“Is it possible for my disabled child to get married?” This is a question that parents often ask. Their son or daughter may often convey the sentiment, “I also want to get married, just like my sister or my brother or my friend.”
It is painful for persons of disabilities to see others get married while they are left behind. At the same time, there are naturally, additional challenges in marriage amongst those with disabilities.
How can we navigate the best path?
Everyone needs hope. People with disabilities need to feel that it is possible for them to achieve and accomplish their life goals, up to and including enjoying the companionship of a relationship and marriage.
Considering how to help a child with disabilities prepare for marriage, there are many challenges that parents and adults face. Sometimes parents have difficulty learning to let go and allow their child to make their own decisions. Since they have been managing their child’s life for so long it is hard for parents to envision their child functioning without their assistance. Dealing with one crisis after another for many years, has accustomed them to constantly being on alert. It is understandable that it can be very difficult to view such a “child” differently. Often, someone from outside the family, such as a mentor or coach can see things more objectively. A dating mentor can make an assessment as to whether the child is capable of learning the socialization skills necessary to have a relationship and get married. A dating mentor can coach the individual in skills that are basic to having a strong foundation in a relationship, such as how to communicate, solve problems, compromise, show and give respect and how to have empathy.
Of course, there are serious concerns and obstacles. Many such couples will require ongoing supervision and support in order to maintain a stable relationship. Furthermore, while most marriages include an expectation of establishing a family, these couples in consultation with a posek and mental health professional may need to think along different lines. In the short and long term, there are no “one-size fits all” solutions.
Recently, David Mandel, CEO of OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services invited some of OHEL’s married couples for dinner to talk about how to help more individuals inside OHEL and in the larger community improve their chances for having meaningful relationships, and possibly getting married.
The couples had the opportunity to share what helped them get married and what helps them successfully remain married. Their case managers and resident managers were also present at the dinner.
Many shared how the support of their case managers has been helpful to them in addressing problems before they escalate, as well as their assistance with being connected to appropriate resources, such as marital counseling in order to deal with the typical and not so typical stresses of married life.
Some participants shared their joys and struggles, making the listeners laugh and cry with them. One couple invites friends every Shabbos in order to increase their chances for finding someone to befriend. Stigma is still an issue many struggle with, especially when trying to find a shadchan to set them up. Their experiences have been that many shadchanim are unfortunately very dismissive of individuals who seek to marry and who are effectively managing their mental illness – an understandable disposition that requires much more community education. One person offered to be a shadchan in order to fill that void. Another suggested joining online websites and having a special section for individuals with psychiatric diagnoses. Such discussions are important to break down the barriers that prevent individuals from pursuing their goals for establishing meaningful relationships and getting married.
Chesed is a cornerstone of the Torah, and the chesed of helping Adam find his mate was the first recorded chesed in the Torah – performed by none other than Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Persons with disabilities have the right to enjoy as much of life as typically developing people do, and it is great chesed to help those who need the extra support and guidance to achieve their goals. We are embarking on a new frontier to give individuals with disabilities some of the same opportunities the mainstream population appreciates. There are no easy answers and the road can be long and bumpy; however, we need to join together and ask, “what are the obstacles that we need to overcome” until we reach our goal.Sarah Kahan