Many of the people we spoke with identified challenges associated with navigating the dating world. These challenges ranged from not knowing how to approach a potential partner, to feeling uncomfortable and stigmatized because of their disability, to having family and support workers intervene and limit possibilities for private dates. Several of the men we spoke with expressed a fear of dating because they felt they would not be able to provide for a future family, and had been lead to believe that marriage was the ultimate goal of dating. Some of the people we spoke with had never had the opportunity to go on a romantic date, though they expressed the desire to. The stories below depict some of the common challenges we heard related to dating and romantic relationships.
Brian Rogers is a 33-year-old man who has Asperger’s Syndrome. He resides in a supportive living arrangement in a mid-sized city, and is a devoted Mormon who attends church every weekend. Brian receives funding from AISH, but some people make him feel uncomfortable about this by questioning the legitimacy of his disability. He felt included during high school and stays in touch with his old friends. Brian found sexual education in school unhelpful because it focused exclusively on the mechanics of sex, rather than on how to start and maintain a relationship. Dating has been a struggle for Brian, and he illustrates this with the story of his marriage. Brian met his wife online, and they separated 6 months after they quickly wed. His wife, who was from England, was not allowed to work or receive AISH as a landed immigrant, so the couple was put under considerable financial strain. Brian’s marriage was the only time that he has had sex or been in a relationship. He says the reason for this is his fear of rejection, which his family and friends have not tried to help alleviate. Brian also mentions that he does not date because he feels that he could not provide for a family, which presents an obstacle because he sees marriage and children as the end-goal of dating. Brian feels that to overcome this he would need more supports and education about relationships. Brian is very conscious of the challenges people with disabilities face in relationships, and says equality for people with disabilities must extend beyond paid labour.
Mike is a 34-year-old man with intellectual disabilities who works at segregated day program and volunteers with an animal adoption agency. He lives with his mom in an apartment in a mid-sized Alberta city. Mike went to school in a segregated classroom, and his sexual education consisted of an annual half-afternoon class from a nurse. The nurse discussed the mechanics of penetrative sex, STIs, and relationships. Mike asked some of his female friends out during high school, but they all declined. After graduation he was socially isolated, and held mostly custodial jobs that left him little room for connecting with others. Mike met his girlfriend of 3 years at his agency, and he proposed to her after they had been dating for a year. She said “yes,” but after visiting her family, she reversed her decision. It seems her sexuality is constrained by her family, and Mike says that he has not had sex with her because her family does not want her to have a child. Their intimacy is thus restricted to cuddling with their clothes on. Although the family and supporters of Mike’s girlfriend are happy to see the two dating, they do not want things to go beyond that because they do not think the two would make suitable parents. Mike says that he wants to get married and move out, but he is discouraged by his parents from doing so, and has not been given the necessary supports and information to live on his own.
George is a 28-year-old man who has cerebral palsy, a visual impairment, and a learning disability. He is his own guardian and lives alone in an apartment in a mid-sized city in Alberta. He was not seeing anyone at the time of the interview. George describes himself as an advocate for persons with disabilities. At the time of our interview he was collecting AISH and attending college, studying to be a personal trainer. A couple of nights a month George works as an independent DJ, and he is also active in disabled sports. He speaks of his father as a crucial figure in his life, especially because of his support in fighting societal barriers related to his disabilities. However, even his father who is so supportive in many ways does not see George as a future parent. George is quite outgoing and leads an active social life. He studied in segregated classrooms until high school, and his last three years of school were in the regular classroom. The sex education classes in high school gave George useful information about the subject, and the teacher took extra time to make sure that he got information that pertained to persons with disabilities. The transition to a more inclusive educational environment was instrumental to developing his social skills and gaining confidence. George dated actively in high school, but his girlfriend from that time passed away. Later in adolescence, he began a long-term relationship with a young woman with disabilities that lasted for 7 years, and it ended under quite turbulent circumstances. The break-up concluded with George being charged for harassment, and he is now on 2 years’ probation. His disabilities played an important role in the court case, with much of his behaviour being attributed to his intellectual disabilities.
Twyla is a 28-year-old woman who has severe learning disabilities. She was scheduled to move into an assisted living situation in a basement suite and start work at a recycling depot a few days after the interview. Twyla was sexually abused as a child by her mother’s boyfriend, and the police investigation and trial were very hard on her. Twyla’s school did not acknowledge her invisible disability until grade ten, when she was two years behind. She found her sexual education lacking because it did not cover homosexuality. Her first relationship ended in a short engagement after she discovered that her male fiancé was unfaithful. Afterwards, Twyla started dating a female co-worker, but had to break up due to societal prejudice against homosexuality. Twyla then entered into a relationship with a single mom whose child she looked after. However, Twyla discovered she was cheating, and they broke up. Most recently, Twyla was in a long-term relationship with a woman who has Crohn’s disease. Twyla paid all their finances, but once her girlfriend started to receive AISH, Twyla’s low-cost housing was revoked, and she was suddenly responsible for higher living costs. They broke-up after Twyla discovered her girlfriend cheating online. Twyla was not given the tools and social connections needed to help her deal with these relationships, in which she felt taken advantage of, nor has she been given the financial support needed to feel secure. Although Twyla attends the social events of the local LGBTQ organisation, she feels she cannot develop a deep connection with anybody there since she never sees them outside of organisation events.
Roger is a 30-year-old man who has progressive Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy. He uses an electric wheelchair. Roger lives with his parents in a large city, and he plans to move to Quebec for his Ph.D. on romantic love & disability. Roger was bullied in school, and his sexual education made no mention of disability or pleasure. His Evangelical Christian parents have had a large impact on his sexuality, making him feel ashamed for having sex, and instilling many values he now rejects. Roger met his first and only girlfriend online, and her friends and family tried to dissuade her from dating somebody with disabilities. In part this had to do with disablist norms of hegemonic masculinity, which Roger was trying to rework or reject. Their relationship was further complicated by Roger’s parents, because he had to argue with them to let him have sex, and needed to plan sexual encounters for nights they were not around. The break-up was very hard on Roger, and he used counselling to restore his self-esteem. Afterwards, Roger negotiated online to have sex with a sex worker at the apartment he lived in at the time. He felt unsatisfied with the business-like exchange, and would prefer to have sex with someone whom he is comfortable and familiar with. Roger says it is difficult to find dates that are critical of disablist social attitudes, and states that the onus to alleviate social isolation should not be solely placed on people with disabilities.