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How to meet that special someone?

When my late father reached an age where my grandmother decided that it was high time for him to marry, she invited all the prettiest local girls to their house, to help her make shaariyeh.  


Shaariyeh is a kind of local Middle Eastern vermicelli or “angel hair” pasta prepared from wheat. The pasta is often fried, then cooked with rice or bulgur in various dishes. Back in those days, pasta was almost always homemade. Since shaariyeh is so thin and delicate, the process of preparing strands that will cook evenly, without breaking or sticking together, is particularly time-consuming. This is why shaariyeh was often prepared collectively in large batches by groups of women, who would make the most of such opportunities to meet up and spend a pleasant day together.  


For this occasion, however, my grandmother invited the girls to come to the house at different times, so that my father could discretely get a good look at each of them. The families who sent their daughters over to my grandmother’s house likely understood what the invitation was about, but the shaariyeh gave the whole matter an air of respectability. Because my father’s family had a good social standing, the girls’ parents were flattered that their daughter was included in the invitation.  


My mother was one of the girls who came over that day. Actually, the truth is that my grandmother had asked for her older prettier sister. But by pure chance, the sister was not feeling well, so my mother replaced her last minute. And among all the girls invited, it was my mother who caught my father’s eye. That choice - which eventually brought me and my brothers and sister into the world - was in other words based entirely on outward appearances, and if my aunt hadn’t been unwell that particular day, my parents would not have married.  


How lucky we are, you might say, that society has evolved since then. But have things really changed that much? Modern dating apps give young people even less of a chance to really get to know each other before swiping right or left. Good looks and outward appearances have probably come to play an even greater role in today’s highly visual culture.  


Other factors play a role, of course. Race, religion, money, education, age. Family “compatibility”, names and addresses. The ethnic and economic geography of where you live, work or study. If you can move freely, travel and meet on vacation. But this is still not substantially different from the criteria that defined the potential pool of partners for my father all those years ago. And back then, just as today, disability will also define your marriage prospects. When I asked my mother if my grandmother would have invited her if she had had a disability, she laughed, and said that girls with disabilities were not considered good marriage prospects.  


I know of course, that many people with disabilities are in fact married or living in a happy relationship. But still today, such cases are discussed as examples of exceptional love and devotion (though sometimes ulterior motives are suspected). If a spouse remains with a suddenly disabled partner, that person’s “amazing” loyalty and fortitude is praised. Persons with disability living in unvoluntary celibacy are less often showcased, and the desire for intimacy, partnership or raising a family may even be criticised. Wouldn’t it be unfair on the future children? Wouldn’t it be creating unfair constraints for the non-disabled partner? Would it be a “burden” on society?  In mixed-ability couples, the person with disability is almost never represented as a desirable “catch”, as someone who will contribute with unique assets, and their non-disabled partner is rarely seen as “lucky” to have found their true love. 


But looking at societal attitudes is still only scratching the surface of the challenges that persons with disabilities face in dating and finding a partner. If we go back to the set of factors that typically define potential matches, persons with disabilities are disadvantaged at every step. Conventional standards of beauty tend to exclude the body shapes, movements and appearance of many people with disability. Fashion largely ignores disability, and it is virtually impossible to find clothes that are beautiful, comfortable and affordable. Disability can affect your voice or restrict modes of communication. Livelihoods are limited, as is access to higher education and high-status professions or careers. Disability also often involves additional costs, as well as difficulties in finding adapted, accessible and affordable homes for a couple to move into. 


And how do you meet in the first place? If your education pathway is segregated, shortened or slower, you are less likely to meet someone in an educational context. If you are excluded from workplaces, you will not meet potential partners through work. If public transport and public spaces are not accessible, a large number of contexts to socialise and get to know people are off the map. Consequently, the less friends you have, the less potential “friends of friends” will appear in your life.  If you do not have access to independent living, bringing someone to your parents’ place or to an institution is hardly an easy path to romance. If your finances are restricted (and you have to devote your time and energy to battling administrative or social obstacles), you are unlikely to meet someone on vacation, or in pursuing a hobby, or just going for a stroll in the park. If despite these obstacles you do meet people (in person or online), your vulnerability – combined with the social expectation that a person with disability should be “grateful” that anyone would ever take an interest in them – will expose us to predators, exploitation, control or coercion.  


While all of this will make the quest to find that special someone more complicated than for those who do not live with disabilities, there is one side of the issue that we can do something about, though it may be more difficult to admit. I am talking about our own attitudes, fears and expectations. Are we looking for a partner just to provide support, security, and social recognition? Do we see ourselves as unattractive and unworthy of love? Do we accept unacceptable behaviour from others just because we are desperate and have given up hope?  


No matter how slow our societies are to evolve and fully recognise persons with disabilities as normal people - with the same flaws, needs and dreams as any other human beings – we ourselves must never forget that each of us is unique, valuable and worthy. The reflection of ourselves that we see in other people’s reactions is not the truth.  It is just a sad illusion that is distorted grotesquely by outdated prejudice.  


Though Saint Valentine was a martyr, we do not have to be. Love comes in all shapes and sizes. If you are looking for romance, I hope you will find it. And for those who prefer to stay free and single, I hope you find deep and fulfilling love in your friendships, in nature, in your passions, or in your spirituality. Happy Valentine’s Day! 

 

Chavia Ali 

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