Relationship advice for persons with disabilities

No, I’m not starting a relationship column and becoming an agony aunt.

It is just that, on many disability forums, especially among friends on Facebook (with disabilities) and disability groups, I have observed that many people are interminably agonizing themselves over the prospect of finding love and getting into relationships with the opposite sex (or the same sex).

I’m long past that age, but I believe I’m at a stage when I can objectively and dispassionately talk about the issue with a touch of insight that can maybe help some people.

Three things to keep in mind while reading this:

I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has lived his whole life with cerebral palsy and cerebral palsy has a cornucopia of disabilities it can shower you with. Hence, in cerebral palsy disabilities are multiple, usually with all your limbs affected. In many cases, speech and vision are also affected.

Also please keep another thing in mind that although here I may advise you against not doing certain things, I may myself have done them because as Garcia rightly says in Love in the Time of Cholera, “Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.”

Finally, you may not be able to relate to what I’m writing here. Maybe you have a physical condition that gives you no hope of ever getting into a romantic relationship. That’s fine. But you know what? A person standing in front of me, looking at me sitting in my power wheelchair with my upper body going in one direction, lower body going in another, and legs in another and a hand totally twisted inwards, may have the same opinion about me and yet here I am, living with my wife and daughter, paying my own rent, writing this. Life is full of surprises.

Still, I’m not writing for everyone because then I won’t be able to write at all.

On with it.

In a certain age, the desire to strike up romantic relationships is natural. Everybody is looking for a boyfriend or a girlfriend and in cultures where courtship is not permitted, people desire a match made by their seniors.

People are getting married and getting into and out of relationships in droves when they’re young. Infatuation is a preferred pass time and underhand games of flirtation are played in every nook and corner.

In the Western society the situation is so dire that if you are not in a relationship people treat you as if you are assailed by a monumental misfortune. You become an outcast. You become a subject of derision. You are advised to visit a shrink.

Young boys and girls spend a considerable amount of time thinking about other boys and girls and thinking of ways to get in the proximity of other boys and girls. This is a dominant feature of pretty much every conversation during that age.

For a disabled person who is socially active or socially conscious, this can be the most agonizing phase of life. It’s like the entire flock of migratory birds is leaving for the winter, leaving a single bird with broken wings behind.

Their friends begin to develop other interests and the disabled cannot be a part of those interests. Their disability is rubbed into their faces daily. Peers, cousins and siblings looking for romantic relationships, coupled with the fact that they are not a part of this extensive, life-altering global ritual, makes persons with disabilities feel like outcasts.

They are not even considered as sexual beings and any thought of they getting attracted to someone or someone getting attracted to them is either frowned upon or ridiculed.

Events like Valentine’s Day further exacerbate the situation when you are as good as dead if you don’t have a romantic relationship.

This state of affairs results in lots of resentment, rejection and sadness.

People with disabilities are dealt blows from two angles: they figure nowhere in the romantic pursuits of the people of their age, and even the idea of them having such feelings for someone or expecting such feelings from someone invites awkwardness, reprimands, and worse, pity.

You will find most of the disabled complaining how the world is insensitive and how people cannot see them beyond their disabilities. In fact, if you talk to a person with a disability on this issue, he or she is going to either curse his or her disability for putting him or her in such a situation, or blame the other person for not being able to see the real him or her and instead, just see the disability. Non-disabled people seem shallow and cruel.

The disabled rarely try to analyse the situation from a distance, objectively, and I don’t blame them, as such wisdom comes when you are not occupied with the desperation of getting into a romantic relationship.

There was a time when we used to have “special” schools — I got my initial education from one such special school. There might be many disadvantages and drawbacks of studying in a special school but one good thing about such schools is that all the students in the class and in the school are in the same boat. Whatever emotions and problems you may go through, nobody is going to overlook you or avoid you or exclude you for your disability.

With inclusive education persons with disabilities study in “normal” schools. They grow up surrounded by students and teachers whose exposure to disability is only limited to “that disabled person in the class” who is to be befriended because you are so good and kindhearted.

