Intimacy can be understood as both emotional and physical closeness and openness of thoughts and feelings. Typically, we expect greater intimacy from a romantic partner than from a friend, but intimacy threads through both types of bonds in shared secrets, caring touches, moments of laughter and tears, and understanding silences. It is not only about how two people act together, it is about how they make each other feel – connected and understood.
Can intimacy be defined differently for couples with challenges? Yet, most look indulgently upon “normal” couples, not at all like couples with challenges, especially when they share their fantasies of romance, intimacy, and bonding. Significant steps have been taken in guaranteeing fundamental rights to couples with challenges; their requirement for closeness requires a more general societal response.
Nonetheless, couples with challenges have proven that they are capable of indulging in and sustaining romantic relationships.
Shubham and Nidhi felt that they could give their child as much love, care, and consideration as any other parent. Despite her other challenges, Nidhi did not require a cesarean or any help with discomfort and gave ordinary birth to a normal baby who they named Amira. Just by being there, Amira empowered other handicapped individuals to see that trust exists.
Shubham additionally worked with Prerna1, a philanthropy that aimed to move youthful and incapacitated individuals to have a voice – regardless of what their circumstances were. A friend of Shubhams’ who has handicapped himself, revealed that he had never thought he could have an infant. Yet after seeing Amira, his opinion changed and he began to think that he too could have a child. Despite the scepticism that surrounded their foray into parenthood, Shubham and Nidhi believed that as a unit, they could together do what it took to raise their child.
This story comes with important lessons. We learn that couples with challenges share love and intimacy like any other couple. Despite their incapacities, no matter how severe, persons with disabilities should be encouraged to find companionship and embrace love. However, it is for all of us to understand that relationships need not always be sexual in nature, and to learn the variant meanings of intimacy as experienced by the differently-abled.
One evening, Anandita grabbed Ritesh by the hand and pulled him down a steep embankment below a graffiti-covered bridge. With late-summer mosquitoes buzzing around them, the two giggled and caressed each other, their voices muffled by the rush of a nearby stream and the traffic above. “It’s our secret hideaway,” says Anandita, 21, who has Down syndrome, as she snuggles with Ritesh, 24, who has a developmental disability. “Here, no one can see us and we are free to do whatever we want.”
For couples with challenges like Anandita and Ritesh, such freedom to be intimate is rare. Across geographies, adults with challenges complain of having to overcome constant hurdles to engage in romantic activity and sustain loving relationships. The obstacles include arbitrary curfews, lack of transportation, and segregated housing that cuts them off from mainstream social life and opportunities to date. Often, the barriers are imposed by parents or caregivers. To go on a date, adult residents generally have to obtain permission in advance, and then go out under the watchful eyes of paid staff.
From these stories, we realize that denying people the right to intimacy and connectedness is like denying them a fundamental part of being human. Moreover, these denials arise because it becomes uncomfortable to envision couples with challenges engage in intimacy. A change in ideology is much needed, and this can be facilitated by wide-reaching awareness programs that target changes in peoples’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices.
Physical and legal barriers are sometimes reinforced by the widely held perception that couples with challenges are “asexual,” or are too helpless to consent to intimacy, advocates say. A positive development, however, has been that recently, information on sexuality, intimacy, and sexual functioning has become part of the rehabilitation process of people with challenges (i.e. spinal cord jury, traumatic brain injury, developmental disabilities, amputation, etc.).
While caregivers are primarily responsible for people with challenges, it is also worthwhile to consider who the latter should turn to for recourse when it comes to seeking support and consultation for their physical and emotional needs?
Support organizations and unique social networking sites like disaboom.com offer opportunities for more interaction and education. Furthermore, the continued popularity of online dating has given rise to sites geared specifically for people with disabilities, including datedisabled.com, datingdisabled.net, disabledcupid.com, disabledpassions.com, whispers4u.com, and agreaterdate.com.
“Fitting in,” after all, is a basic human desire. But looking at disability as uniqueness, and loving every bit of it can change the wants of people with challenges and see them living happily.
Life is too short to be ordinary; to be like everyone else and doing the same old thing. Disability can definitely make life harder, but it can also make the person a unique survivor worth noticing.
About the author
Kirti Agarwal is a finance student pursuing her MBA in Rural Management from Xavier University, Bhubaneswar. She has completed her graduation in Commerce. Kirti is passionate about her career and is a technology enthusiast. She loves to spend time with her family.
1 Names altered to protect identity.