The media lacks a lot of things and one of those is disabled and interability relationships. This shouldn’t be surprising. Representation for disabled people in film, television and any other form of pop culture is lacking in itself. For those disabled people to find love? Deeply uncommon. Yet, in the real world, disabled people do actually find love! I know! It’s crazy!
If we try and think of a disabled person with an able bodied partner in media, the relationship usually began before the disabled person has become disabled (think:horrific accident/tragedy). Then the partner who ‘sticks by them’ is romanticised as being wonderful enough to love that person despite their physical ability. The United Nations writes that ‘it is not uncommon to see [in the media] persons with disabilities treated as objects of pity, charity or medical treatment that have to overcome a tragic and disabling condition or conversely, presented as superheroes who have accomplished great feats, so as to inspire the non-disabled.’ In all these portrayals, there’s no space for romance, sex or even equality. If someone is presented with ‘pity’ or as ‘tragic’, forming any human relationship would be unequal. Their partner could only want them out of pity or some chivalrous desire to make themselves feel good. They couldn’t want them for their personality, their laugh, their looks, their intellect or their spark.
The word is ‘despite’ and the world is thirsty for it. As disabled people, we are taught that we do not belong in the world. This is a world without ramps, without sign language, without hearing loops, or even accessible toilets, where stigma of learning disability, mental health or physical disability aims to teach us that we are not worthy of love. We have to live ‘despite’, despite the lack of access, despite the lack of humanity. We are bombarded with images in media that show us how we are less than. The ableism of popular culture means that we don’t see what we are, only what we’re not. For all the positivity in the world, sometimes repeatedly seeing the things that you can’t do be the only things to watch or read is exhausting and depressing and debilitating. A study found that out of the top 100 grossing movies of 2016, only 2.7% of characters were depicted with disabilities. Characters on regular primetime TV shows in 2019 fared no better, with only 2.1% having some form of disability. Out of those, its unlikely that any had a meaningful on screen relationship where they were valued for more than their disability. It’s even more unlikely that these characters were Black, Asian or a non-white ethnicity or in a queer relationship.
I am here to tell you, as an undeniable fact, that disabled people have romantic relationships, just as we have lives that do not wholly revolve around ‘being disabled’. It’s a basic human instinct and a right. It might not always look like The Notebook, but it’s definitely real. Studies about intimate relationships show that the foundations of solid relationships can be boiled down to certain factors: The ideal partner was represented by 3 factors (partner warmth–trustworthiness, vitality–attractiveness, and status–resources), whereas the qualities of an ideal relationship were represented by 2 factors (relationship intimacy–loyalty and passion). These qualities are not represented in the media’s portrayal of disabled people, yet they are completely realistic. Individuals on the Autism spectrum are trust-worthy and faithful in romantic relationships. A wheelchair or mobility aid user is no less attractive than an able bodied person. With impaired sight or hearing, a partner can still have a respectable societal position (look at the talented Natasha Ofili!). A relationship between people with learning disabilities can still be loyal and intimate. A person with mental health issues can definitely be passionate and sex-positive.
It might involve dates being lunch rather than dinner because of evening fatigue. It might mean a different form of physical intimacy to suit each person’s physical capabilities. Relationships can mean going slowly or even super slowly to fit with what each person can mentally deal with at the time. Love can look like reminding your partner to take their medication in the evening when they forget, cooking them a meal that fits with their dietary requirements, or finding out whether an event fits their access requirements.
Ableism has created mental barriers for both disabled and able bodied and neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals with their perceptions of love and relationships. The dehumanisation and victimisation of disabled individuals by both the media and the government has attempted to remove the above qualities from these individuals. To claim benefits, to attain help, to be believed by our doctors and medical professionals, we are required to disown the part of ourselves that can feel worthy of love. I know that personally, I feel like a burden within my relationships, both romantic and platonic. My excuses for not being able to do something, for having to cancel plans, for having to ask someone to do something for me, like my partner washing my hair, feels embarrassing and draining for those around me. That little voice in my head tells me I’m a flake, that everyone else is better off without including me, or that I’m only included out of pity.
However, I’m trying to push back against that, internally and externally. I am worthy of love. I am worthy of having someone to wake up with and someone to fall asleep with. I am lucky that I have someone like that in my life. I’m worthy of spending time with friends and it’s okay for me to cancel when I’m not well enough to leave the house. I’m lucky enough to have people in my life that understand that. Anyone who doesn’t understand that does not have a seat at my table. Anyone who makes me feel like a burden on my worst days will not have the pleasure of my good days because I am beginning to value myself more than that. Ability or disability, mental health good day or bad week, we are all worthy of love. I hope for the future that we’ll see a more accurate representation of that within the media with more employability of disabled actors. Until then, enforce it yourself. Writers, write those parts. Directors, cast those actors. Journalists, show us the truth. I’ll be waiting.
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