Guest blogger: Miriam Freier, Chairperson, Shalheveth, Jerusalem
For many years now, I have worked closely with people who have severe physical disabilities. On most occasions, questions and problems relating to day-to-day living are the main topics of conversation. But lately, I’ve heard the deep desires in the hearts of many disabled people to experience a romantic relationship, while at the same time requesting guidance and support on how to pursue their desire.
Severely physically disabled people (paralyzed from the neck down or with substantial motor disabilities) most often grow to adulthood in an environment lacking in significant personal relationships, whether platonic or romantic. I have no doubt that the basic emotions of wanting to love and be loved are nesting in the hearts of many of these people but, for fear of the reaction of those around them or, perhaps, from a deep uncertainty as to whether their passions will be realized – they have hidden or denied their true desires.
For a person with disabilities, becoming acquainted with a potential partner is especially difficult as natural opportunities that take place at work or while serving in the army are not usually part of a disabled person’s life. While it is true that many disabled people lack the tools needed to create a romantic relationship, the first challenges arise even before they actually meet someone. What can we do to help? First, we have to look at our own set of prejudices. As a society, are we ready to see couples without “proper skills” taking care of children? We have heard a variety of reactions from family members such as, “What, now I will have to also take care of a grandchild?” or, “She is disabled and she doesn’t have a uterus – why is she getting married?” or, “Now I will need to take care of two disabled people and it is already difficult enough to take care of my own child (who often remains a dependent child in a parent’s eyes regardless of age). In fact, we have heard family members threaten to sever connections from their adult children when they express their desire to be in a romantic relationship.
Here at Shalheveth we believe that it is possible to change both private and public attitudes regarding disabled people in loving relationships. It is possible when people with vision such as the Ruderman Family Foundation are able to provide support and guidance to an organization such as Shalheveth that offers autonomous living opportunities and support services for adults with severe physical disabilities.
While working to get the word out and raise awareness regarding this important issue, Shalheveth is providing assistance to individuals and groups of disabled people by offering workshops with professionals who grapple with difficult questions. The “Significant Others” program offers tools to facilitate romantic relationships and provide both support and relevant practical information and suitable aides, and imparting information regarding various positions that will allow people to engage in sexual relations in the possible ways.
When discussing the issue of relationships between people with disabilities, specific difficulties related to their physical disability are a critical piece of the dialogue. The ability to make a first physical touch, light caress or even to move one’s body towards a partner, are all nearly impossible when a person is paralyzed. Together with these severe physical obstacles, disabled people often feel a tremendous lack of self-confidence and fear of failing in a relationship with a significant other.
This is an area where Shalheveth is now in a position to do so much good. At the end of a recent workshop, one of the participants remarked, “Now I understand that I also might have a chance at finding someone to love…”
— Miriam Freier