Relationships are, really, partnerships in which you learn to support and care for each other in whatever ways make sense. And, if your partner has a disability, that kind of empathy may manifest in unique ways, as explained in a recent viral tweet from Imani Barbarin, who writes about her experience with cerebral palsy on her blog, Crutches & Spice.
"What are some of the physical ways your partner makes you feel loved that are different from the way abled people show love?#YouCanLoveMeButYouCantHoldMyHand," Barbarin posted on Twitter last week, receiving dozens of responses.
Barbarin tells SELF that she wrote her tweet after “binge watching romantic comedies on Netflix and wishing for disabled people to be represented in the same light.”
She continues, “I realized that if we were, the traditional ways of showing love wouldn’t be quite what we’re used to. So I asked disabled people in an effort to envision what that’d look like as I have never been in love myself.”
Although people with disabilities may face some unique challenges, showing them that you care comes from the same place as it would for anyone else. “The way I show love is not different from a person without a disability,” Amy E. Scherer, staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, tells SELF. Having empathy, being nonjudgmental, and paying attention to the little things are helpful no matter who you're with.
But, considering we so rarely see people with disabilities represented in traditional romantic stories, even acknowledging that is important.
Barbarin says she feels “so encouraged” by all the different responses she read. “So rarely is dating talked about with or amongst disabled people [and] it makes me happy to watch as people become resources for each other,” she says.
Here are some of the touching responses Barbarin received:
1. "My amazing partner functions as my literal crutch."
“Many people with disabilities live independent lives—and work hard to do so—in order to avoid having to rely on other people,” Scherer says. But everyone needs help once in a while. Being sensitive to your loved one’s needs and providing assistance when you can will go a long way.
2. "My sweet guy offered to shave [my armpits] for me because I couldn't."
“Shaving your partner's armpits not only performs a practical purpose, but the gesture conveys remarkable tenderness and intimacy,” Caitlin Donovan, spokeswoman for the National Patient Advocate Foundation, tells SELF.
3. "Washing my hair because I'm too exhausted to do it."
Giving a back massage, washing your partner’s hair, and making certain foods can make a big impact. “Acts like those are at the heart of true care-giving and partnership,” Donovan says.
4. "I get a pass on household chores and grocery trips when it's flaring up."
If you know your partner's issues have been more severe lately, ask them if they'd like you to take over certain tasks—just make sure you ask first. “I happen to be a wheelchair user and my friends/loved ones show me that they care by willingly providing me the help that I need when I request it,” Scherer says. “But, they also show that they care by respecting my desire to be independent, even if it looks like it is a time-consuming or difficult task for me.”
5. "He loves me as much now as he did before I became disabled."
“We have a saying: ‘Treat the person, not the disease,’” Donovan says. “It holds true far beyond any disease, to any aspect of the human condition. People want to be seen as their whole self, not just as one aspect.”
6. "He touches my scars and stubs."
It’s “totally natural” for a person who acquires a disability to wonder if they'll be treated the same way by their loved ones, Scherer says. “So, it is important to convey that, although one’s abilities may have changed, the love remains strong and unyielding,” she says. “Touching someone’s scars (if the person wants that to be done) may be one way to convey that all aspects of that person are embraced.”
7. "He helps me get my outfit together."
“We work with advocates whose conditions changed their lives, and who have dedicated their lives to advocate on behalf of others with that same condition. And yet, to a person, each will say that they do not want to be defined by their condition,” Donovan says. Doing what you can to just live your lives together—and adjusting what that means as you go—is crucial.
Ultimately, Barbarin says that she hopes people have one major takeaway from the reactions her tweet has drawn: “I want disabled people to come to seeing themselves as desirable and deserving of love.”