I Can Do That, Too: Relationships and Sexuality for People with Disabilities

Written by ETI Content Writer Hillary Dolinsky

Across society, many people make assumptions about our interests and hobbies depending on our identities. We tend to assume that all women want to be moms, that college is the best choice for everyone, and that busy people are more productive.

Yet when it comes to disabilities, we throw these social norms out the window and assume that if someone has a disability, whether physical or learning, he or she must not care about relationships, careers, or setting goals. It is almost as if we think that people with disabilities are no longer entitled to experience social norms—heartbreaks, lust, independence, education, hobbies, and romance—in the same way that able-bodied people do. Too often we group a person’s entire being into one label, forgetting that people are made up of so many different, unrelated identities.

We’re here to say, “Hey, I can do that, too!”

Sexuality, the idea of marriage, and the desire to participate in a romantic relationship sound normal, right? These are natural “coming of age” experiences we see in every teen rom-com. Then why does it seem to shock people that someone with a disability would want to experience these things, too?

Everyone is allowed to experience love. Just because someone is unable to see doesn’t mean they are incapable of enjoying the warm embrace of a loved one. If someone is unable to read, that doesn’t mean they don’t crave companionship or that they don’t want to be taken out on a nice date. And please, don’t assume that people with disabilities are only interested in dating other people with disabilities! Love is love, and it comes in all shapes, sizes, and abilities.

People are sexual beings, and this includes people with disabilities. The narrative around sexuality and disabilities is changing, thanks to nonprofits like Point of View. Still, we need to work towards normalizing this experience for everyone.

The same applies to marriage and parenthood. For people relying on government benefits for income, they can be at risk of losing their benefits if they move in or marry their significant other. Their “household income” now includes any income from a partner, which could push someone over the income limit required to receive benefits and services.

Moving in together and getting married, exciting steps in any romantic relationship, now feel like a penalty. Dominick Evans, a disability and LGBTQ advocate, spoke with Audacity Magazine about his fear of losing benefits once he marries his partner. Dominick explains the financial burden he might impose on his partner if they were to get married because he would lose essential healthcare services. It seems as though policy is now weighing in on social norms for people with disabilities, perpetuating the assumption that people with disabilities must not want to live with their partner or get married.

And on that note, let’s also talk about having kids—another very common and normal desire that many people have, regardless of their individual identities. While it’s wrong to assume that every women wants to become a mother, it’s equally as wrong to assume that women with disabilities don’t want to have children. We should all agree to let women (and men) decide this for themselves without making assumptions one way or the other.

Yes, there may be fears around safety when it comes to sexuality or parenthood, but we cannot address those concerns with the removal of these experiences altogether. We must first acknowledge everyone’s right to these things, and then offer support where needed. For example, Sara knows that when she has children, she will have to learn new ways of keeping her children safe – ways that someone with sight might not use. She can try audio cues to hear where her children are, and she can set up safety barriers to keep them in the same room as her. The art of parenting may need to be done a little bit differently, but it is still a possible (and safe) experience that Sara and all women with disabilities are entitled to.

People (and policies) need to open their hearts to the belief that people with disabilities can have romantic relationships. We can go on dates, we can fall head over heels in love, and we can have very messy breakups. We can get married, buy a house together, and have children. It may not look the same as when other people do it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Why Does Stigma Exist? A Deep Dive into Assumptions about Disabilities and Where That Comes From

In the picture: Sara enjoying nature in Nicaragua.

In the picture: Sara enjoying nature in Nicaragua.

Written by ETI Content Writer Hillary Dolinsky

Stigma. A powerful word with the ability to undermine an entire identity. Typically associated with a negative attribute, stigma is capable of shutting doors and closing minds before a conversation can even begin. It seems to seep into everything – from casual interactions at coffee shops to federal immigration policy. But where does stigma come from? What causes stigma to grow? How do we fight stigma?

As humans we tend to compartmentalize everything in order to become more efficient and process new things. We label people, places, things, interactions, and experiences. The sooner we can assign something with a tag, the sooner our brain can run it through our internal process and store it away. We label based on our own context: is this similar to what I already know? How does this compare?

