Hi! Emily here. For Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Awareness month, I’m writing from the perspective of “knowingly” choosing Wheel Love from the forefront and not having to transition into it. When Will and I had started dating, he was already 3.5 years post-injury. In fact, I never even knew Will as someone without a SCI, and we likely wouldn’t have met if his accident had never happened. I often joke that I probably wouldn’t have dated him if he never had a SCI (our city girl and redneck boy roots may not have meshed that well).
I want to be open and upfront about what I’ve experienced so far to shed light on inter-abled relationships and particularly choosing an inter-abled relationship. You’ll see that we experience some challenges, but that’s like any other couple. Outweighing those challenges is a heck of a lot of happiness, laughter, love, adventures, and so much more. I’m not saying an inter-abled relationship is better, but I am speaking as someone who’s been in able-bodied relationships before. I feel that being somewhat aware of what these challenges may be can truly allow you to enjoy your inter-abled relationship for all it has to offer. Yes, there are things Will can’t do– but none of these things have gotten in the way of us having a wonderful relationship. Our relationship has complimented me in a way that no other relationship has before as it’s let me grow as a person while maintaining my independence and identity. It’s let me be goofy and carefree, while providing me with comfort and a sense of support during the toughest of times. It’s showed me what’s important and how to appreciate the little things. I could go on and on, but you’ll probably get sick of reading!
Will and I met in 2017, and remained friends for about 2 years before dating. The turning point in our friendship was when I accompanied Will as his “attendant” (I’ll get into this a bit later…) on his first major flight post-injury. As I thought I was strictly supposed to be his “attendant”, I spent lots of time helping him out and that led to us getting to know each other on a deeper level. We were both in other relationships at the time, so we stayed friends for a while. Turns out our respective relationships were quite toxic for each of us, and both of our relationships ended shortly after our trip. The “lightbulb” really went off for me just seeing how supportive and caring Will was after my grandpa had passed away. He’d constantly check-in and work endlessly to keep me happy and calm all the way from BC when I was back in Ontario with my family. We just really enjoyed being around each other, and all of our friends harassed us with the “just date already” comments that entire summer. Well, obviously we gave in and now it’s been a crazy year that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Prior to living together, Will and I lived 2 hours apart, and would see each other every Wednesday/Thursday and most weekends. With that, we experienced the “honeymoon” part of dating for a longer period of time, as we wanted every time we saw each other to be different and exciting. Here are three pieces of advice when it comes to the things you do for keeping your relationship exciting and fun:
1) Assistive Technology is your Best Friend.
Will’s front drive and free wheel have allowed us to do some beautiful hikes and trails we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. I recommend investing in as much as you can – as each piece of equipment helps with barriers (fatigue, uneven terrain, you name it). These things can be pricy, so look into peer groups/organizations for contacts and opportunities to get these items for cheaper.
2) Call Ahead & Plan Ahead.
When planning getaways and excursions, calling ahead is key. There are so many unique considerations you’ll have to think about when planning a trip (e.g. roll-in shower, access to an elevator, bed height, etc). Calling ahead allows you to speak to a real person and really emphasize why these requests are so important to have. Leaving a note online works too, but it gives more opportunity for the urgency of your request to be dismissed.
3) Never Assume Anything.
Here’s where I come back to the attendant part. When I was on our Quebec trip as Will’s “attendant”, I immediately assumed I had to help him with EVERYTHING (I mean everything). This was good for our relationship (heck it let us spend more time together) but bad overall (I completely undermined Will’s independence which is NOT cool). Of course, there are things Will needs my help with – but it’s not fair for me to choose what those things are and what they aren’t. Although I didn’t know Will before his accident, I do know he was someone who liked to do things for himself and was (pretty much still is) very resourceful and handy. I still mess this up sometimes (it is human nature to want to help others), but it’s important to have a conversation with your loved one (partner, friend, whoever) about where the line is between helping too much and not helping enough. This conversation is so important as the line is going to look different for each and every person.
Like any relationship (able-bodied or not), we experienced new challenges when beginning to live together. To make it even harder for ourselves, we moved in together during the COVID-19 pandemic which added an additional layer of challenges. We weren’t doing a typical move in… we spent 24/7 with one another and really didn’t have the opportunity to see or communicate with other people. In the end, we’ve grown closer and it’s given us the opportunity to know what it’s like to live together. I just started my PhD and we wouldn’t have had this opportunity to learn what it’s like to live together for another 4 years. I’ve summarized the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past 5 months of a) living with my significant other and b) living with a quadriplegic.
1) Be Ready for Change.
I can guarantee that your schedule is already not the same/nowhere near the same as someone with a SCI. Certain everyday tasks like using the washroom, showering, and dressing will take much longer for a quadriplegic. If you’re both aiming to get to an appointment at 9:00am – make sure you’re an early bird or change your appointment time. You can be optimistic, but your days of rolling out of bed and leaving to go somewhere are likely over. One thing I’ve found that’s helped me embrace this change is to get a head-start on your to-do list for the day (can you tell I have a Type A personality?). For someone like me who’s quite task-oriented, it allows me to continue feeling productive, and gives me more free time to do things with Will when he is ready to go about his day.
2) Establish a Relationship with Care-Aids.
Bold, underline, highlight this point x1000! This is SO IMPORTANT (particularly if you are dating a quadriplegic as they will likely have a care-aid/someone to come in for daily care). This was something I was having trouble with when I first moved in with Will, and was probably the most complicated thing we’ve experienced thus far. If you’re moving in with your partner and they already have a well-established relationship with a care aid, take the time to build rapport, become familiar with their current routine, and ensure the lines between care-aid and partner are not blurred. I’ll give an example – say Will’s care aid was helping him prepare his breakfast at the same time I was finishing up my own breakfast. If I have to run to a meeting and don’t have time to clean my dishes at that moment, it’d be good for me to say something like “Sorry, I can’t get to this now. I will get to it later.”.. showing you don’t expect the care-aid to do them for you. If they happen to help you with a task (like if they’re doing something anyways and offer to help you with doing the same task), always be super appreciative and thankful. However, remember this relationship must be reciprocal and your partner’s care-aid needs to respect you and your role as a partner. Experiencing this type of disrespect can really throw a wrench in things and make you feel uncomfortable in a space you’re supposed to be calling “home”. Remember, your role is partner and think about what that truly entails. If you are experiencing disrespect, chat with your partner about it sooner rather than later. If your partner is starting up with a new care-aid, use this opportunity to build rapport at the beginning. Be upfront about roles and expectations and ensure everyone is comfortable with the arrangement.
It’s only been a year, and I’m sure there’s many more experiences for Will and I to have and many more lessons to be learned. My biggest takeaway from this post is that being in an inter-abled relationship will come with a unique set of personal challenges, but at the end of the day it’s about your partner and how they make you feel. I hope that sharing some of these challenges and lessons learned will ease the minds of anyone questioning whether or not to pursue an inter-abled relationship; and simply show people that the challenges experienced aren’t completely different from those during any other relationship!