Friday, October 19, 2018
Opinion

Column: I use a wheelchair. My wife of 28 years is able-bodied. Rethink your romantic assumptions

To you, it may be all about chocolates vs. flowers. But to me, Valentine’s Day raises questions about our society’s shared notions of the ideal romantic hookup.

I’m a lifelong wheelchair user who was born with a congenital, incurable neuromuscular condition called spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA. It has prevented me from ever walking or standing and, more recently, from using my hands. But it’s never stopped me from thinking, feeling, having opinions, having sex, or marrying and raising a family.

For 28 years, I’ve been married to a non-disabled woman. Together we have two college-aged kids. Does that surprise you? Why? Love, caring and commitment often flourish regardless of superficial differences.

Perhaps ours is an unusual pairing, but we are far from the only inter-abled couple I know. Still, many outsiders treat us with a certain disbelief. In public, we frequently encounter oddly distressing reactions. At best, strangers assume we’re not together — as in the helpful person who holds the elevator door for me and tells my wife to go on ahead. "Thank you, but we’re together," one of us usually says. (Even then, some do-gooders feel moved to praise us as inspiring! Nice, I suppose, but is it really appropriate?)

At worst are those who assume she’s my nurse — who ask her what my name is, or whether I need the bathroom. "Your husband?" they say in disbelief when my wife sets them straight. One time, some dolt went so far as to question whether I was really the father of our children.

Many folks, I concede, aren’t used to seeing couples like us. We don’t exactly fit the common image of conjugality. What I don’t get, though, is why in this day and age — when our society has embraced interracial, same-sex and other varieties of wedlock — is it so hard for people to understand our brand of love? Why do so many still resist the idea that ours is a normal relationship, not a superhuman phenomenon? Does inter-abled romance really represent a kind of final amatory frontier?

It shouldn’t. It is not a new concept. What are Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame but stories of longing between the physically disenfranchised and the physically fit?

Of course, most of those tales didn’t end so well, from a disability perspective. Unrequited yearning was the narrative norm for romantically inclined people with disabilities. Even the Beast had to lose his beastliness before he and Beauty could live happily ever after — that is, he had to become cis-heteronormative, able-bodied and good-looking.

Granted, there have been exceptions. For example, the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives upended the genre with its mostly happy ending. In it, Harold Russell portrays a veteran who lost both of his hands during World War II. His non-disabled sweetheart convinces him that he doesn’t have to live a life of lonely self-pity. (Russell, who lost his hands in an accident while serving in the Army, won an Academy Award for the role.)

But the underlying theme of emotional rescue still paints disability as a problem to solve, rather than a common trait or fact of life. We see the trope in such recent movies as Me Before You and the putatively true Breathe. This sort of cliche is so prevalent that author Kenny Fries has proposed the "Fries test" to assess disability portrayals in the media. Inspired by the Bechdel test, which first appeared in 1985 and evaluates cinematic depictions of women, the Fries test asks: Do the disabled characters have their own narrative purpose other than the education and profit of a non-disabled character? Is the character’s disability not eradicated either by curing or killing?

The unfair characterizations are so pervasive that one recently engaged partner in an inter-abled relationship complained to me, "I’ve searched libraries and databases, and I can find no examples to help convince my parents that this is okay!"

People with disabilities and their intimate partners simply want to be accepted, not sanctified or pitied. Some will even tell you they enjoy a deeper degree of intimacy than you could ever imagine. If so, it likely comes from a kind of interdependency, a heightened sense of give-and-take.

So, on Valentine’s Day — as at any other time — don’t write us off. Reconsider your romantic assumptions. I’m sure that, by celebrating love in all its shapes and variations, you’ll see there’s more to it than you ever imagined.

Ben Mattlin is the author of "In Sickness and in Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance."
© 2018 Washington Post

Comments
Editorial notebook: Times editorial writers reminisce about Sears

Editorial notebook: Times editorial writers reminisce about Sears

Sharing memories of the “wish book,” shopping on Saturday nights and many memorable purchases
Updated: 10 hours ago

Editorial: FBI should take a hard look at CareerSource

The scrutiny now extends to the state agency that oversees the local jobs centers
Updated: 12 hours ago
Editorial: Toughen Florida’s building code

Editorial: Toughen Florida’s building code

Experts are right that Hurricane Michael should force a review of Florida’s building standards. While newer homes generally fared better than older ones, the state needs to reassess the risks posed by high winds and storm surge.
Published: 10/19/18
Editorial: Those who fail to cast ballots in Hillsborough are running out of excuses

Editorial: Those who fail to cast ballots in Hillsborough are running out of excuses

You wouldn't skip a trip to the gas pump, would you?Then don't miss the chance to cast your general election ballot, either, when Hillsborough County opens its many early voting sites Monday morning for a two-week engagement.If you do your homework a...
Published: 10/19/18

Editorial: Glazer Children’s Museum quickly regained its step

Jennifer Stancil was terminated from her $169,280 a year job last month as museum president and chief executive, a post she held for three years. Exactly why remained a mystery to those outside the museum.
Published: 10/18/18
Updated: 10/19/18
Editorial: Trump should demand Saudis account for journalist

Editorial: Trump should demand Saudis account for journalist

Twenty-seven journalists have been murdered so far this year just for doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That number doesn’t even include Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist who hasn’t been ...
Published: 10/17/18
Updated: 10/19/18
Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

The Florida Supreme Court reached the right conclusion by ruling that the next governor has the authority to appoint three new justices to the court rather than departing Gov. Rick Scott. That is practical and reasonable, and it reflects the will of ...
Published: 10/16/18
Updated: 10/19/18

Editorial: Housecleaning was necessary at Clearwater parks department

The theft of money and a hostile atmosphere show a city department out of control
Updated: 10 hours ago
Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis wants voters to believe he is different than his Republican colleagues in Congress and President Donald Trump. The Palm Harbor Republican says he pays more attention to local issues than to the president, claims he doesnȁ...
Published: 10/15/18
Updated: 10/16/18
Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

The Hillsborough County school tax on the Nov. 6 ballot is a smart, necessary investment in the nation's eighth-largest school system. The 10-year, half-penny sales tax would create stronger, safer schools and a healthier learning environment for mor...
Published: 10/12/18
Updated: 10/19/18