In the first of Disability Scoop’s new original series, Scoop Essentials, we chat about dating and relationships with sexuality training specialist Mary Greenfield from Adults and Children with Learning and Developmental Disabilities, Inc. (ACLD) in Bethpage, N.Y.
Mary tackles everything from meeting that special someone to going on a date and staying safe. Plus, she gives advice for parents and caregivers.
Check out what Mary has to say and then submit your own questions to her by clicking here.
Disability Scoop: Tell us about your experience, the type of work you do and the people you work with.
Mary Greenfield: I work primarily with adults with learning and developmental disabilities. They could have multiple disabilities, but their primary diagnosis would almost certainly be an intellectual disability, IQ 70 or below. I will see people with autism who have a much higher IQ but have some other issues they’re dealing with. Most of the adults that I work with are verbal.
Disability Scoop: What is the most common relationship question that you get?
Mary Greenfield: How do I find a partner?
Disability Scoop: What do you say to people who are looking for a partner but don’t know how to find one?
Mary Greenfield: Get out and be social! You need to meet a lot of people. Because when you get out and meet people you begin to have a greater chance of meeting people you’ll want to get to know better, whether you’re gay or straight. I also talk a lot about where are good places to meet people. There are places where it can be kind of dangerous. One place that I know a lot of people look to is their place of employment. It’s not dangerous per se, but it can get you in trouble with harassment types of issues. We generally try to steer people away from the work setting and into more social activities. There are clients of mine who are meeting people online, but there are so many sexual predators out there and it’s very difficult to sort that out.
Disability Scoop: What kinds of safety rules should people keep in mind if they look for a partner on the Internet? And what should you remember if you meet someone in person who you found on the Internet?
Mary Greenfield: Get to know the person first before meeting them. If you’re going to meet them, meet in a public place where there are lots of people around. Let other people you trust know that you’re going to be on a date so that they’re aware of it, and even check in with that person during the date to make sure everything is going okay. Don’t get in their car or go to their home or apartment the first time you meet. I also think it can be a good idea to have them meet somebody you know, like a family member or a good friend, so that the people you know can see who they are, what they look like, etc. Following these rules will provide for a little more security and if they’re predators, it will generally turn them away.
Disability Scoop: Judgment is a big issue. How can you tell if a person is a good person for you or not?
Mary Greenfield: Well, that’s part of dating. You go out on the date and see if there are things you like about each other. Is it a fun experience? You don’t have to go out with a person just because that person wants you to go out with them. On the flip side, if you ask someone out, they also have the right to say no.
Disability Scoop: How can you tell if they are interested in you?
Mary Greenfield: I think everybody struggles with that one. With the folks that I know, if they meet someone, usually it’s in a social situation. If they go over and start talking, they may not be the greatest at conversation, but they stay there and want to continue being near each other. That usually says, gee, I like you. Then if they say, “can I get your telephone number” or, “I’d like to meet.” And they say, “yeah I’d like to do that.” Then you know they like you.
Disability Scoop: What are appropriate things to say to let someone know that you’re interested in them?
Mary Greenfield: Sometimes just saying, “would you like to meet in the mall?” Or, “can I get your telephone number?” Those types of things that say I’d like a little bit more from you. If you have a family activity, like a holiday party, and you say, “how would you like to come to the holiday party?” There are still a lot of a people around, but you want to hang out a little bit.
Disability Scoop: When you get to that step of hanging out or maybe actually having a date, what do you need to do to prepare?
Mary Greenfield: You need to think it through. Where do I want to go? How am I going to get there? When am I going to go? How dressy is it going to be? Who’s paying? Then there’s the etiquette stuff. Like what can I talk about? And I think it’s terrific to role-play that beforehand. Make sure to share the conversation with the other person so that you’re not talking all the time. Or make sure that you actually do some talking if you happen to be a really quiet person.
Disability Scoop: Are there any topics that you should remember to stay away from?
