The other day I was asked what I thought children and young people needed to know about relationships. On the face of it, a simple question; to have healthy and respectful ones. To know that every relationship is different because everyone brings something unique to the table in various capacities. To understand that everything has to be built on trust and to recognise when it’s time to get out. We’ve all had that one friend who zaps our energy before they’ve even opened their mouth. We all have that friend who’s great for a good time, but not so great if we want them to take our secrets to the grave. For me, the over-sharer, with next to no boundaries, it’s still a work in progress to know when to stop talking.
Five minutes in, and the chat had turned to what do young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities need to know about relationships. In a world where everyone is so desperate to fit in, I’ve noticed disabled people attempt to break the relationship barriers using two different methods. They’ll either tell you their life story over a cup of tea, then they’re adding you on Facebook and making friendship bracelets within the first hour of knowing you. Or it’ll take you a good ten years to break the walls down between you both, but it’s worth every second when you finally manage it.
The question is how do we teach kids with disabilities to form healthy bonds with people? I appreciate this is something that everyone has to learn, but when their disability isn’t understood by everyone they come into contact with, how do we explained to them that the way they’re perceived and received isn’t always to do with the energy they’re giving out, but a lack of education? If they’re anything like me, they’ll go into every relationship all guns blazing and then wonder why the amount of energy they put in isn’t reciprocated. When someone is being stared at when they walk down the street, it’s hard not to take the reaction personally. However, it’s even harder to tell that person that until nobody is fazed by disability, they will experience this time and time again. Teaching kids to be simultaneously bulletproof, vulnerable and authentic is a real challenge.
Whilst we’re teaching disabled people to get a grasp of who they are and how to present within society, how do we then teach them about appropriate relationships? For many, being in a relationship is the be-all and end-all of life. If they’re not with someone, they’re not validated. If they’re not with someone, they’re not ‘normal’. If they’re not with someone, then they better find someone. And if they want to break up or if there isn’t anyone on the market, then batting for whichever team they’re not on is the next option. And what is classed as a ‘normal’ relationship? More often than not, the first peck on the cheek means they’re exclusive, they’re engaged and they’re already planning their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Therefore, when this ideology comes to an abrupt halt, a day, a week, a year, or ten years later, the world has also come to a standstill. How do we teach people to differentiate what they want from what they think should happen? There’s a difference between wanting companionship and wanting a ring on a finger.
When all someone wants is to be ‘normal’, but lacks the comprehension of what that might entail, how do we explain it without taking away their rights? There are certain things that can only be done or said in private or around a select few people. How are these lessons learnt when everyone’s abilities and boundaries vary? There isn’t a guidebook and yet to have an understanding of what’s appropriate and what isn’t is crucial. As disabled people, we are all classed as ‘vulnerable’, whether this be physically or cognitively. Ultimately, this means we are susceptible to be manipulated whilst also having the power to manipulate within both appropriate and inappropriate relationships of all kinds. It really is a can of worms waiting to be opened.
And then there’re the stereotypes once you’ve got a healthy relationship. Disabled people must only be friends with other disabled people. Able-bodied people who are friends with disabled people are viewed as saints for “getting them out the house”. And don’t even get me started on interabled couples. People I know have been deemed Golddiggers, glorified carers and fakes because they fell in love with someone with a disability. On the flipside, if two disabled people decide to hook up, the reaction is generally one of puppy eyes, combined with a condescending pat on the head.
Relationships and disabilities are a hot mess. Where do we begin to unravel it all?