The Do’s & Don’ts of Dating with a Disability

Bert Burns started LASCI as a motivational speaking program for newly-injured patients with spinal cord injury.

Bert Burns started LASCI as a motivational speaking program for newly-injured patients with spinal cord injury.

Editor’s Note: When Bert was only 20 years old and a college intramural sportsman, he was hit by a drunk driver. The force of the impact threw Bert from the car. He broke his neck at C6 and C7, and learned he would have to face life as a quadriplegic. Bert spent the next six months in rehab, convinced his life was over.

After a successful wheelchair racing career where Bert won a gold medal in the Paralympics, he went on to create UroMed, Inc., a urological supply company that he hoped would make a difference to people with disabilities. He met his wife, Joy, in 1995. “Having Joy and our twins, William and Emma, makes me the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. “I truly have an amazing life.”

Today, Bert devotes considerable time as a motivational speaker for youth with disabilities, rehabilitation programs, medical education seminars and other community events. Bert strives to reach out to others through public speaking because, more than anything, he wants to give other people in wheelchairs the same encouragement that he has received.

Bert says, “I hope to convince patients in wheelchairs that they can still do all the things they want to do and more. They will just have to do them differently.”

Below we share Bert’s thoughts on a topic that everyone thinks about from time to time – the ups and downs of dating with a disability.

Dating 101 for People Who Are Newly Injured – Spinal Cord Injury

Q: Will people still want to date me? Why would they want to?

A: Yes, of course! You are still the same person. Sure you’re rolling now instead of walking, but your personality is what people date – not your legs.  Some people won’t date you because of the chair.  But some people don’t like me because I’m bald. There’s all kinds of reasons that people choose not to date someone, that’s ok.  For every five that won’t date you, there’s 50 others that will.

Don’t worry if you strike out! There’s all kinds of reasons that people choose not to date someone, that’s ok. For every five that won’t date you, there’s 50 others that will.

However, once people see that you’re in a wheelchair, you have to address the point and keep going, so they understand that you’re not just someone in a wheelchair. You’re someone they want to get to know.

For example, everyone has a different personality. I’m a very outgoing person. When I see people, I say from my wheelchair, “Hey, how are you doing?” And they immediately think, “Hey, he can talk, too!” And the next step is that I start talking to them. Then they get their minds off the wheelchair and find out that I’m really a person. Usually within 2 or 3 sentences, they no longer see the wheelchair; they see me. You can do the same thing.

After my own injury, I went through three phases while dating  —

  • Girls I knew before I was injured, whom I had dated or met before.
  • Healthcare professionals who understood spinal cord injuries (SCI), so I didn’t have to explain everything to them.
  • Then, I moved on to the rest of the population.

Bert and his amazing wife, Joy, love to take cruises and visit the beach together – like in this trip to Mexico!

Q: Got any suggestions for a first date?

A: Sure! Go somewhere you’ve been before that you’re already comfortable with, that you know is accessible and where you can get around comfortably.  If you go to the movies, decide whether you want to stay in your chair or transfer into a seat.  At a restaurant, do you want to sit in a booth and transfer or sit at a table and stay in your chair.  Moving out to a patio? Is it too hot for autonomic dysreflexia? [where you can’t sweat]

When I’m with my wife, Joy [who is able-bodied], we plan outings and events around what we can do together, not what we can’t.  When we go on vacation,walks on the beach and hikes into the mountains are out of the question. Instead, we go on cruises, hang by the pool, scuba dive and snow ski together.

Q: When is it appropriate to talk about your disability with your date?

A: I usually talk on the 1st or 2nd date about things I can or can’t do, so it’s not a white elephant in the room. That way your date can decide if that’s a factor or not. If it doesn’t bother them, they don’t move on. If it does, you move on!  Depending on your date and your age, the sex talk comes up pretty early too, usually by the 2nd or 3rd date.  You need to decide whether or not it’s appropriate, depending on your age and relationship level.

In my case, the secret to success for being married has been knowing Joy so well – we both understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and play to those. So talk often and talk a lot, it’s the key to keeping your relationships healthy. 

Q: How do you have the sex talk without freaking your date out?

A: I would talk about what works, and what doesn’t work, making sure to let them know that now with all the medications on the market, things work a lot better than they used to.  This is important too when it comes to having kids.

A lot of people think they can’t have children after a spinal cord injury. That may have been the case 31 years ago when I was first injured, but it no longer is. Joy and I tried the old-fashioned way first, and that didn’t work. Then we went through artificial insemination — no luck. So then we tried in vitro, and that did. We now have two beautiful children!

Think you can’t have kids if you use a wheelchair? Think again! Bert’s kids, Will and Emma, will be the first to tell you that’s not true.

Make sure though, that when you do cross over into a more intimate relationship with someone special in your life, that you plan ahead before spending the night together.  If you know you’re going to be at someone else’s house, take care of your bowel program ahead of time, just like you would if you were taking a long trip.  If you wear a leg bag, change it before you go out.  If you’re going to be spending the night somewhere, make sure you bring a bed bag to switch out from your leg bag, if you use one.

It’s appropriate and probably wise to talk about your bowel and bladder program with your significant other when your relationship reaches the point of becoming initimate.  Hiding things in this area will only surprise both of you later, at what will probably be the wrong time rather than the right one.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: Yes, if you are an individual who has just become disabled, please don’t give up on trying to do things you may not be able to do today. It may not work today, or tomorrow, but you’ll adapt and find a way to make it happen even if it’s a month from now.  You have two choices to make. If you go home and say “Life sucks,” it will. Or you can go home and say, “These are the cards I was dealt, and I’m going to make the most of them.” If that’s the choice you make, you’ll be OK.

Stay Tuned for Part Two: The Joys Of Marriage

If there is one thing that Bert Burns knows about, it’s possibilities. He has discovered that no matter how grave the situation, no matter how discouraging, there are always possibilities for good and for growth.

Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3 of this series! Next week, Bert will be talking about the Joys of Marriage, followed by Living Happily Ever After and What About Divorce?

If you’d like to learn more about dating with disabilities, please see the following article published in PN Magazine.  “Love Knows No Boundsfeatures the relationship stories of three couples, including Bert and Joy Burns. Visit http://uromed.com/content/PNFeb2012FullStoryV2LOWRES.pdf

 

About UroMed Catheters
Headquartered in Suwanee, GA [a suburb of Atlanta], UroMed is one of the nation’s leading providers of single-use catheters, urological and disposable medical supplies, including intermittent catheters, closed system catheters, condom catheters, pediatric catheters and continence care products. UroMed is nationally accredited for Medicare reimbursement and most state Medicaid plans, and partners with private health insurance providers and health plans to provide patients with single-use catheters, catheter kits and incontinence products. UroMed also has seven staffed regional offices located in Boston, MA; Columbia, SC; Jacksonville, FL; Dallas, TX; Carlsbad, CA; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; and Baton Rouge, LA; enabling next-day delivery after a customer’s initial medical supply order. For more information, please visit http://www.uromed.com or call 1-800-841-1233.

One Response to The Do’s & Don’ts of Dating with a Disability

  1. Shelly kerchner says:

    I am an incomplete quad, C6C7, 6 years post injury. Crazy as it may sound my accident was a blessing, long story!!!
    I am grateful for all that I have been given and would appreciate the chance to be a motivational speaker, Just have no idea where to start! Any tips or web sites you would reccomend? God Bless and thanks!

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