"Your Disability Doesn't Define You" is Not an Encouragement
I'm not sure how common it is for others, but I've experienced receiving the "encouragement" your disability doesn't define you" more frequently than is appropriate in the dating world. I've had friends and others who care about me remind me of this as if it's a pep talk before I put myself out there, and honestly, it's getting grating. In part, bringing up disability consistently in this way sort of undermines the very message they seem to want to be getting across, which is that disability does not define me. If that's really, why is it the most prominent fixture in conversation related to dating?
It's grating for another reason: it's never appropriate for another person to tell you how to define yourself. I'm here to tell you that "your disability doesn't define you" isn't appropriate for anyone to say, ESPECIALLY not someone you're going on dates with, dating, being exclusive with, or in any stage of romance with, unless, of course, YOU feel empowered by it. I don't. Here's why:
"Your disability doesn't define you" isn't for anyone else except for you to decide. You can feel like this aligns with who you are and how you think about yourself, but you don't have to accept that just by default simply because it's so common in our culture to say that. For me, my disability DOES define me, kind of by definition. Without it, I would have a different brain, and thus, I would be another person. Without it, I would have a different body, and I would be a different person. Why is that a bad thing to have a disability define us? Why do we think that's limiting? There's a certain amount of ableism in assuming that not being defined by a disability is an encouraging thing to say, and we really need to think about why we find something like that helpful or cheerful. What would be wrong with having a disability define us? In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with my disability defining me, and it is an act of self-love to proudly claim my disability as an integral part of who I am. To say that it doesn't define me is denying who I am because I would be different in ways I can't know or predict if I didn't have the body and brain.
The reason is that human beings come wired to form and develop their environments. Any well-trained neuroscientist will tell you that the line between a person and their environment is tough to draw because how we react depends on what's in our environment and how our body-minds are. We don't all react to the same stimuli because we don't all have the same body minds. Since we develop based on the interplay between our environments and our body-minds, we are, by definition, in part by the way our physical selves (which includes our brains, which impact our minds) are. Sometimes, our physical selves are disabled, and that disability plays a role in how we interact with and respond to our environments. And that interplay doesn't just impact how we develop; it is how we develop. So to say we are not defined by our disability is nonsensical to me; my disability was present from birth. Humans don't stop responding to, developing in relationship with, and adapting to our environments, so even acquired disabilities define who we are. The only reason there is anything wrong with that is the nuanced and unchecked ableism embedded in such a statement.
"Your disability doesn't define you" has made me want to be different than who I am for too long. Wanting to be different from how I am is an act of violence against myself; wanting to be non-disabled doesn't bode well for relationships. If I am stuck in wanting to be different from who I am or striving against being defined in a way that I actually am defined, then I will not attract people who love me for who I am. And that's because they won't even see who I am if I'm telling myself my disability doesn't define me when it does. This is not about pretending there is no hardship in disability or dating or the intersection between dating and disability. There most certainly are. It's about reclaiming our power as disabled daters, to say one way or another, for ourselves, whether our disabilities define us in our dating and in the world in general.
This is not for anyone else to decide. It is perfectly okay to push back when our culture wants to "encourage" you by telling you that your disability defines you, which can be akin to encouraging people to abandon who they are in the name of positivity. Of course, you can be gentle about it; ableism is so deeply ingrained in our culture that most people probably have good intentions and mean well when they tell you that you don't have to be defined by your disability. But if that doesn't feel right to you, that's completely okay. It is the opposite of empowering to abandon any part of yourself or take on anything that is not authentic to who you are, which means that my experience with disability and identity does not have to be yours and vice versa. Neither disability nor identity is zero-sum games; they are not games at all. You deserve to take them seriously. And defining them both for yourself, rather than letting others define them for you, will only serve you in your dating life.