The disabled persons in normal schools never get to spend time with students or teachers for whom disability is not a tragedy, but a part of life. There are very few common activities they can participate in. Despite being constantly surrounded by normal people, normal conversions, normal intrigues, normal plans, normal desires and normal activities, there is constantly this line that keeps them separate from even their close friends. The more they grow up, the more prominent the line gets.

In senior school and then in college (and after college) people are no longer confined to a limited physical space. They bunk classes. They make movie plans. They attend esoteric events. They go to concerts. They attend art festivals. They go to trekking and camping expeditions. They do club hopping. They go to parties. They attend marriages and engagement ceremonies. They have sexual encounters in prehistoric ruins or even on cinema hall seats.

There is this entire constellation of things that young people do, and the beauty of these activities is that most of them happen spontaneously, and since able bodied people don’t need much accommodation, they are not just fine with spontaneity, they even welcome it.

You can rarely make spontaneous plans with a disabled person.

Hence, everyone begins to drift away, and this is where exists the crux of the problem which persons with disabilities don’t analyse when they are in the thick of things.

Young people are full of energy. They move around a lot. They are restless. They like pursuing things and people, and they like being pursued. They even like getting in trouble.

Dating a disabled person can be a logistical nightmare for a young person. Even as simple a task as visiting the nearby coffee shop requires elaborate planning.

Remember that dating and romance, especially at young age, isn’t just about having sex, talking mushy and chatting over a cup of coffee. People get bored.

Besides, even if they want to spend time with you, the rest of their friends are indulging in other activities that are more entertaining and challenging.

Dating and romancing involves all the activities mentioned above, and much more.

Although exceptions are always there, dating a person with disability is mostly a sedentary activity. Movements of a disabled person, especially in a developing country like India where, despite laws and Acts, accessibility is a privilege and not a fundamental right, are quite limited.

If you are in school, you are either confined to your class, or the ground floor of your school building, assuming there are no random steps in front of individual rooms. You can’t even participate in cultural activities because the auditorium may not have a ramp and sometimes you cannot even reach the main hall where the audience sits, due to steps.

I remember in college I couldn’t go to the canteen because in the doorway they had installed an iron grill due to some historical reason, and everyone had to hop over a small wall to reach the canteen. While everyone headed to the canteen to socialize during intervals, I was confined to sitting in the lobby.

Why am I mentioning this?

You cannot manipulates your way into a romantic relationship. You cannot even emotionally blackmail someone to fall in love with you. It is usually a cosmic conspiracy.

Most of the romantic relationships are based on serendipity. You have to be present in various situations to bump into prospective partners. You can’t just sit somewhere and then hope for someone to come to you, sit with you, understand the “real” you and then fall in love with you.

Nah. It doesn’t happen this way. Love is never planned. Love is like that leaf that separates from a high branch and then gets trapped in an eddy of wind and you can never tell exactly where it is going to fall. You cannot keep standing at a fixed place and hope that it’ll land on your palm.

Courtship happens during bus rides to picnics or train rides during journeys. It happens during marriage and engagement ceremonies, during festive gatherings, during games among friends, during public protests and college strikes, during parties, on the dance floor, at the canteen and during various other mercurial circumstances when people are pushed together in close proximity by the unruly hands of vicissitude. For persons with disabilities, these circumstances are often beyond reach.

It’s a disadvantage. It’s reality. Some can overcome, most cannot.

Now, the advise part.

Relationships don’t happen for the sake of happening. There are lots of dynamics involved. In fact, I believe, relationships are mostly byproducts of other circumstances, as described above.

Although during a certain age young boys and girls are constantly, consciously, on the lookout for prospective partners, they have an advantage that people with disabilities don’t have. Normal people can move fast. They are not thrown off balance if they suddenly have to go somewhere with their friends, cousins or colleagues. They can run around, they can play games, they can hang around, they can dance, and they can do all sorts of things during social gatherings and social occasions. These are circumstances. These are fertile realms where new relationships sprout.

Disabled people don’t have the luxury and the facility to be in such circumstances. If they can grasp the fact that people not wanting to get into romantic relationships with them is less personal and more circumstantial, they will not only be happier, they will also improve their chances of getting into a romantic relationship.

