The first time I went on an online date in 2016, I shared my phone location with two friends. I’d listened to enough murder podcasts and known too many friends who have experienced assault not to. Plus, I joked, “I’m easy to kill!”
Like most things I was afraid of, it was easier to joke than say I was genuinely scared of meeting strangers, and of being judged, because of my disability. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and I’ve lived with it for nearly my whole life.
Thankfully, the date went fine, and we even kept seeing each other for a few months after. But dating while disabled was already an emotional minefield. My last serious boyfriend had told me my health issues would be “too much for anyone,” a statement I now understand was more about him than me. I know what I have to offer, and it’s more than the sum of my medical records and whether I require extra rest. But when someone you love is saying it, it sneaks in and becomes a statement rather than a question: Is being disabled always going to be too much?
I avoided online dating for years because of other nagging questions so many disabled daters face: When do I disclose that I’m disabled? How do I explain what that means for me? And what will it mean if I’m rejected for it?
I told a few men I was disabled before meeting up, not because I feared them fleeing when we met, but because it sometimes felt natural. No, I can’t go on a bike ride with you. No, I can’t go hiking. A picnic sounds great, but only if I have a chair to sit on.
Only one didn’t follow through, but I reminded myself that this happens to everyone for any number of reasons. The voice that I was too much got quieter, and the dates continued to mostly just be boring.
When the pandemic hit last year, I thought, “Oh good, an excuse not to date.” Society didn’t care if I was 35 and unmarried; I was being responsible.
But in November 2020, I reactivated Tinder out of boredom and isolation and on a day when my hair looked combed enough to take a new selfie. I was surprised when a new kind of frustration took hold.
At that point, I was too covid-cautious to consider hooking up with anyone, but maybe I’d charm someone with my jigsaw puzzle habits. I no longer cared if people knew I was disabled. I’ve talked about it openly in my writing for years, and more recently incorporated it into my stand-up comedy. I’d recently transitioned into a job working in accessibility services that fulfilled both my personal and professional goals of combating my own internalized ableism and the more overt accessibility issues I saw around me.
But when I logged back in, I encountered a new feature on Tinder: A user could now verify their profile, affirming their real identity to potential matches with just a few clicks. The problem was that I was unable to.
In early 2020, Tinder partnered with the app Noonlight to create new safety features. Now, users can input their date’s info ahead of time and discreetly alert emergency services if an encounter becomes unsafe. Gone are the days of cheeky screenshots texted between me and my girlfriends of, “If I disappear, this is who I was meeting, haha?”
Profile verification is a separate but related step in this safety protocol. In a news release announcing the safety measures, Tinder describes the photo verification process as a comparison between “a posed photo taken in real-time to profile photos, which can help verify a match’s authenticity and increase trust.” Verified profiles then display a blue check mark, which was widespread by the time I rejoined Tinder months later.
Simple, I thought. Safe. But when I clicked on the verification process, the issue was immediately clear.
Both poses required placing my hands in straight lines around my face. My hands are great for many things: eating pizza, applying steady eyeliner, offering a comforting touch. But, because of my rheumatoid arthritis, they are anything but straight or flexible. Years of damage mean that my fingers flop into a near fist, too loose for punching and too tight for a good high five.
I proceeded with the process anyway, my crooked hands in full view. Maybe it’ll still work, I thought. My face was well lit and clear in each one. But within a few minutes it was rejected: Poses do not match.
I tried again, thinking maybe there were more accessible photo options. I saw the same smiling woman, her hand stretched elegantly at her ear.
Frustrated, I submitted a support request: “The verification feature failed for me because of my disability,” I wrote. “I could not position my hands as requested. All of my photos are solo shots, so I don’t know why it rejected it entirely as the faces do match.”
I didn’t receive a response for weeks. I assumed I’d been ghosted like the guy who stopped responding to me when I said I didn’t have a sweet tooth.
Two months later, I got an email back: “While I’d love to help further, we are not able to alter or expedite the review process.”
I considered replying, but given the time frame for replies, I deleted the app instead. Yes, I could still use many of Tinder’s features, and probably didn’t personally set off any catfish alarm bells to men seeing my profile. But being excluded from a feature that made me feel more secure when browsing verified profiles felt unfair and needlessly exclusionary.
Jessica Hunt, a disability rights attorney of 15 years, told me that although private businesses like Tinder are usually covered under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, requests for accommodation become more complicated when businesses don’t occupy physical space the public can access.
When users have sued apps or websites for lack of access, Hunt says, the rulings have been split. But a virtual service shouldn’t be exempt from accessibility requests, she says, especially when there are real-world parallels.
“In a brick-and-mortar type situation, if you’re a person with a chair and you couldn’t get in, or they turned you away because you had a disability, then that would be obvious disability discrimination under ADA Title III, because they didn’t accommodate you and they weren’t willing to provide you the same access to their goods and services,” Hunt says. “To me, that shouldn’t change just because the matchmaking service is in an app, or powered by your WiFi.”
And it’s more than just photo verification. Tinder boasts millions of active users, but the company hasn’t introduced any option for alt text on photos to make the app more accessible to those who are visually impaired. The same goes for many of the mainstream dating apps, including Bumble and Hinge. Online dating has increasingly become a societal norm — especially in the age of social distancing — and this lack of accommodation serves to socially isolate a community that is commonly othered.
Hunt says offering simple alternatives to common functions, like alt text and alternate verification methods, is “an easy way that they can offer users with disabilities an accommodation, without having to individually respond to each person who may not be able to do it.”
Tinder seems to now agree, at least when it comes to photo verification. After a tweet about my experience with the process gained some traction, I received a message from a Tinder representative apologizing for my issue, saying that the photo options were randomized and promising that alternate modes of verification were launching in a new update. They offered to assist me with getting verified if I signed up again, which I politely declined.
I’m relieved that this may not be an issue for others going forward. But it raises the question: When will accessibility be the constant driving factor in user design, rather than an afterthought?
Being vulnerable enough to be seen, known and potentially loved is a risky endeavor. Adding barriers to such a normal process, whether because of poor design or complete neglect, can have detrimental effects on the self-esteem of disabled people, who already face so many barriers to existence.
And that means equal access to, yes, even the most boring of first dates.