As a child with cerebral palsy grows into an adult, the world of dating may seem to have as many thorns as a rose. The good news is those with cerebral palsy seeking relationships not only date, they find love, start families, and live happily ever after.
Finding love, starting families and living happily ever after
It’s that time of the year again; the one where the lovers and the lovelorn either celebrate their passion and respect for one another, or resolve that by February of next year, they’ll be with someone really special. But for too many people with disabilities, February 14 can be a time to focus on what one does not have. Many individuals with special needs – especially those that are young – wonder if wading into the dating pool is an option. For most teens, dating is a turning of the page; a large and transformative part of the transition from childhood to adulthood. For those with disabilities, traveling the path to love may seem like one bridge that is simply too far down the road.
Frankly, it’s easy to see why young people with special needs may be under that false impression. There are too few representations of disabled people living full, productive, happy lives in the media. In the real world, physical access is often still an obstacle that can make going out on a date seem difficult.
And there’s always a nagging question of, “Is my disability simply too much for someone outside of my family to embrace?”
What many people with special needs might find surprising is that many find love – either with another that has similar or all-together different physical issues, or with able-bodied partners. Star-crossed lovers abound among the differently-abled population; they meet, fall in love, get married, have children, and create homes.
That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles that need to be addressed and overcome. However, the message to all teens and adults with special needs who feel they may never experience romantic love is that there are good odds that that assumption is erroneous.
Today, the number of resources available to individuals with disabilities is more extensive than ever before, and for those looking to expand their social circle, or find the one and only, opportunities abound.
One of the biggest obstacles to dating for people with disabilities is the perception that he or she is not capable of giving love, or worthy of receiving it in return. This contention is strikingly common among people with disabilities, and nothing can be further from the truth.
A good first step for parents to instill in their children to look beyond the physical – the fact that they may not be able to walk, or speak – and focus on what their child can offer a potential partner. By highlighting a child’s talents and abilities, or the factors that are potential harbingers for bonding with others, is one way to help a young person overcome confidence issues.
The National Youth Leadership Project based in Bethesda, Md., is a youth-led organization that provides a support network for special needs teens and adults ages 16 to 28 years old. Recently, the organization published a guide to relationships for their clientele at .
The guide suggests that dating among persons with disabilities is similar to dating without physical challenges; it’s a process by which young people determine what kind of person they would like to be with, and what feels right.
Although there may be some factors about a disability that must be considered and discussed, the most important point for a new dater is to remember what kind of person he or she is, what they feel is important or unimportant, and what he or she enjoys. A person with disabilities must remember that, like able-bodied individuals, he or she stands a better chance of making a successful connection if both parties have something in common. Friendships can lead to admiration and affection.
Technology is also a valuable tool for not only a single person with special needs, but for the general population. Technology can bridge the gap between a non-communicative individual to those with full communication capabilities. Dynavox and other assistive communication technology are devising ways in which those with disabilities can communicate and share on popular social networks.
There are several community dating forums in the spirit of Match.com or eHarmony.com that are designed to promote relationships. Additionally, Meetup.com has lists of events and group activities in communities across the United States for people with disabilities, including book groups, discussion groups, sports teams, movie groups and social gatherings. As with all online communication caution is advised. Anyone seeking to talk, share and converse with others on the internet should research the dangers of doing so and comply with advice for personal safety measures.
Should a person with a disability be limited to those options? The answer is no.
There are many instances where a person with disabilities and an able-bodied person experience intense connections, and enter a relationship that may, or may not, lead to marriage. A person with special needs is more likely than not to receive a warm welcome among people participating in activities designed for all individuals; he or she should never discount the possibility of meeting someone in a conventional setting.
However, the decision to pursue a diverse array of activities or to stick to activities, dating sites and social media specifically tailored to the disabled community is dependent on the person’s comfort level and preference. Although some people feel that another person with a disability may understand his or her point of view better than an able-bodied person, others want to socialize in a more diverse setting.
Whether able-bodied or with special needs, everyone has individual preferences for qualities in their potential partners. These often entail respect, communication, chemistry, common interests and a whole list of individual preferences. Rarely does any of these lists rule-out physical impairment. Although a person’s special needs may be unique or require specific care, it does not have to be a barrier to developing a friendship into a budding relationship. With every relationship needs are openly communicated, shared and respected. Most relationships depend on each other’s ability to meet emotional and physical needs of the other in varying degrees. The old adage, “where there is a will, there is a way” applies.
Individuals with special needs have a circle of caretakers and a network of friends that have already befriended them to point of obtaining a comfort level with learning how to communicate, care for or about, and interact. This relationship often leads to a greater fondness, respect and understanding to the point where two individuals explore the possibility of furthering the relationship. As in most dating scenarios, this can lead to exploration, open dialogue and consideration by both parties. It can also lead to the resolve that, perhaps, it is better to remain friends. Dating can be joyful at times and heart-breaking at others, with or without special needs.