To us, stigma comes from the fact that we are judging each other based on the labels we create, and what we think those labels provide to society. For the label of “disabled”, some people associate that with being less than, or incapable of doing normal things. When more people feel that a disability is a “bad thing”, it can be harder for people with disabilities to feel encouraged to claim this identity. This fuels any negative stigma about disabilities because judgments are being made based on assumptions, not a real interaction with a person who has a disabilities. Stigma then causes shame, and stigma exists because people with disabilities are not out and proud, and people without disabilities are not open and asking questions.

For example, some people assume that because Sara is blind, she can’t dance, she isn’t interested in fashion, and she must not care about being out in nature. That, or they think Sara must want to “fix” her blindness with a transplant or miracle cure. They focus on the “dis” in disability instead of taking the time to get to know her. They see her blindness first, not her personality. Yet if they spoke with Sara for a moment and asked her about what she likes to do, these would be at the top of the list.

We can start to fight stigma by having real and honest conversations. There can be a lot of pressure placed on people with disabilities to become active advocates. Not everyone has to be running a nonprofit and marching in the streets, but once each of us can become an advocate for ourselves in our day-to-day lives, we can begin to change hearts and open minds. If you’re close with someone who does have an identity that is often stigmatized, become an advocate for them. Support them as they explore this identity and be a bridge of conversation. Be respectful and place their voice over yours, but make an effort to be inclusive. They may not want to be as vocal about their identity, but just knowing that you’re there and that you support them can empower them.

We can recognize that our differences are just as important as our similarities because they are new and evolving. If you have an identity, hidden or visible, try to share your experiences with others. Some people may never ask, and some people may respond with hatred or fear of the unknown. But every time you reflect your truest self, you’re inviting people to ignore stigma and learn more about you. Together we can create opportunities for openness and start to defeat stigma.

Everyday Things People Think Because I'm Blind

In the picture: Sara rides a bike in Nicaragua.

In the picture: Sara rides a bike in Nicaragua.

Written by ETI Content Writer Hillary Dolinksky

To some, my blindness is like a puzzle to solve—people notice that I am unable to see and then right away start trying to figure me out. I can almost feel the wheels turning in their minds, wondering if I need help, if I should be out on my own, and if I’m okay. A few brave souls ask me questions, but others either walk around me or grab my arm to assist me without saying a word.

I understand that there are many different dynamics to these kinds of interactions and misconceptions. Some people with blindness are open to answering these questions, whereas others are quick to get annoyed. Some people with sight are genuinely curious about my disability, and it’s beautiful when people are curious, but there are also people who may take advantage of me because I cannot see. The sooner we talk about misconceptions in an open and honest way, the sooner we can dispel the stigma around blindness.

Below I have shared some of the most common assumptions people make because of my blindness. As you’ll see (no pun intended), many concern my independence and my ability to navigate this world on my own.

“How do you get from point A to point B?”

People see my cane and assume I am unable to walk on my own. They forget that I have feet and four other senses to rely on. I can familiarize myself to places I visit often, just as people with sight might recognize a coffee shop on the corner or an intersection a block away. Let’s say I’m in Harvard Square—I know that area very well. I can get around just fine there. If I’m in a new place, I can use technology to help me navigate, or I can use the ancient art of communication and ask people for a point of reference.

Believe it or not, when I cross the street sometimes, total strangers will just grab my arm to pull me across. Hello! I can hear the cars and can tell when they’re stopping. I have legs and I can walk. I understand that people may think they’re helping, but they also assume that I’m unable to get around by myself. Even at the airport when I ask for help getting to my gate, some airlines will ask if I want a wheelchair. No, thank you, I just need to know which gate I’m at and what direction to walk in to get to my flight.

“How do you send emails? Type? Use Facebook?”

I am lucky to live in the age of technology, where there are new apps being designed all the time. Most people with sight rely on their eyes to know where to click a button on a screen, or how to type out an email. I bet if you closed your eyes and tried to type an email, you’d surprise yourself with how familiar your physical body is with layout of your keyboard. Same goes for me—with a few changes to my keyboard, or with the use of a screen-reader that speaks to me, I can use technology to read an email from my doctor, write my term papers, or share updates with friends on Facebook.

“How do you live alone? Get groceries? Do your laundry? Pick out clothes?”

