Seeking Connection in a Digital Era: A Textual Analysis of Disability-Focused Dating Websites

Alan Santinele Martino, University of Calgary; Eleni Moumos, University of Calgary

In our current collective sexual sphere, a range of mobile phone applications and dating websites provide new opportunities for sexual actors to meet partners, negotiate their self-presentation, and explore niche desires (Green 2014). Digital sexual fields continue to become more and more specialized around particular interests and desires. In this exploratory qualitative study, we focused on online dating websites catered to people with disabilities to understand the language and imagery employed in these niche sexual fields.   We analyzed 26 dating websites that cater specifically to people with disabilities. In addition to examining the images on these websites, we conducted a textual analysis to understand the language used by these unique digital spaces. The data were thematically coded by three independent reviewers, including the first author and two undergraduate student researchers, using NVivo.  Websites in our sample emphasized their relevance as niche digital sexual fields that allowed disabled people to overcome isolation and accessibility barriers, the need to educate potential intimate partners about their impairments, and rejection. Many sites also promoted the idea that their websites eased the uncomfortable task of disclosing one’s impairment. Rather, the website allowed for disabled people to meet other disabled people or, alternatively, meet open-minded non-disabled people. Some websites highlighted that disabled people’s overall quality of life would be improved by joining their website and the digital dating world. Finally, some websites still relied on medical and inspirational language to articulate their relevance and mission.   Dating websites provide an avenue for disabled people to meet potential partners and develop intimate relationships. These spaces can be particularly crucial for this social group who often faces social isolation and inaccessibility in the “real world.” We provide some initial understanding of the ways in which disability is constructed through language in disability-focused dating websites. There is a need for a more critical approach to the medical and inspirational language employed in these websites, which (re)produce particular (and sometimes dominant) understandings of disability. This is important because the language and images used in digital sexual fields can have an impact on how people with disabilities view themselves and are considered and accepted into the online dating world.

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