Lessons in love

A series of workshops aims to empower people with severe physical disabilities to truly experience the world of romance.

Disability workshop 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Disability workshop 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Like most people reminiscing about a failed relationship, Nofar’s eyes start to fill with tears when she describes how extraneous circumstances left her with little choice but to break up with her first boyfriend.
“We were together for nine months and we lived together for three,” says the 31-year-old, who has since met someone new.
“It was not easy,” she confesses, “it is never easy when two worlds come together; sometimes people need to be taught how to be together.”
While the story of a lost love is probably one that most people can identify with, for Nofar and her past and present partner, the challenge of staying together for the longterm comes on a completely different level.
Wheelchair-bound due to cerebral palsy she has had since birth, Nofar does not have the use of her arms or legs, even though with her face and speech she can express her feelings clearly.
“There are some who say that people with disabilities shouldn’t be allowed to do certain things like most people but they are wrong; we should be allowed to find partners just like everyone else,” says Nofar defiantly. “Everyone deserves to find love and be happy, so why can’t I?” We are sitting together at the Center for Independent Living, a community center for people with varying degrees of disabilities, located in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood.
Nofar, along with roughly 20 other disabled people, almost all in wheelchairs, have come along this evening to participate in a special workshop. Run by the non-profit organization Shalheveth, a support service for adults with severe physical disabilities, the ongoing program aims to provide them with the tools to find love and keep it.
“Our problem was that we did not have the support of people around us and we could not find a way of living together,” explains Nofar about her first relationship. “It became too much for both of us to handle; we both became frustrated and he turned violent towards me.”
“Perhaps if we had had support or guidance for how to live a joint life together then there might have been a chance for us to succeed,” she reflects, adding that tonight’s program, which is part of an ongoing set of workshops, might just be what she and her new partner need to make things work out between them.
“This kind of program is really helpful in making us understand what kind of difficulties we could face as a couple,” observes Nofar, whose boyfriend, who is not present, also has a disability. “It helps us to know how to react with more responsibility and carry out a joint life together.”
WHILE THERE are no exact data on the number of people with severe physical disabilities (completely paralyzed from the neck down or physically disabled with severe motor disabilities) living in Israel – most estimates put the general figure of at close to 1.36 million, with roughly 700,000 of them being of working age (20 to 64) – Miriam Freier, Shalheveth’s chairwoman, believes a new approach is needed.
“It should be the right of every person, even someone with the worst disability imaginable, to live alone according to the life they choose,” states the 77-year-old former educator who has made it her life’s work to encourage the authorities and society to allow for more inclusion of people with disabilities.
Started 25 years ago, Shalheveth runs a few extremely focused projects, including a set of specially equipped apartments in central Jerusalem that allow those with severe disabilities a high degree of independent living and a range of workshops providing important skills needed to permit community integration.
Among the projects that Freier runs, perhaps the most unusual is “Significant Other,” which, she explains, aims to foster “romantic empowerment opportunities” that will allow people with severe physical disabilities to have healthy relationships.
Often, severely physically disabled adults are not presented with many opportunities to meet friends, make new acquaintances or find life partners, says Freier, adding that their physical limitations coupled with social marginalization can often create “a life of severe emotional depravation and isolation.”
She also points out that people with severe physical disabilities are often likely to grow to adulthood in an environment lacking in significant personal relationships, platonic or romantic. Whether growing up in nuclear families, adoptive families or more commonly, institutions, hostels, hospitals or group homes, people with severe disabilities are marginalized and cast aside in today’s society, says Freier.
“If parents are around, often they are not supportive of their disabled children finding love,” she says, adding, “they feel burdened enough taking care of one child with a disability and they do not want to be dealing with two disabled people.”
As well as helping participants grapple with the external challenges to finding love, Significant Others also empowers individuals on a personal level, instilling in them a sense that anything is possible.
“The goal of these workshops is to give people tools and tips on how to have a relationship,” explains Freier, describing how the group was inspired after watching a film depicting a woman with no arms or legs raising a family.
“Many people with disabilities do not believe that they themselves can live like everyone else, including finding love,” she says, adding that couples like Nofar and her boyfriend receive one-on-one counseling with a relationship expert through the program.
“Sadly, they cannot even touch each other, so we help them to come to terms with that,” says Freier.
DESPITE THE obvious barriers, one of the workshop’s participant’s, 23-year-old Yechiel, says that he is very optimistic about finding love and getting married in the long-term.
Involved in an incident two years ago that has left him confined to a wheelchair, Yechiel says that he decided to join the program to learn “how to deal with this new situation” and to get some good tips on finding love.
“I am optimistic,” he says with a smile.
“I know I will find love and that eventually I will overcome all my disabilities.”
Another participant, Sarit, who lost the use of her legs after suffering a brain tumor several years ago, is less positive.
“I am very skeptical that I will ever find love today and if I do, it will only be with another disabled person because then we will understand each other. It is not easy to be in our situation and most people do not understand what it feels like,” she says sadly.
“I think when society looks at someone with a disability, they look first at their disability, and while that person might be blind or deaf or physically impaired and that is part of who they are, its not who they are as a person,” emphasizes Jay Ruderman, director of the Boston and Israel-based Ruderman Family Foundation, which has been intensely involved in promoting programs that encourage all levels of inclusion for people with disabilities.
Ruderman, whose foundation has already donated $15,000 to Shalheveth for this particular series of workshops and individual counseling for couples, says that “people with disabilities are sexual people like the rest of us and we should be helping them to reach their potential to achieve happiness.”
He continues: “Who your partner is is perhaps the biggest part of your life, and someone with a disability should not be told he or she can’t live in a normal environment, can’t work, and they should not be told they can’t get married.
“They should have every right to do that and sometimes they just need a little extra help to reach that full conclusion,” observes Ruderman, adding that enabling the disabled to live in independent living apartments like those provided by Shalheveth should be the goal for all of society.
“The discussion of inclusion for people with disabilities in Israel is not receiving enough attention, and I hope that programs such as this one will not only help individual people but that it will also stimulate a discussion in society,” says Ruderman, who has been pushing Jewish communities in the Diaspora to make more effort to include people with disabilities in all areas of life. “We want Israeli society in general to change the way it looks at people with disabilities.”