People have this idea that sight is everything, forgetting that there are other ways to get around it. You can memorize where things are a grocery store. You can ask! And thanks to apps like Amazon or Instacart you can order things you need online and have them delivered right to your door. I learn what color shade a clothing item is and what it can match with, and then I organize my closet accordingly. Just because I can’t see how I look doesn’t mean I don’t care, or that I don’t want to feel beautiful. I can tell if something fits, and fashion is so much more than just how something looks. Blind people can wear makeup if we want to because of how it makes us feel, not just how it makes us look.

Many people are also curious about how I keep myself clean. I think my lack of sight actually makes me more sensitive to staying clean! My other senses, like smell and touch, are stronger and help me notice if something needs my attention.

“I’m sorry you’re blind. I’ll pray for you!”

I’m not sad because I’m blind. I think people feel an urge to say something when my blindness comes up, and usually the first thing they say is, “I’m sorry.” I feel that sighted people think I’m unhappy with my situation. Our disabilities and imperfections make us uniquely perfect—my blindness has been perfect for me if I’m embracing it in the right way. It has pushed me to use my passion and start my nonprofit Empowerment Through Integration—something no one should feel sad or sorry about.

It is important for us to strip away misconceptions around blindness—both from sighted people and people who are blind. I can’t assume that people are pitying me when they offer help, or that society is always against me. But sighted people also can’t assume that I’m incapable of doing things on my own or experiencing “normal” things because I’m blind. I hope we can continue to build true, honest, and curious conversations around disabilities to move forward together.

Let's Break it Down: We Need to Talk About Empathy vs. Sympathy

In the picture: three friends pose during Camp Rafiqi.

In the picture: three friends pose during Camp Rafiqi.

The great debate between what is sympathy, and what is empathy, continues in this month’s blog series. ETI Founder Sara Minkara is a woman with blindness. She is joined by ETI Content Writer Hillary Dolinsky, who has spent much of her career in the disabilities field and has a sibling with a learning disability. Together in conversation, Sara and Hillary breakdown what real empathy for people with disabilities looks like from their own perspective.

What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Sara, taking a deep breath: “To me, sympathy is like the ‘charity narrative.’ It’s easy for people to buy into and easy for people to feel good about helping others. I think about the people who come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I feel bad for you,’ or, ‘May God cure you.’ That is sympathy – it may come from a good heart, but it also comes from assumptions about what I’m going through. To be honest, being blind is not my biggest struggle. I have normal stressors like anyone else with sight. I consider my blindness a blessing to me because it has allowed me to interact with the world in a different way. People tend to focus on the blindness aspect and forget a lot of other things that I have been able to do. Sympathy is when people think they understand what it feels like to go through something, but they ultimately hope it gets fixed.”

Hillary: “Absolutely. To me, empathy is recognizing that maybe you don’t know exactly what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, but you at least know that it must be important to that person going through it. You take the time to hear about that person’s experience from THEM, regardless of your own ideas or perceptions. Empathy is when you can completely remove yourself, your thoughts, and your assumptions from the situation and can really dial in at someone else’s level.”

S: “Yes….and ask questions! Give people the opportunity to tell you how they’re thinking, or what they’re going through. Listen to others. At the end of the day I cannot judge what you go through, Hillary. I can assume, but the best way to get each other empowered is to be able to listen. This is why ETI’s Integration Programs are so important in teaching empathy – we’re not trying to simulate blindness or teach about blindness by blindfolding people and having them eat a meat together. Our goal is to encourage conversations that people might not have felt comfortable having otherwise.”

What about sympathy vs. empathy towards people with disabilities?

H: “Growing up with my sister, I used to try and protect her from situations where she might not understand something. The biggest example that comes to mind is money. I used to want to make decisions for her or pay for things for her rather than have her struggle to count money or be disappointed if she realized she couldn’t afford something. But one day I realized I wasn’t giving her any credit, and I was making a lot of assumptions about what she could and couldn’t do. I, her own sister and biggest advocate, was doing what other people do to her every day. I was sympathizing for her, making assumptions about what is hard for her without even asking her what she felt. Since then my family has let my sister make her own financial decisions, and you know what? She’s learned from that. Sure, there have been times at the cash register where she took longer to count her money. There have been times where she’s overdrawn her account. But those happen less and less because she was given the opportunity to grow and learn on her own – something I assumed would be hard for her, but in the end it’s a right that everyone should have.”

