the physically disabled) and the difficulty of navigating online dating platforms. And there’s so much more pressure involved in what most people consider the fun part: meeting in person in hopes that the online flirtation translates to real life.

I don’t know anyone, disabled or not, who actually enjoys dating apps. For most of us, they’re merely a means to an end. Having to market oneself online with a perfectly curated profile, dealing with frequent rejections and investing hours trying to engage with strangers you may never meet — it’s exhausting.

Those of us who are disabled or have a chronic illness also have to deal with the anxiety that comes along with not knowing how a match will respond to it. How do I tell them? When do I tell them? Will they immediately ghost or reject me? The anxiety around the disclosure of a disability can be paralyzing in itself.

After being called a “burden” one too many times, Jacqueline started to feel that she might be unworthy of a romantic relationship. One day in 2021, she said to her older sister, Alexa, that she wished there was a legitimate and free dating app specifically designed for disabled and chronically ill people. Alexa, who had seen Jacqueline struggle with hurtful remarks for years, replied, “Let’s make it ourselves.”

Dateability, an app made by sisters Jacqueline and Alexa Child, wants to be "an inclusive place where people feel safe and feel like they matter" for disabled people.
Dateability, an app made by sisters Jacqueline and Alexa Child, wants to be "an inclusive place where people feel safe and feel like they matter" for disabled people.
skynesher via Getty Images

In October 2022, the sisters launched a free app called Dateability in North America. As of the end of 2023, they have 11,000 members, ranging from wheelchair users to people who are immunocompromised to even nondisabled allies.

“We want to be an inclusive place where people feel safe and feel like they matter,” Jacqueline said.

The decision to welcome nondisabled allies on their app stemmed from not wanting to send the important and underrated message that disabled people should only date other disabled people. “[Disabled people] are free to love whoever they want and they deserve that,” Alexa said. “But this is a good way to filter out people who would discriminate against disability.”

Personally, I wholeheartedly align with the sisters’ decision to include nondisabled people on this platform, because I’m very open to being with a partner who can do the things I physically can’t. Still, I’ve always been hesitant about dating apps because I’m a hopeless romantic with a nostalgic penchant for meet-cutes and serendipitous encounters. I have no real idea what I’m looking for, or, to put it plainly, if anyone is looking for someone like me.

Still, I had to check this app out, if nothing else, for the sake of good journalism.

So, I recently downloaded the app, created a profile, added a few photos and started swiping away. The app lacked the sleek, streamlined aesthetic of some of the mainstream apps, but it was pretty user-friendly, efficient and accessible on more devices than just my cell phone. As I was swiping, however, I saw a few of the same faces pop up again.

Since Dateability is relatively new and caters to a minority demographic (albeit the largest minority demographic), the pool of potential matches that met my age and location preferences was understandably limited. And speaking of minorities, there wasn’t much racial diversity either, but I wasn’t surprised by this: The stigma against disability in immigrant communities (among other communities of color) is such a deterrent from being public about a disability.

But there was one seemingly innocuous element that made this app a bona fide game changer. As I filled out the routine questions about age, height and location, I came across a question titled, “Dateability Deets.” It then gave a pretty extensive list of options to broadly describe my disability, chronic illness or lack thereof.

There was actually a box with an accurate descriptor for me to select: ambulatory wheelchair user. The phrase appeared at the bottom of my profile along with all of my other personal details. It was so freeing, knowing that whoever I match with will already know about this part of my identity — just like my listed political affiliation or religion — and be OK with it.

“With the ‘Dateability Deets’ question, no awkward disclosure discussion is needed,” Alexa said.

By making a disability or chronic illness no longer something that needs to be disclosed, it helps eradicate some of the stigma that comes along with it. In this space, our disabilities become an identity marker versus something to be ashamed of.

“If we can be open and normalize disability, not only will our community benefit from it because we will see ourselves as more worthy, but also the people outside our community will see us that way too,” Jacqueline said.

In 2024, Jacqueline and Alexa are planning to work on design and tech aspects that will hopefully expand the app’s accessibility in North America and other regions of the world. As Dateability grows, I hope it continues to be even more inclusive, which might require some thoughtful outreach to disabled people of color.

Having every type of single person on this app will help ensure that we, as a community, aren’t willfully partitioning ourselves off on the fringes of society (the disability-unfriendly world does that enough for us anyway). Many of us want to be out here — but only in a dating world with more empathy, acceptance and accessibility.


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