Mary Greenfield: Sex, probably on the first date. That might scare them off a lot. You want to get to know them. You want to know what they like. So you need to stay with finding out what kind of things they like to do or what kind of TV programs they like. Dates really like it if you ask questions about them. Look interested. You want to make the person feel good about who they are and feel happy to be with you.
Disability Scoop: When you look for someone to date, should you focus on people who have a disability like you or should you approach anybody who you might have common interests with?
Mary Greenfield: You want somebody who’s comfortable with your disability. I have some folks I work with who only want to date people with disabilities. And then I have some folks who never want to date people with disabilities but they’ve had some bad experiences of folks saying, “what is wrong with you?” Some of it is just trial and error.
Disability Scoop: How does real life dating and sex compare to what you see in the movies and on TV?
Mary Greenfield: It’s not at all alike. It’s awkward sometimes, especially the first time. We’re not all gorgeous. And it’s definitely not like porn.
Disability Scoop: How do you know if it’s okay to kiss someone who you’re dating? And how do you know if it’s okay to become more intimate and perhaps even have sex?
Mary Greenfield: Well, kissing and then having sex are two big stages. Kissing, usually if you get close and you feel good and that other person doesn’t back away from you if you’re trying to kiss them, then that’s probably a pretty good sign. If they turn away from you, then they probably don’t want it. I would say you need to know somebody for a little bit before having sex with them and you definitely need to make sure you’re using some kind of protection (i.e. condoms and/or birth control). There is some planning that needs to go into getting to that next stage. Do you have a private space? Have you ever thought about it? Do you know what that means? Are you protected? I think sex is a really precious part of who we are. It’s not something you give away lightly.
Disability Scoop: What can you do if someone is pursuing or pressuring you who you don’t want a relationship with?
Mary Greenfield: Well, first of all you say, “leave me alone, I don’t want a relationship with you.” But if they keep pressuring you, say it again. Be really clear about it. If they keep pressuring you, then I would say get some help.
Disability Scoop: What kind of touching is and isn’t okay?
Mary Greenfield: Your body is always your own, so if somebody touches you and you don’t want it, then that’s not okay.
Disability Scoop: If you find a partner, what are the keys to maintaining a relationship with them?
Mary Greenfield: Talking. You don’t have to talk everyday or all the time, but sharing what you’re thinking and what’s going on is important. Finding things you both like to do and enjoy helps. If you have arguments, which are very normal in a relationship, sometimes it’s paying attention to what that other person needs. Sometimes people really need to be left alone and some people really need to talk things out.
Disability Scoop: What if you decide that you’re not that into somebody or things are just not going well, how do you break up with them?
Mary Greenfield: Oh, it’s such a hard thing, isn’t it? You need to say, “look, I just don’t think we should be dating anymore.” But I know how hard that is. Also, if you have people you feel really comfortable with, who would be good as a mediator, you can invite them to come help.
Disability Scoop: What advice do you have for a parent or a caregiver of a person with a disability about dating?
Mary Greenfield: Relax! I know a lot of parents get very nervous around dating. They’re worried that it’s going to move too fast or that their child will get hurt. I think it’s important that their child has information about sexuality so they can protect themselves. Also it’s important that they talk about some of the social things, the etiquette of dating. Keep your ears open and listen to what’s going on. Have your child talk to you. And if it’s moving toward a more sexual relationship, talk to them, really share values. Sometimes it’s a learning process and dating can be hurtful but we have to have those emotional hurts. But the biggest thing a lot of parents are saying is, “how do I help them even start dating?” Get them out to meet people. Get them into social situations so they’re a little more comfortable socially.
Disability Scoop: What advice do you have for people who have a disability who haven’t had much luck with dating or perhaps are intimidated by it?
Mary Greenfield: Keep trying. The problem is that when you get intimidated you just don’t do anything. You just sit at home and think, I’d like to date. So really it’s important to get yourself out into more informal social situations. Go bowling with a league or, if you don’t like sports, is there some kind of club? Or go to church. If you stay at home, you’re not going to meet anyone.