Relationships and disabilities in public

Gary Barling
Relationships are something many people find fulfilling. This includes people with disabilities. Over a week holiday there were a few times when I felt my relationship was being judged because of my disability. People we didn't know made unnecessary and rude comments. This impacted on our holiday. When these things happen I don't know what to do. I think the community could be shown that it can be hurtful. People should understand that these relationships are no different to any others.
Posted by: 
Gary Barling on 02/10/2012
A man and a woman in shadow sitting and watching the sunset.
watching the sunset

Our relationships are no different to others.

Many people gravitate towards sharing their life with someone else. To begin or end that sentence with something like despite having a profound physical disability would be unnecessary and extremely offensive. While I consider myself fortunate to have a girlfriend who works with all my flaws, it doesn't dominate my mind. In my experience, however, many people do not have an unquestioning acceptance of such relationships.

Typical incidents

Let me relay a couple of typical encounters. While my girlfriend and I were having a drink in a pub in Melbourne, the night before a recent holiday, a young guy approached my partner and tried to pick her up. She was sitting with me so the guy clearly assumed she was either my carer or sister. I reacted with a torrent of, let's say, prickly language.

The next day in a restaurant on the first night of our holiday, a middle-aged man confided in my partner he had once been in the same situation as her and complimented her bravery. I didn't hear the un-requested counselling. My partner was speechless and had I observed this exchange I would probably have reacted with anger and incredulity.

At the airport on our way home a man spoke to my partner like she was a fellow vocational carer and to me he spoke in a sing-song voice. He informed my partner They like it when you talk like that.

Why should such humiliating incidents impact our holiday, or anywhere else for that matter?

Community perceptions

We are sometimes subject to, not second glances, but full-on staring. It's like your relationship is being evaluated. Sure, one may be assisting the other with a drink or even pushing their wheelchair (heavens above!), but on that basis it's hardly fair to make assumptions about the nature of the relationship.

The only observation should be that there are two people who seem to be comfortable with each other. Would they assess couples where there are for example, great and obvious differences in age or financial means?

The irritations my partner and I have are shared by others. Shaunagh, a woman who effectively has a similar disability to me, and her husband are irritated in the same way.

Shaunagh remarks, The community on the whole still finds it difficult to accept people with disabilities can and do have rewarding, loving, reciprocal relationships which involve sexual acts.

To be fair on our holiday there were also nice people who were unfazed by our relationship. A family at the airport helped us with our luggage without making any unnecessary comments or assumptions.

How to react in these situations?

Incidents like these are never expected and so you are never prepared for them. We are left exasperated. Any deliberate anticipation of comments, I find shows me to be overly sensitive. You shrink away from a humiliating encounter and try to ignore it so that it ends quickly.

Secondly, telling people that they are being insensitive or that you would prefer them not to stare at you makes things confrontational. To other people nearby it seems like you are being hostile. Neither reaction is your intention.

My partner is always more hurt than I am. It may partly be that I am more used to such behaviour, but that's not a good thing.

We don't know any realistic strategies for these situations. I know from experience that neither anger, death-stares nor mangling Robert De Niro phrases, Are you looking at me? are constructive.

My feeling is that much more focus should be put on community attitudes towards disability, through some educational means, to address what for many are simply social norms.

Readers comments (5)

Great article Gary. Most people are okay, but I also have had a fair few people making carer assumptions and a few patronising comments. Some people even thought he was my Dad which doesn't make sense as we're around the same age, though I am very short!

Well done for writing a great article Gary. It has made me feel compelled to share the idiotic double standards my husband and I have experienced.
In recent years multiple sclerosis has impacted on my mobility. I use a cane or crutches or frame. People feel the need to tell my husband how fantastic he is for "staying" with me!
Yet, following this absurd idea, one would think that I would be receiving equally stupid congratulations for "staying" with my husband through his experiences of numerous cancers. Yet, has this happened? Even once? No....
A strange double standard? I think so.

First of all, I think this is a very well written article.
I cannot agree more with how wrong it is to judge a person let alone based on their disability. A saying that has stuck in my mind since hearing it is,
Everyone is equal. It makes no difference whether someone has a disability or not. They're still a person, with feelings and emotions. These people who have made comments such as "despite having a profound physical disability" mustn't have any experience with people with disabilities because they're exactly like a fully-able bodied person. Yes, they're physically different, but on the inside, they're exactly like us.
Unfortunately amongst our community, this is a common thought process. For example, both the readers' comments indicate that they've been judged purely on their disability rather than the person they are.
An Education for the public would hopefully broaden their awareness and respect for what should be these "non-existent" issues within our community. Ways to implement this education could begin in the classroom to raise awareness amongst the current and future generations. In my own classes, we've been discussing disabilities and how a person is the same, regardless as well as how we can change the community's outlook on people with disabilities.
Advertisements in the media, and government funded support would greatly benefit the outcome that we're looking to achieve in education the wider community.
In conclusion, I believe that the saying "never judge a book by it's cover" is ultimately perfect for this situation as one shouldn't criticise another, let alone for something out of their control.
I think you've done a truly fantastic job for bringing to our attention, an important issue such as this, and discussing openly to assist in raising awareness in our community.

Thank you. I've been thinking about this a lot- we all have a mountain to climb, I think, to make any inroads into public perceptions of disabled people in relationships with other disabled folk or (worse yet! shock! horror!) 'normal' people. It can be difficult, as you say, to respond in a timely fashion and without completely losing it.

As a person with a Disability, i get judged daily because of the disability i have.... I carry a disabled sticker which in turn is LEGAL but it is not only the young people it is also some of the Seniors, People dont want judgement passed and i was told to respect my Elders which i do but its a bit hard to give respect when being given a mouthful of abuse. We all have issues and i, myself do not judge someone on Race, Religion, Creed or Nationality, so im not sure who has passed out the LAW to judge me... In regard to your article it was great reading, thanks diane.

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