S: “And that’s the same for our kids at Camp Rafiqi. Their parents fear for their kids, and want to do everything for them to make things easier. But for those children with blindness, they end up not experiencing things on their own. Yes, it will be tough at first to live independently. But from those experiences they become empowered. Empathy opens the door to allow people with disabilities to become empowered.”

H: “With my sister, I’ve debated whether I should tell other people ahead of time that she has a disability. Since her disability is an invisible one, I didn’t want her to end up in situations where she felt uncomfortable, confused, or upset. For about a year or so I told people ahead of time. They sympathized, assumed what she was capable of, and treated her totally different than me. They spoke to her loudly, and used smaller words and shorter sentences. I immediately regretted telling people before meeting her. Firstly, I was sharing something without her consent, taking away her chance to present herself. And secondly, I was also taking away valuable, ‘normal’ interactions from her that she would have had if I didn’t say something. Since then I haven’t mentioned it to anyone ahead of time, and if people ask, ‘What college did your sister go to?’ as people often do, I don’t right away explain that she has a disability. I no longer try to rationalize my sister’s differences to others – now I focus on letting real-life experiences happen.”

S: “That’s a good point. For me, I don’t have a choice. People see my cane and they know I’m blind. For my sister, her sight is stronger than mine and she’s able to choose if she wants to use a cane or not. Her thinking is, ‘why should I have to have that be the first thing people see?’ To me, my cane is a statement! I want people to get used to it.”

How can we help others practice more empathy?

S: “I prefer to have people ask questions, even if they might be silly. It allows for a conversation and dialogue to happen and we can learn from each other. Making assumptions just perpetuates the stigma around people with disabilities. When society gives you the platform to be heard and express what you’re going through, people no longer have to sympathize and wonder what you’re thinking or feeling – they know it because they asked, and you answered.”

Have more tips on how we can encourage people to practice empathy instead of sympathy? Share in the comments!

Why Disability Matters: 4 Reasons Why We Need to Have This Discussion, Now!

[In the picture: a blind girl, using a white cane, and a sighted girl walk alongside each other on a street].

This is our first post in a new blog series, Inclusion for All, focused on providing critical insights on issues surrounding disabilities. This post was written by Hillary Dolinsky.

1 in 5 people has a disability in the United States, according to the latest Census data. With a ratio like that, surely the needs of over 56 million people are at the top of mind in today’s policies, programs, and services…right? Although gains have been made over the last 100 years, we’re here to say that we still have more to do. Disability matters in every sector, in every region, and in every person—and the conversation needs to continue.

Why do we need to keep talking about disability?

  1. Disability is all encompassing—it doesn’t just refer to the physical body. Some disabilities can be seen with the eye or heard with the ear. It may be easier to notice if someone has a disability because they are using a wheelchair or a cane, or if they are communicating in sign language. Still, there are other types of disabilities, often hidden from plain sight, that need to be included when we talk about accessibility. Mental health is just as important and relevant as physical health.
  2. Even if a disability policy exists, much is left open to interpretation. Many think that because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists, we no longer need to advocate for change. Even with the ADA and other disability policies in place, enforcement of these policies is not consistent. There is a lot of gray area surrounding disability policy, with many businesses, employers, and facilities complying with the bare minimum instead offering inclusion for all. The ADA website itself says, “the ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.” We need to continue to demand clarity, not compromise.
  3. Society tends to be reactive to disabilities, not proactive. If a disability advocate is not present, how can we guarantee that the needs of people with disabilities will be included in a decision? Society has shown us that it is easier to accommodate people with disabilities after the fact, instead of anticipating needs ahead of time. If we were really concerned about the needs of 20% of the population, we would make schools, buildings, transportation, and technology accessible right from the beginning – not as an “add on” to these necessities of modern living.
  4. People with disabilities are still degraded on public platforms. The fact is that we live in a country where a presidential candidate can openly and childishly mock a reporter with a visible disability and win an election—validating that there are still people who either find this kind of behavior acceptable, or feel that discrimination of people with disabilities is not enough of a priority to oppose it. People with disabilities are still abused, with examples of live footage of such abuse being shared across media platforms. Advocacy is still needed, and not everyone everywhere recognizes the value, potential, and contributions of people with disabilities.

Our blog series will continue to talk about disability issues. Stay tuned for more inclusive, thought-provoking, and critical insights from Sara and Hillary.

Do you have more examples of why we need to keep disabilities a priority? Share in the comments—we want to hear from you!