Love Unlimited

A social worker acts as your matchmaker. Your parents can veto your beloved. Society wants you to stay chaste. That's dating life for people with developmental disabilities.


Having freedom under the law won't necessarily help when it comes to finding a partner--ask any of your single friends. So it should come as no surprise that people with developmental disabilities often find that cultural prejudices and legal obstacles are the least of their problems. The more formidable challenge is finding and seizing the opportunity to chat up someone you might like.

Where do you start? "A common thing that came up when I worked in residential situations was when somebody liked somebody," remembers Beth Fondell. "If that other person didn't reciprocate, they would come to me and say, 'Make her like me; tell her to like me.' I'd say, 'Well, that isn't something I can make her do.'"

Michael Dvorak

So what do you say? "Part of their problem is everyday conversation, just chitchatting," says Bobra Fyne, of the National Institute for People With Disabilities in New York. To teach such skills, Fyne has started a dating service of sorts, in which singles meet one another and play social games designed for their abilities. One activity involves Polaroid photos taped to a wall. People have to pick a picture, find the person, and discover three things they have in common with them.

The objective, Fyne explains, is to try "anything that gets people to talk. We'll have a dance," she continues, "and in the last hour we kind of help people hook up with one another. We yenta--a yenta is a Jewish word for matchmaker."

Fyne adds that of the 80-odd people currently participating, 70 to 80 percent of them had never had a date before. "I really wasn't prepared for somebody 50 years old who had never had a date," she says. "That was really overwhelmingly sad for me."

Here in the Twin Cities, Jonathan Kigner has for the past six or seven years published a mass mailing of personal ads by people with developmental disabilities, Personal Pages. "Most people don't have very many vehicles for meeting new people," says Kigner, who explains that staff often recite the ads to those who can't read. "And loneliness is a real problem among people with developmental disabilities."

Even some of the most fortunate couples--those who succeed at love and get married--often discover that society's care system is ill-equipped to help them. Of the three weddings Beth Fondell has attended among people with developmental disabilities, one ended in annulment, another in divorce. "The other couple is still together quite a ways down the road, but it's a struggle," she says. "The thing that has been a struggle for them is figuring out these 'cross benefits.' Because the support networks in place are not geared to think about a man and a woman with 'mental retardation' as husband and wife."


Karen Martinson's parents were wary when she told them she wanted to get married. She had met Bill Martinson at work in 1983, at the Minnesota Diverse-Die Industry, a nonprofit workplace for people with disabilities. They often bought each other lunch, but both were dating other people. So they remained friends for the time being.

"We had a crush on each other but we were too shy," says Karen, pulling up a chair at the kitchen table of the house she shares with Bill in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis. "I always thought our ex-boyfriend and -girlfriend knew we had something by the way we were looking at each other."

After those relationships fizzled, Bill and Karen began to talk on the phone to each other in 1985. Bill proposed to Karen on Valentine's Day of 1986, and she remembers him being so nervous that he got down on both knees instead of one, barely able to say the words. They decided to take it slow and move into their own apartment before getting married, which they could do without permission. Both Bill and Karen are adults, of course (Bill is 54 years old, Karen 39), but they are also their own guardians; their developmental disabilities are considered mild. (If this is any measure of their awareness, I can detect skeptical stares behind both sets of thick glasses whenever I ask a painfully obvious question like, 'How do you make a marriage work?')

Still, they had to slowly learn the skills of living on their own: Both received training in how to shop for groceries, fix meals, keep the place clean, budget, and open up a checking account. Bill is still learning to read.

"I talked to people and they would try to discourage us from getting married," says Karen. "They tried to say, 'It won't work out--you know, you've got to have responsibility to keep a house.'" Most of it was my parents. They were trying to tell me that Bill would take advantage of me--not in that way, but with money. We treat each other, though. We don't bug each other about money."

Even after the two had moved in and were managing on their own, Karen's parents were skeptical. "My mom didn't think it was a good idea for us to live together before we got married," says Karen. "She's like an old-fashioned person. I'm the baby of the family; I'm the only daughter. My brothers would tease me a lot and my mother would always take my side. I was spoiled. She did not want me to leave the house to move down here from Hibbing. But somehow the social worker convinced her to let me."

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