The trending Netflix show “Love on The Spectrum” features Autistic twenty-somethings who are navigating the dating world in search of long-term partners. This series has recently garnered criticism from the disabled community, for its alleged bias toward disabled individuals pursuing relationships with likewise disabled individuals. Critics are alleging that the show favors equal-abled over inter-abled relationships. The age-old advice to find a partner with whom you share commonalities as a strong foundation for an enduring romantic pairing, remains. But in today’s society, does spreading the message that disabled persons are better off avoiding inter-abled relationships do more harm than good? Disability advocates are saying it does.
Kam Redlawk, a disabled artist and designer, and one half of an inter-abled couple living in Los Angeles, says “We [her and her husband Jason, whom she met in art school] frequently get congratulated by society, because my husband is deemed a hero and saint for “rescuing” poor disabled me. But there’s nothing “poor disabled” about me. I’m an equal as an individual human and an intimate partner in every way”. Kam explains that she has a “very rare and progressive muscle wasting condition called GNEM (genetic form of muscular dystrophy). If no treatment is found, this leads to complete immobility of my entire body. In the meantime, I’ve been living my life fully with great passion”. An outspoken advocate for the disabled community, Kam encourages her followers to learn more about her story, travels, and “things like ableism that direct society to view the disabled as victims who can’t or shouldn’t find love (because they think the disabled have nothing to offer, just because we’re disabled)”.
Another thoughtful and well-spoken advocate, Gina Schuh, openly shares her dating experiences on social media. Something that comes up repeatedly, when speaking to disabled persons about their dating interactions with fully abled persons: inappropriate questions! It would appear that when it comes to engaging a disabled person on a date, all decorum and social proprieties fly out the window, for abled persons. The number one question that disabled individuals get asked on a first date is: “Can you have sex?” “NO!” Gina jokes in an Instagram post. “When I broke my neck it sealed up like a Barbie doll.” This sort of behavior bemoans the overall lack of awareness of the abled public, about dating a disabled person.
Unfortunately, it also suggests something more insidious. To approach a disabled person – a fully formed, capable adult, and speak to them as if they’re an oddity so unique, as to unabashedly inquire about their bodily functions, without the normal veil of social respect that would be afforded to an abled date, suggests an unspoken ableism and superiority, that can lead to truly unhealthy, if not emotionally abusive relationship dynamics, such as fetishism, social inequality, toxic objectification, and more. That sort of behavior or line of questioning, when it is demonstrated prematurely in social interactions, should be considered a red flag to disabled daters, and points to inroads to a future relationship riddled with inequality and lack of respect.
As a society, we must view the macro image, and the implications thereof. If many disabled people navigating the dating world are limited to similarly disheartening interactions and ignorance displayed by abled people, then we must acknowledge the possibility that this unacceptable dynamic could become the default normal for an entire segment of society. Disabled people could be led falsely into perceiving that this kind of dysfunctional attention is all that’s out there for them, should they care to venture into inter-abled relationships. Should abled persons not be stopped in their tracks, promptly educated and informed, we run the risk of the majority population unintentionally perpetuating stigmas, stereotypes, and the kind of social inequality that leads to generations of needless marginalization of groups that subsequently become termed as “vulnerable members of our society”. In other words: to those disabled persons who are full of self-love and the confidence to set badly behaved abled persons straight, thank you. You are performing a service that benefits us all. And to those abled persons who treat your dates like exhibits at the zoo: It’s 2022, and you’ve overslept. Disabled people are just like you and me. They live awesomely full lives. They are quick-witted, brilliant, and self-aware. Yes, they have sex (though, not likely with you, if you’ve demonstrated a caveman-like disregard for their humanity by asking questions such as “can you feel sex?” and “can you feel?” on your first misbegotten date..)
The disabled community, which accounts for 15% of the world’s population, may be one of the least understood segments of society, and that has to change. There is no reason why, in the year 2022, the public conversation around inter-abled relationships is centered on whether they should exist.