Support from the Start: How to Talk About Disability With A Disabled Partner When You're a Nondisabled Person
New relationships - whether romantic, sexual, or both - are almost always exciting, no matter who you are. But for people with disabilities in relationships with neurotypical, nondisabled partners, new relationships can be filled with anxiety, including anxiety about the serious conversations that need to be held. Is there a best way to tell your partner you’re disabled? As an autistic person, I’ve learned there is no “best way,” so much as being vulnerable and honest within my comfort level and making sure whoever my partner is capable of being supportive of my identity and understanding the various needs associated with my neurodivergence.
Disability covers a wide range of conditions, such as cognitive and learning differences, intellectual disabilities, visual or hearing impairments, or physical disabilities. Each person’s experience and exact disability traits are different. Like anybody else, people with disabilities generally want intimacy, to love and be loved. We are worthy of companionship, love, and sex. Spend any time on the accounts of disabled social media creators like Alex Dacy, Keah Brown, or Andrew Gurza, and the message is clear: just like anybody else, disabled people can perceived as desirable, we see ourselves as cute, and we crave the same range of human desires as nondisabled people. But what exactly does all of that mean for our partners, who are often new to this whole disability thing?
Disability may feel scary if you’re new to it - there is a lot of language involved to learn, maybe more medical information than you feel capable of handling, or you might have a fear about possibly being cast in a caregiver role more so than a partner. All of these fears can be dispelled or addressed through ongoing, healthy communication. In my experience, disclosure is an ongoing conversation and there is no single “correct” way to do it, but there are ways that our partners can be stronger allies. Throughout my life, people (including partners) have always reacted to conversations about my autism with a spectrum of emotions ranging from indifference to judgment and at the most extreme, disgust. I have felt loved and accepted, or I have felt a quick pang of shame because of a negative reaction.
Be Ready for the Disability Conversation
Whether your partner’s disability is physical, cognitive, or psychiatric in nature, chances are they will want to talk about it at some point in the relationship. For me, a mention of my disability begins casually when discussing my work, but “the conversation” surrounding how exactly my autism affects me (and potentially a partner) is something I choose to have when I feel it is appropriate, primarily when a relationship has feelings involved from both parties alongside the potential to become serious, if it isn’t already. Amy Gravino, an autistic sexuality advocate and relationship coach at the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services, tells me there is no timeline for a disabled partner opening the conversation. “Each relationship is different,” Gravino says, “and there is no requirement to open up if you’re not ready to open up. If you don’t feel comfortable, it’s not your fault.”
But she does think it’s paramount for nondisabled allied partners to be prepared, cautioning nondisabled partners not to prolong the conversation if their disabled partner is ready to have it. “Don’t just avoid the conversation because you don’t know how to have it,” she says, “find the information you need and find a way to feel comfortable with it.”
Andrew Gurza, a disability awareness consultant, adds that discussions about disability and the power exchanges about how other people may perceive the relationship are also worth having as well. Avoiding these conversations can make things more complicated. “If you don’t bring [disability] up, it’s just going to fester. So have these discussions are vulnerable as they are. They’re important to have no matter what.”
There are resources to help, and seeking out advice from the internet or books, a relationship coach, therapist, or other trusted party to understand your partner’s disability is a step in the right direction. Gravino shares a story about a neurotypical boyfriend who sought her out to help understand his girlfriend’s autism and how it impacted their relationship. “There are neurotypicals who want to be good at this! It shows you care.”
Showing you care is exactly what is what partners in healthy relationships do. Gurza says there isn’t necessarily something that nondisabled partners do “wrong” with discussing disability. “I think it’s problematic for us to say someone is doing something wrong,” Gurza explains, “Nondisabled people don’t do things wrong. They’re doing things as a result of a lack of education.” A lack of education is not the same as not caring, as long as you’re moving in an empathetic direction.
A Big Part of Allyship to Disabled and Neurodivergent Partners is Validation
Receiving disability education is one way to make us feel validated, but Gurza shares that all of us have an opportunity to grow and change, even without that formal education. Part of that process is avoiding invalidation of our identities by being good listeners and signaling you are ready to earn a title of allyship since it is a practice. “A good ally and a good partner will recognize that they have the capacity to make endless mistakes. That’s okay, as long as they are able to apologize and move forward.”
