Nikki Frittmann is a notetaker and reader/writer for students with disabilities at AUT University. She has Spina Bifida and lives in Auckland with her husband and two cats. Every second month she shares her musings with DPSN.
I belong to quite a few Facebook groups based around disability, and I’ve noticed one topic in particular that keeps coming up – and that’s romance. It’s no surprise I think. From childhood, people are convinced by book and movie writers that it’s the ultimate dream; find a handsome Prince (or pretty Princess!), get married, live happily ever after. And although Cinderella and Prince Charming have long since been replaced by Brad and Angelina, that wish for a partner is still something people feel very deeply, if those I’ve seen on Facebook are anything to go by (which they probably are, since anyone above a certain age can be, and usually is, on Facebook).
Although marriage isn’t as popular now as it once was, somehow that wish to find a significant other is still, to many people, just as strong.
For those of us with a disability though, there can be a few barriers in romantic relationships. For one thing, first dates are even more nerve-wracking than usual when you can’t get into the movie theatre without accidentally becoming a fire hazard, with your wheelchair in the aisle. Or you can’t get up the restaurant steps. And don’t even start me on accessible loos being used as storerooms!
Like anyone, single disabled people can either choose to look within the community of other disabled people, where there may be fewer people and therefore less options. Or they can look outside of it – where, even though one in four people has a disability in New Zealand for instance, “attractiveness” and “disability” do not ever seem to be associated together in the media. Yet, among the few disabled people too I’ve seen commenting on the subject, the ultimate prize in the romance game seems to be not just a partner, but “an able-bodied partner”. I’m not sure exactly why this is. One person gave as a reason that they “don’t want to have a partner who constantly reminds me I’m disabled” (I’m not sure how having a partner without an obvious disability would avoid that reminder, but each person is entitled to their own opinion I suppose).
I have had a few relationships in my time, and here are a few things that I’ve learned: firstly, it’s not a race. Take the time to get to know yourself first, before you share your life with another person. Loneliness is very hard – I know that. I was single myself until the age of 24, and unmarried until 10 years later. But I tell you what, it’s better than living in a relationship in which the two of you aren’t meant for each other.
Secondly, having an “able-bodied partner” is not a trophy. And in fact, they are most likely not going to come into your life and make it complete. People are human (that’s sort of obvious-sounding, but you know what I mean), and they don’t want to feel like the prize in a competition all the time (though sometimes might be nice), or want to always be around to make your life better. Here’s where my point about getting to know yourself first as a single person comes into things – if you do, you can be the sort of person who complements their life, as well as them complementing yours. A much better situation, to be sure.
The final lesson I have learned is one from my 16+ year marriage – an able-bodied person may not be, and chances are probably won’t be, able-bodied for life. All of us, my husband included, can find ourselves disabled at some point. If not through accident or illness, then maybe through (as with him) a previously-undetected condition. For Brad and Angelina, the moment of truth came in a very public double-mastectomy (breast cancer surgery) for Ms. Jolie. For almost all of us, of course, old age will quite likely bring some kind of disability, as our lifespans outlast our bodies.
A relationship can be a lovely thing to have – but while you’re still single, work on becoming someone who’ll make a good partner, not just have one. And get to know the one person you’ll definitely be living with for the rest of your life – you!