This Thing Called Love

  • July 15, 2014

Dating and People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

By Martha M. Lafferty

In Tennessee, a person who is 18 years of age or over is an adult.  Most adults have the legal right to make their own choices.  Most adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) have the legal right to make their own choices. That includes the legal right to choose to date.  That also includes the right to choose to get married. 

Some people have a conservator.  Most people with a conservator still have the legal right to choose to date.  Most people with a conservator still have the legal right to choose to get married. 


“The consciousness of loving and being loved brings a warmth and a richness to life that nothing else can bring.”
-- Oscar Wilde

Loving relationships are key to the human experience. Whether they bring a sense of connection, friendship, or romantic comfort, relationships are critically important to quality of life.  People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) share this basic human desire for meaningful connections, but are frequently barred from full inclusion and participation in relationships.

A couple of years ago “Mary”, a fifty-year-old client with an intellectual disability, asked DLAC to help her. She told us that her community service provider would not let her spend unsupervised time with her longtime boyfriend “Jack”, whether in her room or out in public.   Recognizing Mary’s rights to privacy and self-determination were being violated, DLAC agreed to provide her legal representation. Following education of the community service provider, DLAC worked to establish an agreement that respected both Mary’s individual choices as well as her relationship with Jack. Now Mary is allowed to have alone time with Jack in her room and unsupervised time in the community. DLAC was pleased with this resolution for Mary.  Unfortunately, many other people with intellectual disabilities continue to face barriers to dating and/or marriage. 

Driven by fear or misunderstanding, caregivers and service providers may intentionally or unwittingly deny people with IDD the most natural and necessary of human interactions.   The researcher Löfgren-Mårtenson (2004) found that caregivers and relatives want to encourage independence, however, “The sense of responsibility is blurred and primarily based on the fear that someone will become pregnant…or lose control of their sexuality.” Historically speaking this can be a slippery slope. Fear of people with IDD controlling their own relationships and bodies is what resulted in mass institutionalization from the 1770’s through the 1880’s and the Eugenics Movement of the 1880’s through the 1940’s. In light of modern research, and with this dark past in mind, professionals now encourage self-determination in conjunction with social skills and sexuality education for individuals with IDD and their caregivers.  

There is also a common myth that people with intellectual disabilities are prohibited by law from dating, because some Tennessee criminal laws bar sexual relationships in which at least one person is “mentally defective.”   However, because “mentally defective” is NOT a synonym for intellectual disability, these criminal laws DO NOT automatically prohibit people with IDD from participating in dating relationships.  

Furthermore, often family members, conservators, or provider agencies believe they are allowed to prohibit a person with IDD from having romantic relationships. The fact is that having an intellectual disability does not, by itself, mean that a person is unable to understand his or her decision to participate in a dating relationship. Neither does having a conservator. Therefore, in most instances family members, conservators, and provider agencies do NOT have the right to prevent people with intellectual disabilities from dating. 

The understanding of and support for self-determination in relationships for people with IDD is growing. According to a recent Tennessean article, the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) has updated their manual for provider agencies by including the following language: “Individuals have a right to have intimate relationships with other people of their choosing, unless such rights have been specifically restricted by a court order.” This DIDD language is consistent with a joint position statement issued by the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and The Arc in 2008.  For Mary and Jack these are more than words on a page. They are a passport to the basic freedom to love and be loved: the opportunity to walk hand-in-hand through the mall or stay in and watch a movie. 

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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Nashville, TN 37217

Phone: 615-298-1080
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Phone: 865-670-2944
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Phone: 901-458-6013
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