One of the biggest indicators to me that a disability conversation is going awry or somebody isn’t taking it well is typically in the form of microaggressions, like, “But you don’t look autistic,” “I’d never know if you didn’t tell me,” or a knee-jerk reaction about how brave, inspiring, or resilient I am. When I’m choosing to share more details, I’m not looking for praise, so much as reassurance and safety. Autism is a huge part of my identity, just as much as being a redhead or a woman or a lawyer is. Gravino, who is also autistic, agrees: “Autism is part of who we are. It’s not all of who we are, but that’s part of our personhood.” What I share personally is not for sympathy, background information or an interesting tidbit, but so a partner knows why I might act in certain ways or to avoid certain situations for me (I’m a picky eater, and a lot of loud and crowded places can potentially cause a sensory overload).
Gurza emphasizes the importance of listening to the disabled person, but something harmful that can happen is the minimization of the disabled experience. Sometimes it might feel well-intentioned and potentially comforting to say something like “don’t worry, everybody goes through that,” but it may not help your partner. “I think they just need to stop minimizing what their disabled partner may be going through,” Gurza says. Their words ring true – the minimization of the things I struggle with make explaining my disability and why I may need more support that much more frustrating to explain at times.
A lot of this comes down to reckoning with ableism and how it affects each partner. Disabled partners might deal with internalized ableism, which might make it hard for us to date nondisabled people. Nondisabled partners may be challenging their preconceived ideas of what disability is, and how to treat people with disabilities. “Be willing to learn and to open your mind and to learn different things to realize how ableism might be affecting your partner and understand what that feels like for them and be willing to listen to that. If you are willing to listen to that, then then you and your disabled partner can get through a lot together.”
Signaling Safety to Your Partner
There’s no way to avoid it: most disabilities mean someone experiences some form of challenge in daily life, whether it is with mobility, concentrating, caring for ourselves, or at work or in school. Some of us need more support than others. “We’re going to have challenges,” Gravino recognizes, “and we need to know that you’re somebody we can trust and feel safe with.”
That safety also comes with respect and being treated with dignity. Gurza, who has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy and is a full-time power wheelchair user, says that nondisabled partners need to reminded about a person’s agency. “Just because I'm disabled doesn't mean I am less than. It doesn't mean I will submit to any sexual or romantic thing you want me to, I still have a say on what goes on there and whether or not I'm disabled, that doesn't change.” This is especially important knowing that disabled partners will need assistance from their romantic or sexual partners – the level of assistance depends on the person’s condition and individual needs.
Trust is a huge part of any relationship, as is feeling safe, but in a disability context, might mean different things depending on your relationship and your partner’s disability. It might be ensuring there’s an exit strategy for me from overwhelming situations or recognizing we need to leave when I might not be able to verbalize it, or being able to advocate with us. It might be another reminder of our agency and power as decision-makers within the relationship. Self-advocacy is a huge part of existing while disabled, and romantic partners can play a role in that. Sometimes mixed neurology relationships may experience what Gravino describes as a “traffic jam in communication,” where sometimes a neurotypical partner may have words but no self-awareness while the disabled partner has self-awareness with no words.
Knowing communication is key also means adjusting in a way that’s respectful to your partner and relationship. Depending on how your partner communicates and understands you are trying to make them feel safe, you might adjust your reactions. Maybe communicating empathy and safety is a light touch, or saying “Thank you for telling me. How can I make you more comfortable?” or “You’re safe with me.” For autistic people in particular, direct communication might be the best way to avoid subtleties, but your mileage may vary. After all, each individual is different, as is how their disability affects their lives. If someone communicates differently, it might be easier to have this conversation over text or the phone rather than in person – that might also save us some additional stress like having to judge your facial expressions or give you time to think through a thoughtful response.
Relationships are a team sport, with all parties involved needing to be able to safely support and help each other. If you’re saying you don’t want to understand or recognize part of my identity, it loudly says you might not be interested in being part of the team. And a relationship with a disabled partner is a loving, healthy, and often fun team sport.
As your relationship grows and changes, the talk about disability may grow and continue to evolve, such as if you’re adding sex into the equation, introducing each other to family and friends, or possibly moving in together. It’s not just a one-time disclosure, but an ongoing conversation that does involve more topics and that are more in-depth like ableism, consent, power differences, and more happen in a safe and supportive way. As long as all parties in the relationship are willing to listen and grow, having this conversation on an ongoing basis should feel a little bit less scary.
The best part? As your relationship does grow and your conservation continues to expand, you’ll continue to build trust, safety, intimacy, and a mutual understanding between you and your partner. The evolution of how we talk about disability should be an empowering and intimate moment for both of you.