A Marriage with Special Circumstances

Commentator Ben Mattlin was born with a physical disability: He has limited movement, and uses a wheelchair. On this Valentine's Day, he reflects on the life he's built with his wife — who's not disabled — and how the world treats them as a couple.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator Ben Mattlin is thinking about his own marriage on this Valentine's Day.

Mr. BEN MATTLIN:

I've always thought unlikely attractions: Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and Prince Charming, were the romantic ideal. Some people say my wife and I are an unlikely match. I was born with a severe, progressive neuro-muscular weakness; I use a motorized wheelchair. And I've always relied on other people to help me with all manner of personal care tasks. My wife doesn't have a disability.

We had our first date in the summer of 1982. I asked her to an Elvis Costello concert. To me, she was irresistibly attractive; smart, and easy to talk to. She thought I was gentle, funny and good company. Before our date, I worked out a spiel--a good-natured, but frank explanation of what exactly I could and could not do. I tried to imagine the kinds of things that might be on her mind. I have weak muscles, that's all, I said. I have full sensation from head to toe, since I'm not technically paralyzed. And I'm not delicate; so don't worry about hurting me.

When news of our relationship broke, my family was pleased. Her mother, however, expressed concern. I felt hurt but not surprised. My mother-in-law and I are friends now, yet other people have a hard time accepting our couplehood. They say I must be rich, or my wife must be an incorrigible do-gooder. Strangers ask in disbelief if we're related. They assume we're brother and sister, or that she's my nurse. We get better reactions when she rides on my lap in my wheelchair.

At home, we keep our wedding portrait prominently displayed. That way, visitors don't assume I became disabled after the marriage, and she's only staying with me out of loyalty. When my wife was pregnant with our second daughter, one nurse saw me and abruptly pulled her aside. She wanted to know if it was really mine. I don't know which of us was more insulted.

This prejudice about disabled people is deeply ingrained in our society. So deeply ingrained that federal disability benefits programs have rules punishing, even disqualifying, recipients who get married. My wife and I have spent practically every moment together since we first shared an apartment. Perhaps facing obstacles like these have strengthened our resolve, our commitment to each other; and perhaps that is the most romantic ideal of all.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Ben Mattlin. He's a writer in Los Angeles and is working on a memoir.

(Soundbite of Elvis Costello song "Love FIELD")

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