by Angela West
Valentine’s Day is over but love is still in the air – which makes it the perfect time to address relationships. More specifically, I want to talk about how people with disabilities manage their romantic relationships in a world that often sees us as incapable of having them. Prime example: while searching for a stock image of love and disability for this article, out of hundreds of photos, all that came up were an elderly woman in a wheelchair and parents with their children. Society perpetuates this myth that people like me don’t have sexual or romantic needs; that love and intimacy aren’t important to people with disabilities. The reality is – these are very natural and human needs for EVERYONE. Some families discuss this topic openly. But for others, it is a landmine to be avoided at all cost.
However you view dating, I hope you have the courage to look at it from a different perspective after reading this.
I am a young, professional woman who has cerebral palsy. I use a wheelchair. When I was growing up, my parents did not believe I was capable of being in a serious relationship. I think a lot of it had to do with protecting me from getting hurt. Seeing your child get his or her heart broken is hard for any parent. But as parents of with a child with a disability, they put additional guards up. I am grateful for their love and support because I do think I was shielded from some high school relationships that may have been damaging.
As an adult, I have been in a relationship for about five years. People tend to look at us and see him as being someone special for being in a relationship with a woman with a disability. But my disability does not define our relationship. He is not with me out of sympathy. We are companions. He is special to me in so many ways. We go through what every other couple goes through. We celebrate each other’s accomplishments and we have our differences that we must work through. But in the end, it works. I support him and he supports me.
I also wanted to give you a perspective from a parent of a young woman with Down syndrome who encourages her daughter to date and have relationships. The mother, who preferred to not be named to protect her daughter’s privacy, told me, “I think dating is such a fun and ‘normal’ aspect of all of lives. My daughter has grown up seeing her friends and siblings date, experience love and sometimes heartache, and she wants the same things that they want. Raising her to be a young woman who knows her rights, responsibilities and how to respect herself, as well as others, really helps when seeing her in the community living her life as she chooses to live it. Guidance is important and often no different than the same motherly advice I might give to anyone.”
It’s also essential for families to have the discussion about sex and intimacy. I know that it can be taboo for some cultures. Starting the conversation with basic information will allow topics to arise naturally. People with disabilities must be educated and understand their rights. With the rights, there always come responsibilities. We should not shelter young adults from having the knowledge for them to make informed decisions. Everyone should be able to access information in whatever ways fit their personal needs.
There is beauty in romantic relationships. Like in other life experiences, we do not know the absolute outcome for every relationship. With love, guidance, and support, let’s love freely and embrace opportunities of growth.
***ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela West earned a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her passion for disability advocacy stems from advocating for her own rights as a young woman with cerebral palsy.***