Of course disability matters. I’m not saying disability doesn’t put people off. In a world where people are obsessed with looks and status, they want to be with good looking people, they want to be seen with good looking and influential people, especially at a younger age. To make people see you beyond your disability, you need to offer them something that makes them overlook your disability.

The world is full of possibilities, and this is not just pep talk. You never know what’s going to happen round the corner. It’s quite bizarre how me and my wife met (a story for another time).

As a person with disability, to save yourself from immense pain, you need to change the way you look at yourself, the way you look at other people, and the way you look at your disability.

At a macro level we may all be a part of a grand, cosmic scheme, but at individual levels, life is quite chaotic. This may often throw you off balance, but it also sometimes brings unanticipated blessings your way. Start believing that anything can happen. Even things that seem impossible.

There is a philosophy of thought called “The Law of Attraction”. The sum total of this philosophy is that what we think, we attract. If you constantly expect bad things to happen, bad things actually begin to happen.

I’m not saying you jump off a cliff expecting you are going to fly yourself to safety, but in your day-to-day life, if you constantly think that people are judging you based on your disability and people are going to dislike you or people are going to get bored and leave because of your disability, all these things will actually happen. It shows on your face, in your eyes, in your body language.

When I used to walk with elbow crutches (now I’m on power wheelchair) I used to feel terrible about my zigzag posture. There was a mirror right in front of our college entrance and whenever I entered I was confronted by my full body serpentine image, a stark contrast to the charming, well groomed and straight-looking boys and girls in the lobby. I would feel miserable. The negative thoughts would make me clench my fists and make my lips go sideways and perforate the muscles of my neck, and I’d be all sweaty and out of breath.

Not much help was available back in those days. I had never heard of self help books. There was no Internet where you could read helpful blog posts or join online communities for support. You had to deal with everything on your own.

I don’t remember for how long I went on feeling miserable.

Then one day, while sitting in the college lobby, I told myself, “Look, this is the best you have got. You cannot exchange this body and it is not going to straighten up in the foreseeable future. You bathe in the morning. You shave. You wear trendy clothes. You have a nice hairstyle. Your face is not bad to look at. At this juncture, this is the best you can do. Feel good about what you have, stop worrying about what you don’t.”

Of course this train of thought didn’t take place on a single day, but gradually I was able to convince myself that feeling bad about the way I looked only made matters worse, and the only option for me was to feel good about myself.

Did my life take a turn for better? I definitely stopped feeling bad about how I looked because I was the way I was and it was not in my hand to change that.

If you have bad thoughts about people and about yourself, you radiate negative energy and people can feel this negative energy and even if initially they are drawn to you, they are repelled.

So, if you want to change something in your life, and which you can do immediately, at this very moment, start feeling good about yourself. Think it logically… is feeling bad about yourself helping you in any way or do you believe it brings you some sort of advantage? If not, why not feel good?

I know there is no on-off switch that enables you to feel good or bad about yourself, but you can at least start considering changing your outlook towards yourself.

What you have got is the best you have got. If you think you can make it better and if it matters to you so much, drop whatever you are doing and spend every ounce of energy that you have for making yourself better. If not, buy peace with yourself.

A big mistake that youngsters commit is that they focus too much on the outcome while doing little about creating circumstances that are needed for that outcome.

As I’ve written above, relationships don’t happen just for the sake of happening, especially serious relationships. Instead of worrying about getting into a relationship, start creating circumstances that will make it easier and appealing for the other person to be with you.

A person may be attracted to you due to the following reasons: sexual chemistry, physical appearance, intellectual or professional parity, money and power, some extraordinary capacity in you, something the person needs and only you can provide, social or psychological security, expectation of a favor, circumstantial necessity or social status. Yes, there is no thing as unconditional romantic love.

There are other reasons too, but these are the fundamental reasons why people come together and become a couple or get married to each other.

If you understand and acknowledge this basic fact, suddenly you stop feeling resentful and dejected. As a disabled person, if your love remains unrequited and you feel miserable about that then there is a great chance you are blaming the other person, and judging him or her. And in the process, you make your life a living hell.