It’s important for the love seeker to be as open about their situation without revealing too much information. If a person is under-aged, it’s also important to keep parents, caregivers and trusted adults in the loop regarding social interaction.
In 2000, a ground-breaking documentary called King Gimp won an Academy Award for Best Documentary – Short Subject. The film detailed the struggle for independence of Dan Keplinger from the ages of 12 to 25 years old. Dan, who has a severe case of cerebral palsy, said in one of the film’s most emotional moments that he envisioned being a very old man, living alone.
Fast-forward to 2009, and Dan, now a working artist, is a 40-year-old husband to Dena. Dan described the couple as “fools in love.”
“I met Wifey (Dan’s nickname for Dena) as a fan from King Gimp,” he said. “She was working as a nanny and she caught the film on HBO one night. She noticed that we lived close and called me as a friend.
“We kept in contact over the years, and one day, she helped me get ready to go for a speaking engagement,” Dan remembered. “While I was away, she had a missing feeling.”
The couple had a heart-to-heart talk, confessed their love, and were married shortly thereafter, Dan said.
For Dena’s part, making the transition into a relationship with Dan was a challenge, but not for the reason one may think. It turns out that Dan is a classic extrovert. Dena is an introvert.
“I am not comfortable being in the lime-light, while Danny is on continual stage,” Dena said. “We had an agreement that each of us had challenges that were worth fighting for. It wasn’t worth losing love for the sake of being comfortable in my shell.
“I’ve never met someone who was more comfortable in their own skin, as Danny,” she said. “I am most impressed by character and wit; thankfully he has the full package. Challenges that are created have nothing to do with each of “our” disabilities. Danny is equally sensitive to my needs as I am to his.”
Tips for two
Although no published data regarding romantic relationships, dating and marriage are available regarding the special needs population, more of the people that have shared their lives for MyChild’s inspirational stories series are in a relationship, are married, or have been married at some point in their lives than have not. That should be incredibly encouraging to a young person that is wondering whether such an aspiration is a possibility in their lives.
Still, there are some tips that might make finding the right person easier. They are:
1. Be leery of anyone asking about financial information. There are some people that would take advantage of those they perceived to be vulnerable. Never answer any questions about personal finances until the relationship is highly-developed, or marriage is imminent.
2. Investigate physical access before a date, not after. Make sure that the destination for a date is completely accessible for both parties. Doing so will avoid awkward moments.
3. Make eye contact; don’t be shy. People with disabilities should show others that although some aspects of their lives may be different, they have the same wants, desires, and goals as others. That is something that is inherently attractive, and helps facilitate the building of bonds.
4. Remember that being with someone is a choice. People with disabilities that are in a relationship that isn’t working out should feel free to leave without second thoughts. Don’t fall into the trap that the other person is the “only one” when that clearly is not the case; a person with a disability should never feel that they will not get another chance at love.
5. Expecting to find love is practical in every way. Those with special needs have people in their lives – family and friends – that are quick to try to redirect that person into pursuits that don’t involve love because they don’t want their loved one to be hurt. This is misguided. People with disabilities have passions, desires, are capable of giving and receiving love, and live vital and full lives. If finding love is an important part of a person’s life plan, they should pursue it, and not let anyone else tell them otherwise.
6. Be confident in what you can offer another. It is easy to hide behind fears of inadequacy, but when an individual takes stock of all they have to offer another it begins to promote confidence in not on being able to love, but being loved in return. We all work hard at who we are, our set of principles, our own ethics and our worth. These qualities are appealing to others. Feeling comfortable in your ability to care and love another breeds confidence others are likely to find attractive.
7. Strive for improvement and shed negativity. Take stock of the bad or unattractive habits and work towards improving upon them. Grooming, hygiene, manners, respect for others, positive attitudes, confidence, ability to care, and a thoughtful nature, for instance, are examples of attributes that can improve attraction.
8. Envision your future. Picture, in full imagery, what you aspire your future to be. What type of home atmosphere you desire? What is most important that your household have? What will you do on your spare time? How big will you grow your family? What activities will you enjoy with your family? With your spouse. How will you contribute to the family unit? What is your role? What is your partner’s role? What values are important to you? What do you hope your future will hold? Envisioning a future will more clearly define the type of person you hope to share a future with. Seek opportunities to meet the type of person that shares your vision of the future and has the qualities you desire.
9. Seek solutions to relationship obstacles. A foundation for all long-term relationships is the ability to work through obstacles. Creating an atmosphere where both parties can openly discuss wants and needs, as well as concerns, can lead to a better understanding and expectations. Meeting another’s needs requires a comfort level and in some case, technique. If barriers present, seek solutions privately or together.
10. Grow together and spend time apart. Relationships require common interests and, at times, independent endeavors. Seek ways to enjoy the time together and apart, respectfully. If your partner has an interest that you do not share, be supportive just the same. It is important that each party feel they do not have to sacrifice to be with someone else. Time spent together, and apart, can grow supportive relationships to greater heights.
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