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Disability and Dating: How to Talk to Your Family About Your Interabled Relationship During the Holidays

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17 Nov 2023

Disability and Dating: two people's feet in cozy socks in front of a warm fire, a festive environment

This post was written by our Resident Sexual Health Clinician, Dr. Kathryn Ellis, OTR/L, OTD, AASECT-SC, an occupational therapist and American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists Certified Sexuality Counselor. If you'd like her to answer your questions, submit them at the end of this page. 

For people in interabled relationships, spending time with family for the holidays can lead to some difficult conversations, emotions, and frustrations. In celebration and support of all the interabled couples out there, we wanted to put together a Family & Holiday Guide – like a gift guide, but instead of a product it’s the gift of not having your family say something ableist at the dinner table! 

This guide is geared towards the able bodied person in the relationship to give them strategies to be the proactive person in the relationship. However, it’s likely this guide is helpful for both partners. Additionally, if you’re disabled and reading this, we encourage you to share it with your partner. 

1. Educate about ableism

Disability and dating: a couple, lovingly hugging. The woman is lower and smiling widely while her partner wraps his arm around her and kisses her head from behind

Ableist comments can take many forms, but perhaps one of the most relevant for family and close friends is just confusion as to why their nondisabled loved one is dating someone with a disability. These comments can be tricky as they are often under the guise of “loved one’s best interest.” 

The able-bodied partner needs to be able to address these comments head on by calling out the ableism through education. If it’s your first time having this conversation with your family member, I suggest approaching the topic with curiosity and from an educational standpoint versus contentiously.

You can start by asking if they have ever heard the term ableist before or in response to an ableist comment, ask from a genuinely curious perspective, “why do you say that.” Sometimes opening up the conversation helps the family member be more receptive to your correction. 

You may find that it’s helpful to define ableism for family members. One good definition from the Amputee Coalition’s sexuality workbook, Let’s Talk About It: Your Sex & Intimacy Guide is “cultural and social habits and values that assume people with disabilities are less capable overall and, therefore, should have less attention and autonomy” (Ellis & Hoffman, pg 5). You can highlight and celebrate your relationship and make it clear you expect your family to do the same. 

2. Make it personal

Disability and dating: a group of friends gathered around the table, enjoying each other's company

When you’re the non-disabled person in the relationship, people can often make more ableist comments directly to you than to your partner. Sometimes without the disabled person in the room, people can be more unrestricted in what they say especially if they are your family or your friend. 

Something that is helpful is to just call out how the comment made you feel, for example, “hey that comment hurt me because it implies something negative about me, my partner, or the both of us.” Also, for the non-disabled person, you may not fully process the comments as ableist, hurtful, or misguided until a few days/hours later. This is normal as living non-disabled doesn’t prepare you to identify ableist microaggressions quickly. If this is the case, you can always communicate about the comment after the fact with family and friends.

3. Lean into other identities or dive into the disability identity

Disability and dating: a group of disabled individuals in wheelchairs performing a dance while dressed in white with ribbons and elaborate makeup

Giving family suggestions on talking points about hobbies and interests with your partner is always a great idea for family get-togethers.

Some disabled people feel really affirmed centering on their disability and appreciate speaking on it, while others may appreciate centering some of their other identities and life experiences, such as their career, education, travel, where they grew up, hobbies. Able-bodied folks can ask their disabled partners what they would prefer and educate their family accordingly on good talking points. 

4. Address overcompensating and undercompensating

Disability and dating: a younger woman talking to an older woman, seemingly explaining something

When I was in an interabled relationship, I noticed people either overcompensated or undercompensated. It seemed like people struggled to find the middle ground of how to best provide consideration or assistance. 

I’ll never forget when my partner fell walking on the beach and within five seconds about four people were chaotically handling him to lift him back up despite me saying, “please stop, he does not need help.” My partner was able to stand up without any assistance, but in this case, his personal space and boundaries were invaded in the vein of people “trying to be helpful.” 

Here are a few suggestions for you and your family: 

  • Educate on an “Ask before you touch” policy. 
  • Ask for an agenda of the planned events and see if there are any events you and your partner either can’t participate in or need accommodations to participate in. Either educate your family in advance that you can’t participate or make those accommodations. 
  • Invite your family to ask you any questions they have in advance of you and your partner spending time with them. This can help clarify some basic overnight guest concerns that can help your partner be more comfortable or help get some of the ableist thoughts addressed before you’re all together. 

Interested in more? Read our other Disability and Dating articles: 

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