“I don’t like wheelchairs. I am ok, I am” – Partner Selection and the Stigma associated with Outward Indicators of Disability | By Dr Claire Bates (Choice Support, Tizard Centre, University of Kent).
By Laurie A Poole, on 7 December 2017
What do people with learning disabilities want in a partner?
My PhD showed me that people with learning disabilities want to find love just like anyone else, that they value similar characteristics and attributes to the general population: a kind, affectionate and loving partner. However, traditionally desirable characteristics among people without learning disabilities, such as physical attractiveness and social status, were unimportant (Bates et al., 2016). To help more people with learning disabilities to find love, I have subsequently established a national network comprising both professionals and people with learning disabilities called ‘Supported Loving’ (https://www.choicesupport.org.uk/our-work/supported-loving-campaign).
Can people with learning disabilities only date other people with learning disabilities?
At a recent Supported Loving network meeting, I was challenged by a new member who questioned our promotion of relationships exclusively within the learning disability population. In my ten years’ experience as a safeguarding committee member and sixteen years working in social care, I am not aware of any happy intimate relationships existing between a couple where only one person has a learning disability. Historically, research identified such relationships as typically between women with learning disabilities and men with mental health issues or those who engage in undesirable or criminal behaviour (Craft & Craft, 1979), and recently between women with learning disabilities and men who abused them (McCarthy et al., 2017). I want to believe this type of non-exploitative relationship exists or is disability stigma too ingrained in our culture for this type of relationship to exist?
Outward indicators of disability – a dating no-no?
Having a partner was a source of great pride to all participants in my research. Everyone liked it to be public knowledge that they had a partner and that they were desired and important to someone. For younger people with learning disabilities there was a pressure to ‘fit in’ by being in a relationship. However, it appeared there were limits to what people found ‘acceptable’ in a potential partner. Bates et al. (2016) highlighted that prejudice towards dating someone with a disability is not solely confined to members of the general population. Some people with learning disabilities similarly displayed prejudice towards outwards indicators of disability, for example the use of wheelchairs, breathing equipment or having a recognisable condition such as Down’s Syndrome, were considered unattractive or described negatively. People did not appear to feel comfortable to be in a relationship if it was possible to determine that their partner had a disability through observation.
“She (an ex-girlfriend) can walk but not well. Too much, dancing for her, too much. She got a breathing mask. Went to her bedroom and she has a breathing mask and I thought ‘no thanks’”.
“The girl I was with I went to her house and her parents. She had a wheelchair and her parents they were pushing her wheelchair and I thought ‘no’. Yeah and her mum pushed her, and I thought ‘no I am not keen about that’”.
“I don’t like wheelchairs. I am ok, I am”.
This implied that possessing such attributes could be detrimental to individuals looking for love as this was considered unattractive in a potential partner by at least some people with learning disabilities. Such attributes may increase feelings of stigma. Regrettably, I did not have the opportunity to explore how people viewed their own (or their partner’s) learning disability and its impact on finding love and their desirability to others. Only one person acknowledged that she had a disability, and sadly this was in the context of feeling unable to cope with having a child.
“Well, being special needs and Down’s Syndrome, we couldn’t cope with a baby.”
Challenging societal attitudes in terms of what is and is not desirable in an intimate partner is an enormous task. Societal attitudes need to change so that someone with any form of disability is not immediately disregarded as a potential partner. We would (hopefully) challenge discriminatory remarks if made by a professional or a member of the public, but would we be as willing to challenge someone who also has a disability? We need to start having these ‘difficult conversations’ with everybody to reduce stigma and make finding love a reality for all. At Supported Loving we want to help facilitate discussion through the innovative and creative work done by our members.
Bates, C., Terry, L. & Popple, K. (2016). Partner selection for people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 30, 602-611.