“Like a normal couple”

Oliver and Astrid are not a "normal couple". Both have learning disabilities and need a caregiver to help them cope with daily life. They do not fit into the pigeonhole for the beautiful and successful. Their label is "disabled. Oliver and Astrid have now been engaged for three years. And yet partnership is still a taboo among disabled people.

"When I saw her, her hair caught my eye. They were nice long. And she had beautiful eyes, too," says Oliver. He himself still had a mustache at the first meeting. "I looked terrible. But she still wanted to see me again," says the 31-year-old. They want to move into a shared apartment and perhaps marry at some point in the future. "Just like a normal couple," Oliver says proudly."In our society, people still think that only a healthy person has a right to a partnership and sexuality. Partnership among disabled people is a taboo," says Bernd Zemella. In 1998, Zemella founded Germany's first dating agency for the mentally handicapped at the Alsterdorf Protestant Foundation in Hamburg. The example of the "Schatzkiste Partnervermittlung" made school. There are now more than 20 treasure chests throughout Germany.Zemella fulfills the big dream of love and togetherness for people with learning disabilities, epileptics, schizophrenics, autistics and manic-depressives. Zemella also brought Astrid and Oliver together. "Because of Bernd, I no longer have to do everything on my own today. And also because of my mother. She wanted me to go to the Bernd," says Oliver. Zemella has successfully brought about 70 couples together with the help of Schatzkiste Hamburg. However, the way there is anything but easy.

Long waiting time "With very severe mental impairments, I often can't help," says Zemella. The waiting times are also long, he says, because many more men than women are waiting for love in the treasure chest file. "The women are more fearful. Fear of unwanted pregnancy plays a major role."Usually the men are more inexperienced, awkward and impetuous. "Many simply do not know how to approach women. They have too high expectations and demand too many concessions from women," explains Zemella. In the meantime, the psychologist also has flirting tips for men in his program.Special offers like the treasure chest are often the only way for disabled people to get closer to their desire for a partnership.The route via personals or non-specialized partner agencies is rarely successful. "Non-disabled people often know little about the lives of disabled people," says Elisabeth Fischer of the Federal Working Group for Self-Help of People with Disabilities, Chronic Illnesses and Their Relatives. That's why it's so rare for a disabled person to be successful in finding a partner for a non-disabled person. Oliver also tried newspaper ads before he came to the Treasure Chest. "Either there was no reaction at all, or I was taken for a ride. That was very frustrating," he says in retrospect.

People with handicap, partner with handicap? Peter Itzek, head of the P+M dating agency in Munich, is convinced that people with a handicap are better suited to someone who is also impaired. "Mutual understanding is much greater," says Itzek. He had too often experienced that disabled people fell into a deep hole when the healthy partner backed out after some time.Itzek mainly mediates men and women with physical handicaps. Up to 50 wheelchair users or people with amputations contact him every month to complain about their suffering. "They criticize that they are not taken seriously and are treated as a neuter.Even family and friends often don't trust disabled people to master a partnership," says Itzek. But exactly the opposite is the case. For his customers, looks are less important; what counts is closeness and tenderness. "I have made the experience that disabled people feel much deeper than non-disabled people do."Oliver says his life has become much happier since he met Astrid. "We go out for dinner, go on outings and cuddle up. We can do more than watch television."

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Christina Cherry
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