Relationships and disabilities in public
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.
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?
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.
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.