What’s the solution then?

Don’t make attracting someone the primary purpose of living. The more desperate you get, the more you blame the other person, the harder life gets. In fact this advise holds good whether you are disabled or not.

Find out your true potential. Everyone has one, it’s just a matter of knowing it.

These days on social media you find lots of videos of couples where one partner is disabled and the other is not. Have you noticed one thing? The disabled partner is a high achiever, in whatever. Maybe he or she is a renowned activist or speaker. Like Stephen Hawkins, maybe he or she is an acclaimed scientist. Maybe a mountaineer. Maybe an actor, a singer, or a writer. A millionaire maybe.

Offer something. Whether you are disabled or not, you’re not going to attract someone just because of your presence in the world. What do you bring to the table, that’s very important.

You know what’s claustrophobia? A claustrophobic person finds it difficult to breath in complete darkness or confined space. He convinces himself into believing that there isn’t much air around to breath. He starts gasping and sweating. He even faints sometimes. All this while, other people who don’t have claustrophobia are perfectly fine. Even in complete darkness they can breath because they know that even if they can’t see, they can easily breath.

The same happens when you solely focus on getting into a romantic relationship. You begin to think that unless the other person reciprocates, your life has no meaning.

It has thousands of alternative meanings. It’s just that you are focusing on something that you don’t have, while completely ignoring what you have, or what you may have.

I know when you are caught in a whirlwind of attraction it’s difficult to imagine that there are other parts of the world where the breeze is pleasant and the skies are charming, but the reality is, there are actually parts of the world where the breeze is pleasant and the skies are charming, it’s just that, our circumstances don’t allow us the needed mental space.

I don’t know how it happens in other countries, disabled people don’t date much among themselves in India. I know there are scores of valid reasons why they don’t do so, but there is also a mental hangup. Most of the disabled desire non-disabled partners unless there is some ideological reason to think otherwise. Whether it’s sexual or some sort of validation (been there, done that), disabled people get more attracted to non-disabled people.

I accept that realistically, planning a life with another disabled person is fraught with lots of problems, both social and practical. An average disabled person has to go through lots of mental trauma due to his or her disability. People stare. People pity. They rankle you. They discriminate against you. They bully you. After years of torment, you conclude that the less visible you are, the fewer are the chances of being pitied, being ridiculed, being mocked and being excluded.

The prospect of having another person disabled too, magnifies the manifestation of disability. Now there are two people to be pitied, to stare, to mock. There will be two people struggling with stairs and steps, two people becoming a spectacle due to no fault of theirs.

And if you are dependent on someone else (parents, guardians, siblings, relatives), you don’t want to bring another disabled person and aggravate the situation.

As a disabled person, unless you can live independently and you can manage on your own physically and financially, personally, I wouldn’t like to recommend a lasting relationship. Of course if you and your caregivers don’t mind, you can live with whomever you feel comfortable with, but don’t resent your caregivers if they’re not comfortable with bringing another disabled person.

But nothing stops you from dating a disabled person.

You see, romantic love is the most over-hyped emotion. Once you get married and begin to raise a family, it isn’t romantic love that helps you, it’s your life skill. Even if you don’t plan to raise a family, lifelong commitment is a big commitment, so think carefully before you jump headlong into the pool of conjugal cohabitation.

In the meantime, don’t rule out dating disabled people. If there is intellectual and attitudinal (and ideological) harmony, you are going to enjoy the proximity and conversations. You’ll have someone to call and send corny messages to. You may also enjoy sex, but take precautions. There will be greater understanding. And who knows what may turn up? No need to make long term plans. Just enjoy the relationship and the intimacy. There is no hurry. Believe me, life is very long.

In the end, what I’d like to stress upon again is, focus on achieving your potential while you have time. At a younger age, your mind is unsullied by cynicism and disappointments. Physically you are stronger and more flexible, which means you can put in more hours and work harder. Whatever you want to become, decide, and start working towards it. Be someone worth being with. The rest, just follows.

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I don’t care much about being politically correct. Things are just right or wrong and yes, sometimes there are grey areas in this is why we write, don’t we?