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Disability and Dating: Tips for Interabled Relationships

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09 Jun 2023

Disability and dating: an interabled couple is cuddling romantically on a beach while a wheelchair sits behind them

We had people submit their questions about interabled dating to 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. 

How does disability affect interabled relationships?

Disability can impact relationships more in external ways than internal ways. A lot of the impact on relationships has to do with the external perceptions of people outside the relationship, so a lot of times couples will have to deal with how their relationship is perceived, which can be frustrating. 

A way disability can impact the inner workings of a relationship is that it can create health communication practices. People with disabilities are often used to advocating for themselves using assertive communication. They understand what they need to get through the day. Additionally, they may have a deeper understanding of their own preferences and nuance because of the way society others people with disabilities.  

Able-bodied individuals can have a lack of awareness around what their needs and wants are because they can be assumed or just considered as “what everyone else needs.” Further, they may have the experience of having their needs met without needing to voice them. 

When people hold identities and have experiences that are considered to be the norm, they do not often get the opportunity to consider what makes them nuanced or unique. Here’s a good example I hear often from clients who are straight, able-bodied males: when I ask them what sexual things they enjoy doing, many respond with “I’m a typical guy, I just like what typical guys like.”

Disability can help to make those conversations be more explicit. Instead of “I like, you know, typical sex,” the conversation about what people like to do when they have sex is much more expansive and detailed.  

Disability doesn't necessarily change the dynamic of a “normal relationship” because there is no normal relationship. What it does is present another way relationships can look.

For example, in the media and Hollywood, we don't see what disability looks like in relationships. So, it can feel like disability could change what is inherent and normal in relationships. When, on the contrary, it's just one of many ways that relationships can be experienced.

What is relationship ableism?

Ableism is the discrimination or the devaluing of people with disabilities. Relationship ableism is the idea that an able-bodied person can't be with a disabled person because they are devalued.  

People have a bias that for an able-bodied person to want or desire someone with a disability, there must be something wrong with the able-bodied person. There is a perception that it's odd, weird, pathological, or unethical.

This infantilizes the person with the disability, and it assumes that the able-bodied person could be taking advantage of the person with a disability.

So, relationship ableism influences people to expect that people with disabilities should only be dating other people with disabilities. These biases are very harmful and hurtful to people with disabilities and to the folks that date them.

Further, relationship ableism influences people to hold a bias that the able-bodied person must be providing caregiving to the person with the disability. I remember when I was in an interabled relationship, I was offended when somebody made the assumption that I did my partner's laundry. At the time, my partner lived alone independently, and he did his own laundry without assistance.

What was even more frustrating for me was that the person knew that my partner lived alone and was independent, but they just assumed I did their laundry. I'm sure they also assumed I cleaned and cooked for them when, in reality, my partner was the one who cooked most often. 

Relationship ableism assumes that not only there's always a caregiving dynamic, but also that the caregiving dynamic is the able-bodied person as the caregiver and then the disabled person as the one receiving caregiving. On the contrary there are interabled relationship dynamics where the person with the disability is providing caregiving to the person without a disability.  

Tips for interabled relationships: a couple smiles cutely into each other's face while wearing white in a forest

Do interabled relationships work? What makes them either more challenging or more rewarding?

Yes, they absolutely do work.

One of the challenges for people living with a disability is that it can involve a lot of interaction with the medical community and healthcare needs. That can be fatiguing and stressful. The medical community also can at times treat people with disabilities in a way that is disrespectful or reinforces the stigma. 

That's a stressful aspect of having a disability. So, when you're in a relationship with somebody with a disability, that stress is often shared and that can be challenging for the couple.

Ways that it can be enjoyable is back to that idea of really explicit communication. 

As I mentioned before, people with disabilities have said that it's almost like a forced requirement that they must be communicating well from the first date. They need to communicate what they need and what will make them comfortable, and that in turn means the disabled individual can also be more receptive when their partner voices their wants and needs.

As such, partners in interabled relationships can be very open and understanding of the wants and needs of their partner. There can be something very erotic about voicing your wants and having them be met. When you ask and then receive that can be a way to build sexual desire. It can help couples feel more connected.

It’s important to remember that every relationship dynamic is going to be different. Relationships can have challenges and joys for reasons that have nothing to do with disability, so it’s important to not view everything through the lens of the disability.

What can couples do to make the relationship sexually satisfying?

I've had a lot of clients talk about their partners, whether able-bodied or disabled, taking the time to get to know their body. The disabled partner may have hypertonicity, or they have sensitivities or pain, and as such, they feel that good sex has come from when their partners really take the time to understand how to move their body.

I heard a story about a person with a disability who grew up next door to another kid their age and they were really good friends. They did a lot together and the neighbor would come over and help the person with a disability with their self-care. For example, help them get dressed or with some of their mobility. 

As a result, this neighbor was very comfortable physically touching their body in a way that was comfortable to the individual. Lo and behold, years later as adults they started dating and there was a big aspect where this person had already taken the time to learn how to touch, caress, hold, and handle the disabled person. This led to great sex. 

If there’s chronic pain associated with the disability, then another resource are these pain management techniques for when wanting to have sex.

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