Sex and romance when you have a disability

April 13, 2019


If there are as many different minds as there are bodies, then there are as many different kinds of love as there are people. ~Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


I read Leo Tolstoy when I was 17 years old, working at a Youth Conservation Corps camp in northern Wisconsin. We spent all day in the woods, building wing dams and saving glorious stands of white pine.


At the time, I wanted to prove myself. I had to show that I could swing a double-bit axe with one hand and a prosthetic limb as well as anyone else in the camp.


We spent the week felling red pines to make a fire break for a controlled burn. Thirty-foot trees crashed to the ground all around us, and we dragged them into piles to burn at a designated time. We were making a favorable habitat for sharp-tailed grouse.


When I wasn’t chopping down trees, I would run along the dirt forest roads in the evening, getting ready for the next track season. I had won the half-mile run the previous year. I was the defending champ.


Running along these back roads wasn’t like doing circles around a track. The roads had character. There was a place where the road split, each lane turning around a lone red pine in the middle of the road. The soil was perfect for the turtles I ambushed while they dug holes in the soft sand.


Life was good. I had broken up with the girlfriend I took to prom the previous spring, but I had at least proven I was worthy of love—just like any two-handed guy.


I had no doubt I would fall in love again. In the meantime, swinging a double-bit axe in the woods and taking out my angst by violently mistreating trees wasn’t a bad way to go.


And I read. I read Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Homer, and Tolstoy. Anna Karenina wasn’t as lofty as his reputation. It was grounded in real-world conflicts. Would Anna willingly destroy her world for the sake of love?


I memorized the quote, thinking that love itself would never be as lofty as it was at age 17. But today, it has new meaning. In my job as a caregiver for people who deal with disabilities, that Tolstoy quote has gained greater depth.


We live in a world where the common assumption is that the disabled shouldn’t think about love. They should be satisfied if they have a place to live and food to eat. An occasional friend is a bonus. Worry about cleaning your room, not about romance.


Yet the heart wants what the heart wants. What does a heart that beats fast in a disabled body want? What everyone else wants—to love and be loved.


There are pages on Facebook for people who deal with disabilities to meet. ISO—in search of love, in search of relationship, in search of sex. The same kinds of efforts as on any lovelorn website.


I see people jumping in with both feet as if they have finally decided to take the plunge. I see them awkwardly trying to express deeply held feelings without looking stupid. I see people whose self-esteem is predicated on becoming a player. I see one-sided love. I see broken hearts. I see the right people finding the right people.


But for people who deal with disabilities, there are differences. Do I lead with my disability? As in: “Single female with Asperger’s, seeking single male who likes the outdoors, camping, the Green Bay Packers, and Tolstoy. Caregivers welcome to accompany.”


Or how about the person whose idea of proving themselves is to fall in love with someone who is not disabled? The mainstream assumption is that the non-disabled person is taking advantage of the situation (or can’t get a “real” date). In some states, it’s a felony.


The policy where I work is to let romances develop organically. Because we don’t know what’s possible or how it’s possible. Our only advantage is that we see the possibilities and are dedicated to overcoming the obstacles, whether that’s love or cleaning the room.


That, and we’re people, too. What do we know about love? We only have our own experiences as a guide, and some of us have messed those up. But we at least know what we don’t know.


Ah, life would be so much simpler without love! But that’s the difference between running around a sterile oval track or along a forest road.


I keep coming back to that Tolstoy quote. While people with disabilities scramble to approximate the love they see happening all around them, I learned at an early age that all love is different from all other love. It’s supposed to be that way. Tolstoy said so.


Evan Sasman is a support specialist for people with developmental disabilities and certified peer specialist in Wisconsin. He deals with a disability, a hand amputation and resulting PTSD. He is currently writing a book about PTSD and building a website about trauma issues. He lives in rural Bayfield County, Wisconsin, near Ashland. He is an award-winning journalist and has worked for newspapers ranging in size from small weeklies to urban dailies. He was previously editor of the Bad River Tribe newspaper and has taught at-risk students for the tribal high school. He is a former instructor for Lac Courte Oreilles Community College. He is a member of the Wisconsin Writer's Association and the Lake Superior Writers.

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