Exploring the right to get married

Members of disability community can face challenges when family building

Happily married couple Harry and Valerie Wolbert have had to not only battle disabilities but concerns from their family and friends over their commitment to one another. H & V Wolbert

Marriage is a right for everybody, but for people with disabilities the roadblocks can come from those closest to them.

Valerie Wolbert and her husband Harry have been married for almost 10 years, and they recall the opposition they faced when they decided to marry.

Both Valerie and Harry identify as people with disabilities – Harry with mental health issues when he was younger, and Valerie with an intellectual disability.

People who are concerned with the appropriateness of people with disabilities getting married cite reasons like the acceptance of responsibility and financial stability.

This can have a big impact on the couple, especially when the critics are family or friends.

“We had problems with people saying stuff to us on our wedding day,” Valerie said. “People wanted to know how we would manage things with money even though we paid for the wedding ourselves.”

Not to be discouraged, Valerie and Harry pursued their goal of marriage even though the first pastor they approached refused to perform the ceremony.

“(He thought) we would be in for a lot of counselling,” Harry said.

They eventually approached another pastor in that same church who agreed to do the ceremony.

Harry, co-chairperson of the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities, was surprised at the initial reaction, as he had been attending the church since he was a teenager.

“Everybody should have the right to marry,” Harry said. “Other people shouldn’t be deciding for people with disabilities.”

When someone is living independently, it can be easier to proceed with their plans to marry as opposed to someone who is in supported living situations, such as a group home, as sometimes a public trustee is involved with individuals in a decision-making support role.

Sean Gander, program manager for the supported apartment living program at New Directions, has seen many couples go through hardship when they decide to get married.

People who are concerned with the appropriateness of people with disabilities getting married cite reasons like the acceptance of responsibility and financial stability

New Directions provides counselling, assistance and support in a variety of ways for people with disabilities.

Gander says that sometimes people, including concerned family members and friends, try to get the police involved when nothing illegal has occurred.

“That’s a pretty common story,” Gander said. “People call the police to compel (the couple) to make a different choice.”

Gander notes that often loved ones are concerned about the level of responsibility the marriage brings or about the individual being exploited.

There are no legal restrictions on people with disabilities to marry in Manitoba.

The Manitoba Department of Justice and Family Law provides a list of situations where people cannot legally marry, which includes people who are “certified as mentally disordered.”

While this can be interpreted as meaning disabilities, Harry Wolbert maintains that it actually refers to those with mental health issues.

In an effort to prevent exploitation and unpreparedness, New Directions offers courses on sex and relationships for their clients.

Gander said that people with disabilities are often isolated, and this information can be protected from them. He goes on to say that it’s important for anybody to have an understanding of sex and sexuality.

The courses include gay/lesbian/transgendered awareness and safe sex education. Their courses are tailored for the participants and offer an open space to discuss their lives and concerns.

Harry emphasizes the need to view people with disabilities as similar to those without.

“Like the rest of the population, we like to have sex too,” he said.

Published in Volume 65, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 27, 2011)

Related Reads