In this story, Juliet* (31) talks about navigating relationships as a person living with a disability. She shares her past dating experiences and why she’s extra careful about romantic relationships now.

As told to Boluwatife

Image designed by Freepik

I’m used to the stares. 

Everywhere I go, people stop and stare at me. The funniest of the lot are those who think they do a good job of hiding their stares. But I only have polio-induced partial limb paralysis; I’m not blind. I see how they silently gesture to their friends to look at me. 

Polio hit when I was two, and I’ve been walking with a bad limp since then. It got worse when I got into secondary school. As a teenager, that wasn’t great. As a secondary school student, it was even worse. I was bullied a lot. 

My nickname in school was “Miss Koi Koi” because of the crutches I used occasionally when I felt more pain than usual from my deformed leg. The crutches gave a “koi” sound  — hence the nickname. 

I think my classmates were just jealous that the teachers had a soft spot for me, and I never had to participate in the compulsory sports activities every Wednesday.

I didn’t have a boyfriend until SS 2. Jesse* was one of the few people who were nice to me in class. Interestingly, we only got to know each other after a teacher forced us to share a seat in class. We became friends after I shared my yoghurt with him one time.

I’m not sure how we started “dating”. Our classmates began calling us husband and wife because we sat together and always talked in class, and we just went with it. I didn’t mind, and I felt like I could finally “belong” with my classmates. School relationships were a thing, and being part of that group made me feel normal.

We only dated for a term, though. Whatever we had ended after I saw him joking and laughing with one of my bullies and I confronted him about it. It turned into a fight and I can’t forget a line he said: “I’m even pitying you by talking to you and you’re disturbing me”. 

It was as if someone poured cold water on me. He wasn’t talking to me because he found me interesting. He was just being a nice guy trying to save me from having no one else to talk to. Our “relationship” ended there, and we found a way to exchange seat partners.

I still get pity just as much as the stares, and while pity helps when people give up their seats for me on the bus, it doesn’t feel so great in relationships. When I say relationships, I also mean friendships because I’ve only had two other boyfriends in my life. I met most of my long-term friends at a baking school in 2014. They’re good people, but I feel somehow when they don’t invite me out for things because they think I shouldn’t walk too much or when they feel uncomfortable when people stare at me.

When I met my second boyfriend on Facebook in 2016, I told him about my condition and he seemed fine with it. But he also thought he was doing me a favour by dating me. Anytime we argued, he’d complain about how I didn’t appreciate him being with me and not minding what people might say about my disability. This was someone who didn’t even introduce me to his family or friends. We dated for a year before he went to marry someone from his village.

I don’t know if I should even call my last partner a “boyfriend”  — we were only together for two weeks in 2018. He was a neighbour, and he started avoiding me after we had sex a couple of times. That was strange because he put so much effort into toasting me, which was why I even agreed to date a neighbour. I think he just wanted to know what sex with a disabled person was like. I really thought he genuinely loved me, and I felt stupid when it ended.

I’ve been single since then, but it’s not like I don’t get suitors. I’m fairly active on Facebook and men flood my DMs every time I post my pictures or make funny posts about my experiences living with a disability. They say stuff like, they wish they could marry me so I wouldn’t be lonely or that they’re “willing” to give us a chance because I seem interesting. 

Once, I jokingly talked about some of these DMs on Facebook as well, and people implied I was just being difficult. People seem to think I shouldn’t have a choice just because I’m disabled. They expect that I should be happy some men are even showing interest. But what kind of interest is “I’m willing to give us a chance”? That sounds like they’re trying to save me from a life of loneliness. It’s just pity, and I’m tired of it because I know a day will come when they will rub it in my face.

I want love, and I hope to get married someday. But I see how men treat able-bodied women every day. How much more will they treat someone they think they’re doing a favour? I’m really scared of that. 

I feel lonely most times, but maybe that’s better than being with another man who will destroy the small self-esteem I’ve managed to develop.

*Names have been changed for anonymity.

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