This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Paige and her boyfriend Steven.
I'm originally from Lincoln, IL and have been living in Tucson, AZ for two and a half years. I'll be 25 this week! As far as my career goes, I am an 8th grade Language Arts teacher in southern Tucson. I love my job and for fun I really enjoy reading (surprise surprise) cooking clean and healthy foods, working out, and basically enjoying Tucson's amazing year-round weather. Anything that allows me to be active outside will be something that I'm interested in.
What's your partner like?
Steven is a 26-year-old Junior Architect at an architecture firm in Tucson. When Steven was 15 years old he broke his neck snowboarding. He broke his C6 vertebrae and there has been a C6 quadriplegic for the last 10 years. What I love most about Steven is that being in a chair hasn't affected his quality of life, or his positive outlook and personality.
He plays wheelchair rugby (nicknamed Murderball) for the University of Arizona. He is still very much into "extreme" sports. He enjoys off-roading in the desert, adaptive wakeboarding, working out his upper body and pretty much anything that allows him to be active. He grew up wakeboarding, skiing and barefooting on the lake in Michigan and loves being outside and in the water.
How did you two meet?
Steven's sister was in my sorority in college. We decided to visit her brother for Spring Break 4 years ago who was living in Tucson and attending the U of A, and luckily for me it was Steven :) We've been together ever since. We did long distance for one and a half years. Finally when I graduated college in the winter of 2010 I packed up my car and moved to Tucson to be with him.
What was your first impression of him?
My first impression was that Steven was super sarcastic (which I loved) and that he was way more active than I would have imagined. Steven drives his own car, dresses himself, and really does take care of himself. He lived alone for a year before I moved in with him so he's pretty self sufficient. That surprised me at first because before him I had never really known anyone in a wheelchair and had some pretty stereotypical ideas. Just like every able-bodied person is different, so is every quad/para. Everyone's injuries are unique, which means everyone's needs and lifestyles are different in terms of function and self sufficiency.
Were you at all nervous about dating someone in a wheelchair?
I wasn't nervous about dating someone in a wheelchair simply because it was Steven. When I met him I immediately liked him and the issue of his chair never really came into play. I had some questions but it didn't scare me off or make me too nervous. If someone had maybe set us up beforehand I might have been pretty nervous because I wouldn't know what to expect, but when I met Steven there was an instant attraction and so his disability wasn't an issue.
I was a little nervous when we decided to move in together, because I wasn't sure exactly what that was going to entail and what kinds of parts of my life (and his) would change, or exactly how much "help" he would need. I knew there were certain things he couldn't do but I didn't know how that would affect my day to day life.
How have your friends and family reacted to your relationship?
I have had overwhelmingly positive responses about my relationship. My parents and friends are really supportive. I think more than anything else they are curious. Quadriplegia isn't something that most people know about, so everyone always has a lot of questions when they find out my boyfriend is in a wheelchair, which I think is fair.
Have you faced any particular challenges?
One of the biggest challenges is people's perception of his disability. People we've never met will come up out of nowhere in public and ask incredibly personal questions (i.e. how do you go to the bathroom, how did you get hurt, can you have sex, etc). People assume that because he is in a wheelchair he can't do ANYTHING, that he needs to be pushed everywhere, that he possibly has a mental disability because he is in a chair, etc. Those are challenges that obviously Steven faces, but being his girlfriend and living with him, they're challenges that we both deal with.
One thing people say often to me, including people I don't really know that well, is that I'm such a good person, or I'm so strong, to be able to deal with being with him and loving him. That's definitely a challenge, because even though I know people that say that mean well, it's just so ridiculous. He's no different than anyone else and him being a quadriplegic doesn't make him weird or anything. I love him. He's a wonderful person, with or without the chair, so "loving him" or "being able to deal with him" don't make sense to me. I don't know many people that would leave their spouse or significant other if they broke their neck and had to be in a wheelchair.
The only difference with us is it happened to him before we met. It freaks me out to have people tell me that I'm the strong one or the good person, because I don't do anything! Steven is the strong one by far. He lives a better life, happier life, and more adventurous life than most able bodied people. Not everyone in his situation can be so positive.
How does your partner's physical issues affect your life together?
His physical issues affect our life in a few ways. Usually when we're going anywhere new we have to check to make sure it's handicap accessible. Sidewalks are tricky- if there isn't a ramp close by I have to pull him up (I'm 4'10; Steven is 6'3 and about 180 lbs...we had to perfect that technique). The biggest physical challenges are really the things that I would normally take for granted.
We have to plan vacations to make sure that 1) his shipment of catheters has come in in time before we leave anywhere and 2) that wherever we're going will have access to a restroom that he can use privately when he needs to go to the bathroom. We've definitely had issues before where he has thought he had enough catheters to stay in town or what not, and he'll run out and our plans change.
As far as living together goes, he can take pretty good care of himself like I said earlier, but I always help out when he needs it, whether it's help getting dressed, getting his shoes on and off, helping him shave/cut his hair, opening bottles/jars/boxes/etc.
Living in Tucson makes getting around easy because it's mostly flat, but once, after we had been dating for about one month, we went to the St. Louis Zoo for a day. It was a hilarious day because of how crazy the whole ordeal was. I think that's the day I realized that committing to a relationship would mean that parts of my life would change. If you haven't been to the St. Louis zoo before, it's the hilliest zoo in the country. I spent the entire day pushing him up and down hills, and a lot of the exhibits weren't even accessible at all. It was exhausting but it must have been pretty funny to see me pushing this kid up these huge hills and we definitely still had a great time.
What advice would you give to others dating (or interested in) someone who has mobility issues?
The best advice I can give is to go into it with an open mind. There are things I've done to help Steven with that I would have never considered doing to help someone before, but when you love the person those things don't phase you or seem weird. Dating someone in a wheelchair isn't anything like I had thought it would be, but in a good way. Being able to help Steven when he does need it makes me feel like we're more of a team because we work together. I would do anything for him, and most couples don't get the opportunity to really show that to their partner. I do often.
Also, his disability has turned him into the person that he is. He is so positive and doesn't take anything for granted. He also doesn't ever complain, because he knows what it's like to actually go through hardship and life-changing events. He's my biggest role model and I'll always look up to him because he inspires me. My advice is to not be scared of the chair :) If you really love and care for the person, it just won't be that big of a deal.
Thanks so much for sharing, Paige! Do any of you guys have a physical disability? Do you have any questions for Paige?