Our Current Issue theme of Relationships raises more questions than it answers. The topic of many angst-filled TV talk shows, documentaries and soaps—how we relate to each other—is bound to fascinate humankind long into the new millennium.
For people with a disability, particularly a learning disability, relationships may not necessarily exist in traditional coupledom, cohabitation or marriage. As in other areas of life—education, employment, transportation, recreation and leisure pursuits—people with learning disabilities often lack the number of options available to mainstream members of Irish society. Their choices are likely to be restricted to the smaller spectrum of possibilities within the confines of friends and family.
Sibling relationships have recently been put under close scrutiny in Ireland, focusing more on their limitations, responsibilities and pressures. But as adults, siblings often find common denominators, unencumbered by abilities/disabilities, order in the family, adolescent rivalries or teenage resentments. Where is it written in stone that adult siblings who include a person with a disability need to be negative? Certainly the research thus far published has not supported this opinion. Are too many present-day siblings defining their relationships in terms of the Celtic Tiger, which prioritises I, me, my at the top of any agenda? Just as some older relatives are discarded into solo living for their children’s convenience and freedom to pursue their own needs, are siblings to be similarly shelved?
I once heard the mother of a daughter with Down Syndrome, a young lady of considerable ability, agonise over the possibility that they might end up ‘alone together’. She was married, with other children. I wondered at the doom-and-gloom future she envisaged, eliminating the other family members, and I thought it was an unnecessarily fatalistic view of their future.
And what about same-gender friendships? Friendships are relationships of rich possibilities which are too often ignored. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays on the subject remain classic tributes to the value of friendship. Remember the ‘Odd Couple’ sitcom with Felix and Oscar?—two men sharing an apartment, as different as chalk and cheese, but somehow muddling through very individual lives. And what about that sitcom currently saturating Irish TV channels—‘Friends’—six people living in three apartments whose lives incessantly intertwine?
In ‘Fair City’, Rita Doyle and her mother are the best of friends, sharing their working day as well as social pursuits. Neither has a life partner, but they have a companionship and respect for each other, not only as mother and daughter. What’s wrong with that? Haven’t Mary and her daughter Biddy remained the closest of friends over the fifteen years of ‘Glenroe’ episodes?
Most people with learning disabilities will never marry their childhood sweetheart, as Forrest Gump did, but many can enjoy the rich friendships throughout their life.
In early November, I watched a Leargas documentary on parental views regarding their relationships with their sons and daughters with Down Syndrome. We saw a 70-year-old widower and his 44-year-old son (who attends St Patrick’s, Upton, Co. Cork) as they sat with friends in their local pub. One couldn’t help but admire their relationship and take inspiration from two lives which were clearly enriched by the hand fate had dealt them. Thank you, Leargas!