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Fostering Relationships

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This article is written expressly for young adults with disabilities. When the word "you" is used, it refers to you, the young adult with a disability.

You probably have been talking with your parents and others about the human body and the changes taking place in you physically and emotionally. You've probably also talked about what it means to have an adult relationship. Perhaps you wonder what your future will hold. Will you ever have an adult relationship -- a boyfriend or girlfriend, a lover, a spouse? How will you meet this person? What will you talk about? What will you say about your disability? Will your disability distract the other person from seeing you for the whole and unique person you are? What can you do to foster a relationship and help it grow into something strong and meaningful to you both?

This article presents some ideas you may find helpful when you try to develop meaningful connections with others. Most of these ideas come directly from individuals with disabilities, including paraplegia, quadriplegia, spinal cord injuries, paralysis, polio, multiple sclerosis, and others. There are many common threads running through their stories (which are published in the books listed below). They speak of their experiences, hopes, wishes, failures, and successes as adults and loving human beings.

Here are some of their ideas about relationships, selfhood, disability, love, sexuality, friendship, patience, hope, and fulfillment.

-- Don't ever believe that no one will love you because you have a disability. All the personal stories told in the books below give testimony to the fact that people with disabilities can both love and be loved. In these stories, the disability was not an obstacle to the love either partner felt. What mattered most for these people was that their relationships were based upon friendship, trust, laughter, and respect -- all of which combined to spark and maintain their love. The disability only needed to be taken into consideration when the two people considered how to make love.

--Don't build your life in search of romance. Involve yourself in a variety of activities, such as work, community projects, and recreation. These activities will give you the opportunity to meet people. They will also help you grow as a person and avoid boredom and loneliness.

-- Be a friend first. Don't rush -- or be rushed -- to be sexually intimate. A relationship is fostered through being a good listener and companion, a person who genuinely cares about others. Build trust and respect between you and the other person. Share activities and ideas. Romance can grow out of such solid ground.

-- Keep up on current events. Being able to discuss a variety of topics can help conversations flow.

-- Be patient in your search for connection with others. Relationships take time to develop. They cannot be forced. Don't settle for the first person who expresses an interest in you as a woman or a man, unless you are also interested in that person! Look for the person who suits you, appreciates you for who and what you are -- disability included -- and who can fulfill you. That person is out there.

-- Be open about your disability. Bring it up yourself, if you need to. Be prepared to answer questions. This is particularly true if you are interested in developing a relationship with a nondisabled person. Don't complain too much about your disability, though. Be positive and matter-of-fact. The best relationships endure because they are based on truth, trust, and sharing.

-- Regardless of your disability, lovemaking is possible. So is pleasure, for both you and your partner. You may need to be creative and flexible about how you make love. Certain techniques may be impossible for you, and you will need to develop your own techniques. Open and frank discussion between you and your partner is the key to solving whatever unique considerations your disability presents. Between loving and trusting partners, however, mutual pleasure and fulfillment are possible.


Kroll, K., & Klein, E.L. (1992). Enabling romance: A guide to love, sex, and relationships for the disabled (and the people who care about them). New York: Crown.

Weiner, F. (Ed.). (1986). No apologies. New York: St. Martin's Press.

A Quote...

I think that the harder someone tries to directly focus on finding social, romantic, or sexual partners, the more difficult it becomes. I would advice any disabled person to balance out their life and become actively involved in work, community projects, recreation, and other activities that involve platonic relationships. Then, make a conscious effort to become interested in the people you come in contact with. Opportunities for social contact will be a natural outgrowth of these activities. Concentrate on being a friend first. The romantic part will follow by itself. The same thing holds true whether you're disabled or not. (Lois, from Kroll & Klein, 1992, p. 30)

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