#EqualAccess Series Guest Post: Lessons Learned from an Inter-abled Relationship
by Topher Muller-Taylor
This post is part of The Exponent’s #EqualAccess Series. Disabled voices rarely get a chance to speak for themselves, but this blog series seeks to eliminate the stigma that disabled people are less than, and need a representative to speak on their behalf. This blog series is intended to break stereotypes by gathering the voices of disabled individuals. #DisabilityExperience
“I admire you for taking such good care of Kendra” is a statement I frequently hear. I do love my wife and try to support her, but I have never heard any other partners receive this compliment, nor have I given this compliment to any of my friends. That’s not to say that I don’t think my friends are good partners or that I think I am the pinnacle of virtue. No, I think I hear this compliment more than most because of the fact that my wife, Kendra, uses a wheelchair.
Truth be told, I don’t think I do much to “take care” of her beyond what any good, loving spouse would do for their partner, able-bodied or not. The only temporary difference is that I lift her in and out of the car while we wait for her wheelchair van to be finished. It’s just that when people see a wheelchair, they immediately think, “that person needs help.”
Our society has stereotypes and stigmas surrounding disability, which lead most people to assume that Kendra can’t do much on her own and that I am essentially a caregiver with benefits. I often end up gently informing people that our marriage involves the same level of mutual caring and support present in most other happy relationships. We both have days where we feel exhausted, upset, sick, or depressed and the other one is always there to offer support.
I have been married to Kendra for over a year now and our relationship seems pretty similar to other marriages I’ve seen. We each have our strengths, but we share the responsibilities. I often take the lead in making the meals, but it’s usually Kendra who starts washing the dishes first. I’ll vacuum and wash the floors while Kendra does the laundry and wipes down the toilet, sinks, and counters.
Dating and getting married to her has opened my eyes to a lot of things related to disability. There have been adjustments and things I have had to get used to. First off, you don’t realize how often you go up and down steps each day until you go around with someone in a wheelchair. I change my routes to classes on campus when I’m with Kendra and I cross at the crosswalks instead of jaywalking when there are no cars. In addition to getting around differently than me, Kendra writes differently, uses the bathroom differently, and gets in and out of bed differently, but those are pretty insignificant in the whole grand scheme of things.
For those who may be trying to identify the stereotypes present in their behavior, I’ll share some experiences we have had regarding Kendra’s disability. I hope they help prompt some thoughtful self-reflection.
First off, whenever I go anywhere with Kendra, I’m usually the one people look at and talk to, even if it’s one of Kendra’s errands. This happens so often that I sometimes have to consciously remind myself to stay quiet so I don’t perpetuate the belief that disabled people are less intelligent or incompetent.
Another thing that has happened too often is having people express pity towards me, saying “your sex life must be rough.” Others have asked “so, you’re probably not going to be able to have kids?” I am glad people want to learn more about inter-abled relationships and I cheerfully answer these questions, but it is unfortunate that the immediate assumption is that disabled people are asexual or burdensome on a healthy sexual relationship.
So what are the big messages from all this? I would say one takeaway is to not assume you know things about somebody’s life just because of what you can see on the outside. Recognize the stereotypes you have and avoid them. Don’t see paralysis, blindness, hearing loss, or any other disability as a deficiency or a sign that someone needs your help. Odds are they can help you just as much as you can help them.
Bio: Topher is an ally of the disabled community and has had interesting experiences regarding stereotypes of interabled relationship with his wife, Kendra. The Exponent blog strives to have first-person narratives and Topher has insights from an ally perspective. He is currently working towards an International Affairs master degree at UC San Diego and enjoys cooking Thai food for friends.