A virgin of romance: one FAU student shares his struggles of dating in a wheelchair
Despite spending most of his time in a wheelchair, Garrett Mayersohn hasn’t allowed cerebral palsy to control his life. He just wishes it didn’t control girls’ perception of him.
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Every morning, Garrett Mayersohn waits about 30 minutes before he can get out of bed, then gets help taking a shower, going to the bathroom and shaving.
Mayersohn’s aide, Cordiff Warren, helps place him in a chair — the second of two electric wheelchairs that Mayersohn has been using since cerebral palsy took away his ability to walk on his own when he was a year old. The FAU junior then rolls out of IVA South and toward his van, which Warren drives.
Though he may need help getting his day started, the junior interdisciplinary studies major is one year away from graduating, he’s interned for iHeartMedia and was one of 10 finalists for a Times Warner internship based in Los Angeles.
Mayersohn hasn’t allowed his condition to impede his dream of becoming a television producer. He doesn’t care that he needs help in the morning. He doesn’t even care that he may have to ask a stranger to open his water bottle for him.
What he does care about, is that no girl has ever given him a chance. The 22-year-old is still waiting for his first date and first kiss, but what irks him the most is that while he’s never received a “yes,” he’s never been told “no” either.
Ryne Sherman, an FAU professor who focuses on personality and social psychology, believes that the evasive answers Mayersohn receives aren’t conscious responses.
“Part of physical attractiveness, and this is deep-rooted in our evolutionary history, is this notion of disease avoidance,” Sherman said. “So if you see somebody who looks sick, you don’t want to kiss them, you want to keep your distance from somebody who looks sick or ill. And so part of what could be happening is if someone sees someone in a wheelchair, that sort of same mechanism is being played out.”
Therefore, Sherman said he can see most people thinking, “Well, this is a nice person but I’m not attracted to him, because, I don’t know why.”
A 2012 study performed by the Hammill Institute on Disabilities — see sidebar below — found that while 77.5 percent of the participants were very willing to be friends with a person in a wheelchair, only 22.7 percent would be very willing to date and 15 percent would be very willing to marry.
On the opposite side, 19.5 percent of people were unwilling to date someone in a wheelchair and 31.8 percent were unwilling to marry.
The most popular answer given for why people would not date someone in a wheelchair, which 22.7 percent of participants gave, is because they believe taking care of their partner might be too much work. Not knowing what to say to or how to treat a wheelchair user followed as the next highest answer.
Mayersohn said that for every person who treats him his age, there is someone else who “babies” him. But why do they feel the need to?
Sherman pointed to the combination of self-image protection and people’s natural way of assuming everything is “comorbid,” meaning that when they see Mayersohn with a physical disability, they presume a mental disability is attached.
“It’s about protecting your own self-image,” Sherman said. “I want to think of myself as a nice person and the way to do that, and I’ve been socialized to help and be nice to people, you don’t pick on people who you perceive to be weaker than you. Whether that perception is accurate or not is irrelevant.”
For example, if a random man at a bar approaches a woman, she may have no problem telling him off. But if someone like Mayersohn did so, she may fear being exceptionally cruel or mean.
“All I care about is that people are honest and upfront,” Mayersohn said. “[People in wheelchairs] have been rejected so much throughout our lives that we’re used to rejection, so it’s actually refreshing to have someone tell us the truth and to not be afraid of offending us.”
Numerous girls he’s asked out have told him that they were lesbians. One girl said she couldn’t date him because her phone didn’t have enough storage for an additional phone number, one said she reached her friend limit and another said she couldn’t because she had to get permission from her father first. She was in college.
But more times than not, Mayersohn knows to expect that the person he is asking out is already in a relationship — even if she isn’t. When he finally caught one red-handed, he wasn’t going to miss his chance.
The girlfriend of Mayersohn’s roommate introduced him to a friend of hers who was single at the time. It went well enough that they all agreed to a double date.
The day of, Mayersohn was told his date was sick in bed, and when he tried to reschedule, she told him she had a boyfriend.
Mayersohn later saw her at a party kissing a guy he knew wasn’t her boyfriend. He approached her and asked how her boyfriend was, much to the surprise of the man next to her.
After she whispered in his ear in front of Mayersohn, Mayersohn told her that she lied to him.
“It’s complicated,” is all he heard back.
Mayersohn knows it’s not that complicated, despite calling being stood up a “common occurrence.” But he also knows the real reason why, he just doesn’t understand it.
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A 2010 University of Redlands study found that people not only perceive the disabled differently, but they also perceive those who date disabled people differently. Partners of disabled people were perceived as more trustworthy and more nurturing, but didn’t garner the same social respect in free-response answers.
While partners of non-disabled people were often described as outgoing, well-liked by others, intelligent and fun, partners of disabled people lacked the positive responses and were often described as having an ability to overlook the respective disability.
“The results of this study suggest additional obstacles to interactions between persons with and without disabilities,” the researchers concluded. “We find it a matter of concern that the participants in this study viewed the partners of persons with disabilities as having either a lack of positive qualities or seemingly unattainable levels of nurturance, making it both difficult and unattractive to imagine oneself in such a position.”
The study also found that 7.3 percent of people believed a disabled person’s partner was likely to be disabled as well, a theory which Mayersohn has heard countless times in his life.
Mayersohn brought up the idea on March 30 when he met for breakfast with Carol Morgan — the self-proclaimed longest running successful matchmaker who has made a living setting up strangers since 1988.
Though she doesn’t deal with disabled people too often, she told a story that stuck with Mayersohn.
A former client of hers had multiple sclerosis, a disease that can cause problems with vision, muscle control, balance and other fundamental functions. Morgan, never having searched for a disabled client before, found an interested able-bodied man whose deceased wife had the same condition.
While Morgan may have found the man by chance, the Hammill Institute study shows that looking for someone with experience in dealing with a disability or disease may be the way to go.
According to the study, people who have had previous experiences or relationships with disabled people were more likely to be willing to date or marry a disabled person than those who have not by an average of 10.3 percentage points per answer.
Other than the revelation of looking for someone who is familiar to his situation, Mayersohn received an unexpected surprise from his visit with Morgan.
In return for social media advice from Mayersohn to promote and broaden her searches, Morgan will conduct a search for him.
Mayersohn, who does hope for a family and kids, already has his ideal first date set up and “has dreams about it every other night.”
“I’m a hopeless romantic,” Mayersohn said. “I would go for a leisurely stroll on the beach and then if we had time, go to a bar to watch a hockey game and then after we have dinner, go back and talk some more.”
“A bonus would be a kiss good night, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Hammill Institute on Disabilities Study
Brendan Feeney is the managing editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @feeney42.