When I was younger, I vowed that I would never have a relationship with another disabled person. Certainly until I was about 17, I was kind of “in the closet” about disability. I knew I had one – heck, I got my first motorised wheelchair when I was 2½ – but I did my very best not to acknowledge it. I didn’t hang out with other disabled people (ew!) and I would certainly have never entertained the prospect of a relationship with one.
In fact, teenage-me thought that if I could snag myself a non-disabled boyfriend, that meant I’d made it. I’d win the battle to just be “a normal person” like everyone else. I’d blend seamlessly into the crowd and wheel off into the sunset with my perfectly-proportioned prince.
Then, something happened. I read a book about the social model of disability and I began to deconstruct my own ableist prejudices. I realised that a huge part of my reluctance to have a relationship with someone else with a disability stemmed from the fact that I was still viewing disability as my own personal deficiency. Once I realised that may of the issues in my life stem from society and the environment, everything changed. Realising that disabled people are not wrong for the world we live in, but that the world is simply not yet right for us, was enormously liberating.
So I started hanging out with some other people with disabilities and enjoyed myself immensely. There’s something deeply wonderful about the shared experience of difference in a friendship. And some of these new friends of mine were in relationships; some of them with other disabled people, and some with non-disabled folks. I no longer dismissed the idea of a relationship with another disabled person entirely, but there was still this nagging reluctance.
It is often assumed that sexuality is a concept that simply doesn’t apply to people with disabilities. I wasn’t asked by a doctor if I was sexually active until I was 27. I always had to volunteer that information. Some doctors even responded with blatant surprise. This isn’t exactly encouraging from some of the most highly educated members of our communities, is it?
A good friend of mine with mild Cerebral Palsy – very vanilla as disabilities go – was taken out of sex ed classes at school because her parents thought that the less she knew about sex, the better.
Because of all this discomfort around sexuality and disability, it’s no wonder that having a relationship at all can feel like an act of rebellion.
In many ways, it seems the path of least resistance is for us to have a relationship with someone else with a disability. Society seems to be more comfortable if we “stick with our own kind”. This attitude used to apply to interracial relationships as well, and some people are still quite uncomfortable with that. I’ve been in the same relationship for six years, but prior to this I got the same relationship advice from a lot of people.
“There's a guy at my gym in a wheelchair, you guys should go out.”
“I know this guy with Cerebral Palsy, you guys would be really cute together.”
“I bet you really like that Peter Dinklage* guy, hey?”
I really resented the idea that people seemed to want to pair me off with someone else with a disability like we were a cute little matching set.
Disability is further complicated by media portrayal. People with disabilities are set up by the media and painted as “undesirable”. We fall, sometimes quite drastically, outside the boundaries of what is considered conventionally attractive. We talk about non-disabled people who are attracted to us as either sexually deviant (as in the devotee fetish community), or we talk about them as being able to “look past” disability.
The notion of “looking past” disability to somehow see “the real person” is one I have come to find deeply offensive. I spent my teenage years thinking that I needed to find someone who could ignore my physical body and see my “attributes” - my intelligence and humour, my mad knitting skillz. I thought that the only logical way for someone to find me attractive would be for them to ignore what I look like. It didn't occur to me until years later that my body is also an attribute.
I realised that I didn’t want that kind of relationship. I didn’t want someone to ignore my body. I wanted someone who’d look directly at it and love it, wonky bits and all.
I’ve also come to realise that the wonder and acceptance I found as a 17-year-old when I started hanging out with other people with disabilities – the shared experience of difference – is one of the things that I definitely want in a relationship. In my partner (who is currently leaning over my shoulder saying “you need to make this much saucier for CityKat!”) I have found that. There’s something really wonderful about sharing your life with someone who really “gets it”. For me, that trumps my natural tendency to rebel.
And really, when you strip away all the superficiality and aesthetics, isn’t that what we all want? Just because society doesn’t expect love and sex to be a priority for people with disabilities, doesn’t mean we aren’t every bit as invested in those things as everyone else.
Of course there is no right way to have a relationship, whether you have a disability or not. But I’m pretty glad I stopped trying to go against what I felt I should aspire too, and just decided to do what I want. And what I want is far more important than what other people expect.
*Yes, I absolutely love The Dink. More than Ryan Gosling. Because he’s smoking hot, and I wouldn’t have to ask him to sit down before I planted one on his lovely stubbly face.
Recently paralyzed quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury. I am learning to see my injury as a blessing and an opportunity for healing and transformation. I am a psychologist, somatic educator, and inspiring filmmaker. I am passionate about telling stories that transform lives. I currently facilitate the Sexuality and Disability Support Group at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, CA on the 2nd Wednesday of the month. For more information check out:www.sexabilty.org