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No Shidduch Left Behind

By: Sarah Kahan, LMSW 

Published In Jewish Press's Mind, Body & Soul, November 27, 2013

Malka’s mother approached me about her daughter. A few acquaintances and friends have expressed an interest in setting her daughter up on a date and she doesn't know what to do about it. Malka keeps begging her mother to set her up since she wants to get married just like her friends who are married. She keeps asking her mother many questions about what kind of boy she should date? What will it be like for her as a married woman?

Is this routine for every Jewish mother and young woman?  Sure, but since Malka has Down’s Syndrome, nothing is ever routine.  Who will help her cook, clean, and shop for herself and her husband? Who will help her keep the house clean? Malka’s mother wants to know how to help her daughter and whether it really possible for her daughter to get married? She wants to see her daughter happy.

People with disabilities have the same desires that you have. They want to feel fulfilled through meaningful relationships and a good day structure either through paid employment, volunteer work or a day program.  They also want to be allowed to make choices in their lives about dating and marriage.  Will they make some mistakes?  Probably, just like anyone else does in relationships.  It may be more challenging and they may be slower to learn, but they still can succeed.

Often, someone from outside the family, such as a mentor or coach can see things more objectively. A dating mentor can make an assessment as to whether their child is capable of learning the socialization skills necessary to have a relationship and get married. A dating mentor can coach individuals in skills that are basic to having a strong foundation in a relationship, such as how to communicate, solve problems, compromise, show and give respect and how to have empathy. 

OHEL's Morris Pinsky Simcha Program serves people with all kinds of abilities, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, Aspergers’, Down Syndrome, developmental or cognitive delays, etc. While their disabilities may be different, they share in common the desire to improve their existing relationships, make new friendships, improve their dating skills, or begin dating again, possibly leading to marriage.

At OHEL's Morris Pinsky Simcha Program we improve social skills and increase socialization opportunities. Some of the methods we use are narrative therapy and in vivo experiences.  We recently prepared for a practice date by pairing into groups and meeting at a restaurant. The participants had the opportunity to practice concepts we discussed in the group, including communication skills such as initiating and maintaining a conversation, using and interpreting verbal and non verbal communication, active listening, identifying similarities and differences, understanding realistic expectations, maintaining proper hygiene and appearance. 
    
OHEL's Morris Pinsky Simcha Program does not merely address dating, but also other social skills.  For example, Devorah wanted advice on how to get along better with her new roommate. She is still not used to living in an apartment on her own since she recently moved out of her parents’ home. Her roommate likes to have lots of company over the weekend and she likes it quiet. Her roommate likes to stay up late and she likes to go to sleep early. Her roommate is not punctual about paying the bills on time; and this bothers her, especially when the utility companies threatened to shut off their supply. We helped her figure out better ways of negotiating their differences. We worked on problem solving techniques and conflict resolution skills for her to use in order to reduce the friction between them.

Some individuals are not ready for marriage, but still want to begin friendships.  While this is not the right choice for everyone, for some it is an important step.  Ricki and Mike both have a developmental disability and they have been boy friend a girl friend for over a year. They see each other every day at their day program and sometimes over the weekend their parents take turns taking them out on a date. They are content with just being friends.

Social interactions can be thrilling, scary, and exhilarating. In order to really develop a close relationship with someone, being vulnerable is necessary and feelings of vulnerability can be difficult to tolerate. By discussing it in a group setting the process becomes a little easier. The members in the group share similar experiences.  They validate and empathize with each other, offer comfort, support and good advice.

The delicate topic of managing sexuality and the option of whether to have children is also addressed and discussed, when appropriate.  These discussions are especially anxiety-provoking to any parent, especially to parents with special needs.  A competent Rav, a mental health professional and good medical treatment is helpful to address these important topics with the couple and their parents. Such couples require ongoing supervision and support in order to maintain a stable relationship so creating a team approach will help them attend to issues that come up.

We are embarking on a new frontier to give individuals with disabilities similar opportunities that the mainstream population has.  There are no easy answers and the road can be long and bumpy; however, we need to join together and ask “what are the obstacles that we need to overcome” until we reach our goal.

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