The following is an excerpt from chapter three of Enabling Romance, A Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships for People with Disabilities (And the People Who Care About Them), by Ken Kroll and Erica Levy Klein.
illustration by Mark Lengeneckert
One in eight people has a physical disability that prevents them from performing basic functions like walking, working, or caring for themselves. But because discomfort and fears about disabilities are so deeply ingrained in our society, a disabled person who wants to become romantically involved with someone who isn't disabled usually has to take the active role in making that relationship a reality. Honest two-way communication about every aspect of the disability seems to be the single most important factor in helping this "attraction of opposites" succeed. ...
At age 36, Leo has had several friendly relationships but very limited romantic involvements and still no sexual experience--although not from lack of trying. Leo has expressed romantic interest in several women, but, as soon as the relationships started to progress beyond the friendship stage, the women generally found excuses for not continuing. Leo feels his extreme loneliness is a result of his disability, and at times he becomes very discouraged about his lack of prospects.
I have only had friendship-type relationships, never an actual romantic or sexual involvement. It's not that I don't try. There have been many women I've expressed an interest in and tried to get them to be interested in me, but nothing worked out.
Leo's efforts at finding romance have occasionally left him bitter. But he continues to try new and different methods to find a woman with whom he can share a mutual attraction:
I've placed personals ads in newspapers and magazines, and I was always open and honest about my disability. But I never received any responses. Then, as an experiment, I placed an ad in a magazine without mentioning I was disabled. I received three responses. I was so thrilled! But then, when I replied to their letters and explained that I was in a wheelchair, I never heard from any of them again.
Leo has found it best to deal with rejection by honestly appraising the pluses and minuses of his life:
I'm not extremely happy with my life right now, but I am reasonably content. I'm a deeply caring person with no one to care deeply for.
Leo believes that nondisabled people view people with disabilities differently than they do others, often treating them as though they are unable to accept the realities of certain social interactions.
For instance, when a person with a disability becomes romantically interested in a nondisabled partner, the nondisabled person may, if the romantic interest is not mutual, tend to avoid rejecting the disabled person outright for fear of hurting him or her too deeply. It's almost as though the person with a disability is assumed to be incapable of accepting any more "hurt" in life. So the nondisabled person may continue inadvertently to encourage the disabled person, which only results in greater pain later.
Once, I was talking and kidding around with a waitress in a restaurant. One thing led to another, and I asked her if she'd like to go to a movie sometime. She said she'd love to and wrote her phone number on a matchbook for me. The next day when I tried to call her, I got an elderly couple who'd never heard of the girl. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, wrote her a note, and dropped it by the restaurant as I passed. The note had my phone number on it; I asked her to call me. But she never did. That experience hurt me very deeply. I would have rather she said no right from the start.
Most people unfamiliar with disabilities need to be helped past their initial reluctance about becoming involved with a disabled person. That means the burden of proof often rests on the person with the disability, a scenario that can also create some understandable resentment.
Karl is the first to admit that always having to make the first move can "get old," but he also feels doing so is essential for breaking the ice:
Despite my neuromuscular disability, I've always enjoyed a good deal of success with women. I was married twice before I met my present wife, and between marriages I was very active socially and enjoyed several long-term relationships. I found that the secret to my success was making women feel comfortable with my disability, even if they were initially ill at ease with the whole idea.
I think every disabled person, if he or she is seeking romantic relationships, should realize that a disability scares the hell out of most people. So it's up to the disabled person to make the nondisabled person comfortable with that aspect of the relationship.
Dave, 28, suffered a stroke that left him totally paralyzed on one side of his body. As he states:
The most important thing is to think positively about yourself. Don't act like your disability is the world's biggest tragedy. If you do, romantically it will be. Put your best foot forward and act like your disability really doesn't matter. Above all, be friendly and interested in other people.
Lois, disabled by polio at age 12, agrees, but she also advises against building your entire life around the search for romantic relationships:
I think that the harder someone tries to directly focus on finding social, romantic, or sexual partners, the more difficult it becomes. I would advise any disabled person to balance out their life and become actively involved in work, community projects, recreation, and other activities that involve platonic relationships. Then, make a conscious effort to become interested in the people you come in contact with. Opportunities for social contact will be a natural outgrowth of these activities. Concentrate on becoming a friend first. The romantic part will follow by itself. The same thing holds true whether you're disabled or not.
Still other disabled people have experienced success with less traditional methods for meeting people. Debbie, who is severely disabled by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, has been married and divorced and is now involved in a new relationship. She offers this advice:
The bar scene is a terrible place to meet people, particularly since it's such a meat market. I would try dating services (ones for both disabled and nondisabled) and personals ads. Keep your options open for everyday opportunities, such as meeting people in the grocery store, in the park, or on the street. I met my ex-husband while I was working in an apartment building as a security guard, and I met my present boyfriend through a personals ad. Meeting people is quite difficult, I feel, especially if you're a disabled female. I have the impression that women are much more open to relationships with disabled men than men are to dating disabled women.
Clearly, the role of open communication cannot be underestimated at the beginning of a relationship in which one of the partners is disabled. It is difficult but important for the disabled person to be totally honest about every aspect of the disability, including physical and sexual limitations and fears of rejection based on previous experiences.
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