We spoke with many people who described various challenges associated with building and sustaining personal relationships. In such cases, people were unaware of how to sustain healthy social and emotional relationships, and as a result were isolated from peers and romantic partners. In some cases, people we spoke with had little interaction with anyone beyond their immediate support network, while in others people described multiple abusive relationships that they felt powerless to escape. Each of these individuals identified a lack of information and/or supports being key to their difficulties building healthy relationships. The stories below highlight the often negative and lasting impact of lacking the tools to interpret and negotiate personal relationships.
Kylie is a 28-year-old woman who was diagnosed with a learning disability (mild, hidden) and Tuberous Sclerosis (affecting her lungs). She lives in a large city in Alberta with her common-law partner who does not have a disability. They have been together for the last 6 years, and have a 20-month-old daughter. Kylie attended regular classes until grade 6. After that, she was placed in a segregated setting because doctors and her parents believed regular classes would be difficult for her. She took sex education classes in school. Beginning in childhood, Kylie’s parents isolated her and, in attempt to protect her, constrained her social life. Her first boyfriend was very violent and was mentally, emotionally, and sexually abusive. Since she was not given many tools to help her interpret and negotiate interpersonal relationships, she did not recognize the abusive nature of that relationship until a police woman suggested that she visit a women’s shelter. Kylie states that the fact that she has a hidden disability makes it harder for her to obtain supports from the government and private agencies. However, she received extraordinary support from one of her workers who later became her friend. Growing up, Kylie was discouraged from having kids by her parents, teachers, and doctors because she was not seen as someone who could care for a child. When Kylie became pregnant with her daughter, everyone around her was against her pregnancy, and her doctor even recommended that she terminate it. Even though Kylie accomplished much more than others expected– she earned a college certificate, got a drivers’ licence, and she manages her role as a parent quite successfully – her mother still sees her as an incompetent parent.
Jason is a 26-year-old man who has ADHD and does not consider himself disabled. He lives alone in an apartment in a large town. Jason works for a utilities company and delivers flyers, and his hobby is building computers. Jason’s parents divorced when he was 10 years old, and this event has had a big impact on Jason’s life. He was severely bullied during school in the USA; however, rather than address the bullying, the schools penalized him and transferred him elsewhere. The only sexual education Jason received was in elementary school, which was not useful because it omitted information about girls. His dad and stepmom did not talk with him about sex either, so Jason had to learn about it from movies, internet pornography, and his high school girlfriends. After high school Jason moved back to Canada by himself, and has since been socially isolated and single. Jason has not been given the tools and training for smooth social interaction. For example, he invited a group of unacquainted minors in from a snowstorm for hot chocolate, which resulted in a police inquiry and harassing phone calls. He has also had difficulty in starting and maintaining relationships, because he was not taught how to interact with people by his parents or mentors. Jason says he is interested in having a girlfriend, but not interested in having sex. He is his own guardian, although his grandfather exerts a heavy influence on Jason’s life by controlling his finances and frequently threatening him. This significantly contributes to Jason’s social isolation and lack of autonomy.
Chuck is a 27-year-old man who has intellectual and learning disabilities (which affect reading and writing) as well as depression. He rents an apartment with a roommate of his choosing in a medium-sized city, and is an inactive Mormon. Chuck works part time for a catering company and receives AISH. He eventually wants to have an apprenticeship-based career. Chuck’s invisible disability was doubted in his integrated classes, and he ran into difficulty convincing a teacher that he genuinely needed to use the resource lab. Chuck’s sexual education did not cover relationships skills, and the teachers were reluctant to answer questions. His peers socially excluded him from their small-town high school, and it was not until he graduated that he began to date. Chuck’s family and religion expected him to get married and have kids, but did not provide the directions or resources needed for him to realise these expectations. Chuck met his first girlfriend at an integrated bowling league, but they broke-up because Chuck had not been taught by his parents or teachers how to sustain a relationship. He has had three girlfriends since then, and has not had sex. Chuck links sex to children and marriage, and he does not feel capable of providing for a family because he lacks financial supports. Chuck stresses the importance of communication in relationships, and spoke about the exclusionary text-based design of online dating. Some girls think that Chuck is gay, which seems to be linked to the disablist notion that disability is incompatible with heteronormative masculinity.
Carl is a 28-year-old man who has learning disabilities and ADHD. His family includes his parents, who are his guardians, two brothers, and one sister. He lives in Calgary with a supportive family. In school, Carl studied in segregated Special Education classrooms. He did not participate in sex education classes. Carl learned about relationships from his father, who also has a disability (ADHD). Carl’s father taught him about appropriate conduct when talking to women, how to maintain eye contact, and about birth control. He also introduced him to masturbation. These are subjects that Carl seems to be very comfortable with, but he does not feel prepared when it comes to interpreting body language. Although he wants to date someone and to be sexual active, he does not have enough tools to interpret and navigate interpersonal relationships that would lead to emotional and sexual fulfillment. Carl has never had sex, but he has some understanding about how sex works because he watches porn movies. He also tries to learn more about romance and love by watching movies that are dedicated to this topic. He would like to have a stable emotional relationship, and to be a parent. He is not concerned about passing on a disability, as he considers it to be a value.
Brianne is a 53 year old woman who was diagnosed with multiple congenital defects and a learning disability. She uses oxygen and a wheelchair. Brianne lives with ten people in a congregate care complex in a large city, and is part of an advocacy organization. She completed mainstream high school at a time when sexual education was not offered. Brianne’s family was open about sex, and her dad bought her sex toys because he perceived that she was sexually frustrated. However, neither her family nor her support worker encouraged or expected Brianne to find sexual partners, so she did not have her first sexual encounter until she was 35, with a man she met over phone sex. It was very upsetting for her, and afterwards he left indefinitely under the pretense of buying chips. Brianne was quite fond of a married man who she also met through phone sex, and sometimes she would go to his house. However, Brianne could only travel there by handi-bus, which runs on a limited schedule. Not all the men Brianne had sex with used condoms, and she was not taught about their importance by her support systems. Brianne sometimes felt uncomfortable with the men who came into her home, but she had not been taught to assert herself in a way that made her feel safe and comfortable. Brianne’s support worker eventually helped her realise that she wants phone sex only if the man gives her pleasure and cleans up afterwards. Nonetheless, Brianne has stopped having phone sex, because she wants a relationship with more than just physical intimacy.
To read more about Brianne’s story, visit Sexuality: Now.
Timothy is a 50-year-old man who has Cerebral Palsy. He is his own guardian and lives alone in a large city in Alberta. Timothy attended a segregated elementary school for two years, and then went on to public school where he was in regular classrooms. He had some sexual education classes, which he found to be very useful and increase his knowledge on the subject. However, Timothy does not think that these classes helped him in terms of pursuing a relationship. Moreover, the classes did not include any information related to his disability and sexuality. During his years in school, he felt quite isolated and lonely. Timothy’s parents were never comfortable discussing sex and sexuality with him or his brother, so his information on the subject came from sex education classes, through talking with friends (who were often persons with disabilities), and by reading books. Timothy and his brother are very close, and they discuss issues regarding sex. Timothy had his first girlfriend when he was at university and engaged in sexual relationships later in his life. Timothy thinks he may have had relationships earlier if he had more supports in place. Although his parents never expected him to have a family of his own, Timothy did sometimes think about having kids, which has not happened.