Marriage, one of our most venerable and complex social institutions, has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the debate over marriage equality in the United States and the fact that the Supreme Court is currently considering challenges to bans on same-sex marriage. In New York, another battle over marriage rights is currently unfolding as a disabled couple sues for the right to live together after they tie the knot. While they might enjoy the freedom to marry, they don’t have the same rights other married couples do, and they think that’s unfair.
Paul Forziano and Hava Samuels live three miles apart in separate group homes, enjoying their right to community-based living as developmentally disabled people who need some assistance to live in the community. While they can’t set up a household on their own, they are ready to move in together and live their lives together as a deeply committed couple in love, but the administrators at the group homes they inhabit have other ideas; requests to move into either home as a couple have been flatly denied.
Attorneys for the couple are fighting for visitation at the very least, arguing that married couples should be allowed to spend time together, but their ultimate goal is to enforce and preserve their right to live together as a couple, rather than being separated by administrative fiat. The couple clearly loves each other and wants to spend their lives together, but because their lives are controlled by people around them, they’re at the mercy of the system they rely on for support.
As it was, despite the fact that both are adults, they had to get permission from their parents to get married in the first place, and the parents of the couple are concerned about Forziano and Samuels’ wellbeing after their eventual deaths. They want to be assured that their children are in a safe, comfortable home environment with the people they love, and they’re angered by the resistance to allowing the couple to cohabitate. Like many parents of disabled children, they’re finding that the fight for basic rights continues long into adulthood as they struggle to defend, protect and help their children.
Several group homes in the area apparently do provide housing for married couples, so relocation might be an option, but the political point stands: married couples should be allowed to live together, and this suit will challenge the denial of cohousing on the grounds that the homes are discriminating against the couple on the basis of their disability status. If the suit is argued successfully, the homes could be compelled under the ADA to provide housing not just to this pair of newlyweds, but to other disabled couples looking for assisted housing, and that would be a significant victory for disabled couples.
This case is a reminder for the community as well as group homes that developmentally disabled people are not ciphers, and they enjoy rich, complex lives and relationships that can include marriage. When group homes stand in the way of love, it’s not just an overreach of power and a clear case of disability discrimination: it’s also a stark reminder of the fact that many people in society believe disabled people aren’t capable of forming meaningful personal relationships, including sexual and romantic ones.
Similar cases have occurred elsewhere, along with instances where child services agencies have tried to take children away from disabled parents on the grounds that disability renders people unfit to parent. This is particularly common in the case of intellectually, cognitively and developmentally disabled parents; interdependent lives with the need for some assistance are mistaken as evidence of incompetence, and the children of such relationships are considered endangered simply by virtue of having disabled parents.
Here’s hoping the happy couple wins their suit, not just for themselves, but for all disabled couples who deserve the right to live together, no matter what kind of assistance they might need to live their lives.
Photo credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya