Pre-marital experiences of persons with physical disabilities and their spouses in Accra, Ghana
Joana Okine, Graduate Assistant, Department of Social Work, University of Ghana, Legon, Accra
Dr. Efua Essaba Mantey Agyire-Tettey, Department of Social Work, University of Ghana, Legon, Accra
Dr. Augustina Naami, Department of Social Work, University of Ghana, Legon, Accra
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Email: Dr. Augustina Naami
Marriage is an important social institution because it is the foundation for the perpetuation of humans, fosters family ties and promotes unity. Several traits are deemed as essential in the selection of partners and family involvement. Literature about the marriage of persons with physical disabilities, in general, is sparse. And, there is virtually no study on the pre-marital experiences of persons with physical disabilities and their partners in Ghana. This study fills in that gap. Using the purposive and snowball sampling methods, 20 couples, with at least one spouse having a disability, were selected for the study. In-depth interviews were conducted with each couple and the data collected was analysed using the interpretive phenomenological analysis. Several factors impact on the choice of a partner for persons with disabilities, including myths about disability, beliefs that persons with disabilities are asexual, dependent, and would birth children with disabilities. Families of both men and women without disabilities opposed to marriages with persons with disabilities. Similarly, ladies rejected marriage proposals by males with disabilities. The females with disabilities were more vulnerable to abuse by men without disabilities, who were less likely to marry them. We conclude that understanding disability issues could minimise the barriers that persons with physical disabilities and their partners’ experience with marriage.
Keywords: marriage ; persons with disabilities ; Ghana
Marriage is practised in every part of the world and regarded as an important aspect of people’s culture. It is an important social institution because it fosters family ties and promotes unity. Also, it is the foundation for the perpetuation of the human race. Further, it provides right over children and inheritance, as well as companionship and sexual satisfaction (Pauli & Dijk, 2016). The choice of a marriage partner is, therefore, an important decision to make. As a result, people look out for different characteristics in their prospective spouses, which differ among societies and cultures (Alavi, Alahdad & Shafeq, 2014) and may pose a huge challenge to the marriages of persons with disabilities globally.
In a study to identify factors that play a role in partner selection among Nigerians, Maliki (2009) found that the persona of a person is one of the most important factors. The belief is that a prospective in-law with a good character would be a better spouse because that person could easily adjust to new environments. Other qualities identified as important in the partner selection process include fertility, educational qualification, intelligence, religion, and good physical health. For Alavi, Alahdad and Shafeq (2014), their Malaysian study classified the marital characteristics into three categories: most important, important and moderately important. Their findings suggest that religion, mental health, profession, physical attractiveness and financial status were the most important features people looked out for in marriage. Intelligence, sociability, physical health, education and character were ranked as important, while moderately important features were listed as culture, age, marital status and favourable social status. Equally important to note, is that another Malaysian study by Abdullah, Li and David (2011) also highlights the importance of higher education and employed as influencing marriage, although, men did not mind marrying unemployed women. This finding is similar to a study by Baataar & Amadu (2014) in Ghana, where education and employment were highlighted by the female. Race in Abdullah, Li and David (2011) study, however, was very important to both sexes and not religion, mental health and physical appearance as in the case of the other Malaysian study by Alavi, Alahdad and Shafeq (2014).
It is also noteworthy that, while physical attractiveness is deemed more important in Alavi, Alahdad and Shafeq’s (2014) study, the reverse is the case in Maliki's (2009) study. Maliki also establishes that fertility is important in the selection of potential marriage partners. This could be because childbirth is perceived as the foundation of society and one of the key contributing factors to a successful marriage in Africa (Acheampong, Anomah, Edusei, Nakoja, & Afful, 2018; Ahortor, 2016; Maliki, 2009).
Scholars from African and other developing countries on the other hand, stressed on the influence of parents, families, friends and the society on the choice of a marriage partner (Ahortor, 2016; Kyalo, 2012; Chanzanagh, Piri & Garjan, 2012; Lee & Oh, 2012; Maliki, 2009; Tsay & Wu, 2006). The prospective bride/groom must ensure that his or her choice is acceptable to all parties. In the Ghanaian culture, the involvement of family is crucial in every marriage. In some instances, family members directly participate in mate selecting for their wards to ensure that the would-be partners do not have ‘undesirable’ elements such as barrenness or disability. Investigating the background of prospective families is common in the Ghanaian culture.
Do the characteristics that scholars discovered as essential to the selection of partners and the involvement of families in the marriage process impact on the chances of persons with disabilities in getting married? Prejudices, negative perceptions, stigma and discrimination against persons with disabilities could affect their chances of marriage. In Ghana, these attitudes are noted to have roots in Ghanaian socio-cultural beliefs, traditions, and practices, which marginalise persons with disabilities (Kassah, 2008; Kassah, Kassah & Agbota, 2012; Naami, 2014). For example, disability is regarded as punishment from the gods for sins committed by parents, family members or ancestors (Avoke, 2002; Slikker, 2009). In other cultures in Ghana, disability is perceived as transferable (Nyame, 2013) and brings shame to families (Slikker, 2009), so some families reject their members with disabilities (Nyame, 2013).
Also, there is myth about the sexuality of persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities are labelled as asexual, implying they are incapable of marriage and procreation. For women with disabilities, such labeling has considerable implications on their lives. In addition to the issue of marriage and procreation, they are also seen as inept in mothering as well as performing the traditional roles assigned to women (Lonsdale, 1990; Boylan, 1991; Dhungana, 2006). These are all barriers to dating and marriage for persons with disabilities. For women with disabilities, gender and disability interact to create multiple challenges and vulnerabilities that could have adverse impact on their dating and marriage (Kassah, Kassah & Agbota, Naami, 2015). But, how do persons with disabilities in Ghana experience pre-marital and marital relationships? To the best of our knowledge, there is death of literature in this area. This is an area that very little work is done but both men and women with disabilities experience dating and marital discrimination. It is important that their voices about this important institution are made visible. Our study throws more light on this phenomenon.
The presence of a disability does impact on intimate relations for persons with disabilities because beyond elements identified as essential characteristics for marriage and family involvement in partner selection, societal attitudes towards persons with disabilities could affect their intimate relations. For instance, study in South Africa indicates that persons without disabilities perceived dating persons with disabilities as a lot of work and, hence, shun their company. They believe that a partner with a disability would depend on the person without the disability (Hunt, Swartz, Crew, Braathen, Chiwaula, & Rohleder, 2017). These authors also found that some people believe that having sex with a person with a disability could be uncomfortable, as well as the person with the disability would not be able to satisfy his or her partner sexually.
Furthermore, family expectations about the choice of a partner for their members could complicate marital challenges for persons with disabilities. Nyame (2013), who studied the lived experiences of men with disabilities in Ghana reiterated that persons without disabilities are hesitant to marry those with disabilities due to the perception that disability is transferable by associating one’s self with a person with a disability or through birth by a person with a disability. The author also notes that families do not consent to marriages involving persons with disabilities. In fact, some families disassociate from their members who married persons with disabilities. Interestingly, relationships with two individuals with disabilities are accepted (Nyame, 2013). Kassah, Kassah and Agbota (2014), who sought to understand violence against women with disabilities in Ghana, stated that the pressure and negative attitudes of family members prevent people without disability from marrying women with disabilities regardless of their love for the individuals with the disability. All of this makes it difficult for persons with disabilities to establish love relationships that would end up in marriages.
Similarly, studies from other countries, such as Iran (Chanzanagh, Piri & Garjan, 2012), Korea (Lee & Oh, 2012), and Taiwan (Tsay & Wu; 2006) also emphasise on the effect of family involvement on the marriages of persons with disabilities. In Iran for instance, Chanzanagh, Piri and Garjan (2012) found that Iranians who decide to marry persons with disabilities encountered significant opposition from their families and most times, they were prevented from marrying these individuals.
Literature about the marriage of persons with physical disabilities in general is sparse, let alone studies that include their spouses. Also, there is virtually no study on the pre-marital experiences of persons with physical disabilities and their partners in Ghana. This study, therefore, fills the gap in research by exploring the pre-marital relationship experiences of persons with physical disabilities (visual, hearing and mobility disabilities) and their spouses in Accra. It is part of a larger project to understand the pre-marital and marital experiences of persons with physical disabilities living in Accra, Ghana.
- To explore the previous relationship experiences of persons with physical disabilities and their spouses in Accra.
- To identify the factors that influenced the couple’s choice of a marriage partner.
- To explore the attitudes of relatives of the couples towards marriage with persons with or without disability.
Critical Disability Theory (CDT) was used in this study. The CDT posits that disability is not located in the impairment of the person with the disability, rather, it is characterised by an interrelationship that exists between the disability of an individual, the environment, how the person responds to the disability, and how others treat the person with the disability, among others (Hoskings, 2008). Hoskings outlines seven (7) elements of CDT. They include multidimensionality, social model of disability, voices of disability, language, rights, valuing diversity, and transformative politics.
The element of multidimensionality posits that there is an interrelation between the levels of education, gender, employment status and sexual orientation of people. These interrelations contribute to inequality and social injustice and shape the experiences of people. The element of right draws attention to the fact that all people are independent and interdependent, and so with this understanding, people who are more vulnerable will be protected (Imle, 2016). Hoskings (2008) further asserts that the element of language comprises words and images that are used to describe disability and these words and images have direct effects on how people perceive disability and relate with persons with disabilities.
According to Hoskings (2008), it is important to listen to the voice of persons with disabilities in order to better understand and value their viewpoint on their experiences. The tenet, valuing diversity also acknowledges the fact that differences are inevitable and that not all conditions are visible (Imle, 2016). Thus, Hoskings (2008, p. 11) stated; ‘when the differences are ignored as irrelevant, it has the effect of rejecting and marginalizing the group with such characteristics.’ The element of social model of disability, indicates that persons with disabilities encounter barriers in the form of environmental (e.g. inaccessible buildings, transportation) and attitudinal barriers (e.g. negative cultural practices, perceptions, and stereotypes).
Critical Disability Theory helped to identify the influence of language, both spoken and written, on disability from the view point of the couples as they were given the opportunity to discuss their experiences using their own voices. The theory also helped to understand how attitudinal and environmental barriers (social model of disability) affect persons with physical disabilities. The theory was also helpful in understanding how the rights of persons with disabilities, stipulated in legal instruments, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Persons with Disability Act of Ghana, play a role in the lives of the couples. Finally, the theory was useful in identifying how multidimensional the experiences of persons with physical disabilities and their spouses are, especially due to the various demographic characteristics such as gender, type of disability, employment status, etc. that intersected to influence their experiences.
A qualitative research methodology, specifically phenomenological approach was used for this study. According to Creswell (2009), phenomenology is the study of the lived experiences of people and the meanings people make of their experiences. Phenomenology was useful in describing the experiences of the participants since they are knowledgeable in their lived experiences in relation to their pre-marital life (Creswell, 2014).
Non-probability sampling design, specifically purposive and snowball sampling techniques were used in the study. The researchers purposively sampled three major organisations of persons with disabilities, namely, Ghana Society for the Physically Disabled (GSPD), the Ghana Blind Union (GBU) and the Ghana National Association of the Deaf (GNAD). We sought for permission from their leaders to allow the lead researcher to participate in their monthly meetings to discuss the study with their members and those who showed interest were asked to discuss the study with their spouses. The researchers followed up with phone calls and text messages and those who consented to participate in the study were scheduled for times and places convenient for them. Since not many persons with disabilities are married and not every member attends meetings all the time, the researchers also used snowball sampling method to reach more members as well as non-group members. Among the individuals who were suggested through the snowball sampling, the persons with visual and mobility disabilities were contacted through phone calls. Interested persons informed their spouses. The couples with hearing impairment were contacted through text messages. After both spouses had given their consent in all cases, interviews were scheduled on days and at places convenient for each couple.
Couples were sampled based on the following criteria: they must have been married for at least six months; at least one of the spouses must have a physical disability (visual, hearing or mobility disability); the disability could be either acquired or congenital, but, should have occurred before marriage; both spouses must be willing to participate in the study. A total of twenty (20) couples (i.e. forty  individuals in all) were sampled for this study and this comprised of nine (9) individuals with visual disability, eight (8) with mobility disability, twelve (12) with hearing disability and eleven (11) individuals with no disability.
Primary data was collected through in-depth interviews using open-ended questions. Participants were interviewed as individual couples because Sakellariou, Boniface and Brown (2013) assert that in conducting a joint interview, couples can make sense of their experiences and this helps to explore the shared nature of their experiences. The interviews which lasted for a minimum of forty (40) minutes and a maximum of eighty (80) minutes were conducted in English, Twi and Sign Language with the assistance of a sign language interpreter. With permission from the participants, all interviews were audiotaped.
The interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used to analyze the data. The IPA was selected because it allowed the researchers to pay attention to what is distinct whiles comparing it to what is shared among the couples (Reid, Flowers & Larkin, 2005). Using the IPA, the recorded data was transcribed verbatim from the audio tapes and read over a number of times by the researchers to become familiar with the contents whiles making notes. Themes and the relationship that existed between the themes were sought and then clustered. After these were done, the analysis was written with verbatim quotes from the data
Past Relationship Experiences of Persons with Physical Disabilities
Past relationship experiences have been categorized into the following subthemes: rejection by families and partners, and challenges encountered with previous partners.
Rejection by Family Members and Partners
The perceptions people have about disability led to partners and families exhibiting various attitudes towards persons with physical disabilities. In their past relationships, some of the participants, such as Charming and Sharp (persons with mobility and hearing disability respectively) recounted their sad experiences of rejection by the families of the people they dated. They attributed such behaviours to the perception that disability is a curse and illness, which families did not want to be associated with.
Personally, I have had some experiences before I got married, about three times. They were able-bodied ladies and when you approach the family, they will tell you that they want a proper human being (an able-bodied person) to marry their daughter and not a sick person as a partner for their child (Charming, male with mobility disability; wife also has mobility disability).
I was in a relationship with a hearing guy but the guy’s parents also thought the hearing disability was a curse and so would not want to be associated with it. (Sharp, female with hearing disability; husband also has hearing disability).
Some persons with disabilities, especially the males with disabilities, were rejected by the ladies they loved and wanted to marry. They recounted that the ladies rejected their proposal for marriage because of their disabilities. The sad part of their experiences is that the ladies were comfortable with them as friends but not as wives as narrated below:
I remember there was a friend whom I was very close to. She takes me [accompanies me] everywhere I ask her to if only she has the time. We were very good friends but I proposed to her and we became enemies. In fact, I really loved her. So, I was hurt and I managed that situation for some time (Riches, male with visual disability; wife has no disability).
My first attempt was a lady who was a trader at the market. Because of my role as a church leader, I counsel a lot of people including her and so she had taken me as her role model… I made my intentions known to her. Later, I realized her behaviour had totally changed towards me (Determination, male with mobility disability; wife has no disability).
Challenges Encountered with Previous Partners without Disability
Both men and women with disabilities encountered challenges with partners in the past. Some of the study participants, especially males with disabilities, who had had previous relationships with ladies without disabilities shared their experiences about the dishonesty of some of these ladies.
One thing that discouraged me from marrying a seeing lady was that they are fond of using signs to talk... my girlfriend rushed to me telling me she was sick and it was as if she was even about dying. So, I went to the drugstore with her... she signalled the dispenser to tell me they had run out of stock and so he was giving her the money to get some from another drugstore. But then when she signalled the guy, I realised it and then I took my money from her (Love, male with visual disability; wife also has visual disability).
The women with physical disabilities, on the other hand, were more vulnerable to abuse by the men without disabilities, who were also less likely to marry women with disabilities, even after impregnating them.
They look down on us. I think what they are looking for is getting the opportunity to have sex with you. That is all. But apart from that, the social helps that they should give you, like walking with you for people to know that they are in a relationship with you, taking you out and other things, they will not do it... To point you out there that this is my girlfriend, they won’t do it and they wouldn’t like you to even come closer to them out there in public (Assurance, female with visual disability; husband has no disability).
We had a very nice time but then it came to a time that I got pregnant in the course of our relationship and I realized that this guy was very wicked. Though he had a wife somewhere, I did not know until I got pregnant; so, it was when it happened that I got to know that he is very wicked because he did not mind me when I got pregnant (Success, female with hearing disability; husband has hearing disability).
For both males and females with hearing impairment, communication was a unique challenge to their previous relationships with people without disabilities who did not understand sign language. Writing fatigue and fear of infidelity because they could not hear/understand phone and other conversations of the partners impacted their previous relationships.
With my relationship with a hearing man, he could not sign so most of time we communicated through writing. We will write, write, write and that was not the best because it is not everything that you want to say that you can write (Accordance, female with hearing disability; husband has hearing disability).
I had about 2 or 3 hearing girlfriends that I dated previously... With one, I gave her everything but I realised it was not helping because I was not able to hear what she was saying, and she was always on the phone so that made me disappointed. At times, you know, when I am with her alone, she has a nice way of speaking to me with her mouth that I will hear but when we are together with others, she will never tell me what transpired (Gentle, male with hearing disability; wife has hearing disability).
Factors that Influenced Choice of a Marriage Partner
As discussed in the introduction, many factors influence the selection of prospective partner for everyone, including persons with disabilities. Character, employment, religious background and presence or absence of disability were factors that influenced the participants’ choices of marriage partners.
In this study, the character of a person was one of the major factors that influenced the couples’ choices of partners. The participants defined the character of a person as respectful, caring, humble and understanding.
I was looking for somebody who is caring, and somebody who would love me the way I am no matter what (Riches, female with no disability; husband has visual disability).
For me, she was respectful and humble and she prepared me a very nice meal. So then if I will have someone who is respectful and who will prepare me nice meals every day, why not? For me, I am always concerned about the food aspect. If it is good, then I am okay (Laughs out loud) (Sharp, male with hearing disability; wife also has hearing disability).
Another factor that affected the choice of a marriage partner was employment. Both prospective partners (particularly both women with and without disabilities) and their families considered prospective partners who were employed because they believed that employment could yield income to take care of a family
That was the first question my mummy asked me, so what does he do? And I said he is not working. So, what is his level of education? And I said he has had his degree already. She said so? And he is not working so how can he take care of you? I told my mummy that he is looking for a job and he will get it (Riches, female with no disability; husband has visual disability).
Actually, employment is a major factor because for every marriage to be successful, the person has to be working because if you are not working, how do you take care of your family and even yourself. When I found out that he was working and I was also working, it was cool for me because we can be supporting each other (Sharp, female with hearing disability; husband also has hearing disability).
He works because had it been that when I met him, he was unemployed, I would not have married him and that is the truth. He is very hardworking and he can do everything (Forgive, female with mobility disability; husband has mobility disability).
Religion was one of the factors that influenced the choice of a partner in this study by both the participants and their families. It is not surprising given that Ghana is considered a religious country. The participants indicated that they preferred people who belonged to the same faith as them. They believed that they could have a united front, avoid any religious differences when they married from the same religion.
I was looking for someone who is a Christian and so when he proposed to me, I found out all these things from him. I saw that he was a Christian. Not just a Christian going to church, a Christian who motivates. He motivates me (Riches, female with no disability; husband has visual disability).
In fact, I was looking for someone within my religion, which is Islam (Confidence, male with visual disability; wife has no disability).
For me, my parents... wanted me to marry and so they were open to anybody I would bring but all they were looking forward to was that I would marry a Christian with a good character. I chose him because he knew the Bible, he was always on his Bible so I realised he is a staunch Christian (Gentle, female with hearing disability; husband has hearing disability).
Presence or Absence of a Disability
The presence or absence of disability was another factor that influenced the choice of a marriage partner among individuals with disabilities. Some of them decided to marry other persons with disabilities due to past experiences with persons without disabilities.
There was this guy who wanted me to marry him and we were always communicating through writing but then some of the English that the guy writes I do not understand so the relationship did not go far because there was lack of communication. So, I told myself, why waste time on a hearing person whiles I can be with someone whom I can sign with and who understands me better (Gentle, female with hearing disability; husband also has hearing disability).
When I was living with the woman without disability, the disagreement continued until I tried a second one. But with that the situation was the same. So then in our association (GSPD), just like a joke, we said that, if the able-bodied people have decided that they do not want us in a relationship, then let’s marry among ourselves (Forgive, male with mobility disability; wife has mobility disability).
Other persons with physical disabilities settled with their counterparts with disabilities due to fear that a choice of a partner without a disability could be truncated by families of the persons without disabilities. Yet, others chose their counterparts with disabilities because they believed that they would be more comfortable living with another person with a disability than a person without a disability.
As for me I didn’t try because of what my mother said. She told me not to accept any relationship from a man without disability because, well, our family won’t complain but the man’s family will complain. So, I was looking out for a man with a disability (Charming, female with mobility disability; husband also has mobility disability).
I heard that if you marry a hearing person, it is a burden. So, for me, I was aiming to find a deaf person so it didn’t even come to my mind to approach someone who doesn’t have hearing disability (Success, male with hearing disability; wife also has hearing disability).
Whereas some persons with physical disabilities decided to settle with other persons with disabilities, some, on the other hand, consciously decided not to marry or date anyone with any kind of disability. These individuals cited the need for assistance to complete their tasks.
For me, I made up my mind that I do not want a person with a disability to marry. I wanted someone without a disability because there are certain things that are heavy that I may not be able to carry or hold. For instance, if I am going to bath, I cannot carry the water to the bathroom (Providence, male with mobility disability; wife has no disability).
When I went to school for the blind... I had a lot of teachers who were married to their fellow blind and those who married sighted people. I saw the advantage and disadvantage that was with it and so I made up my mind to go for someone who is sighted (Confidence, male with visual disability; wife has no disability).
The Attitudes of Relatives of Couples towards their Marriages
This section has been divided into three (3) subsections: attitudes of family members of spouses without disabilities; attitudes of family members of spouses with physical disabilities; attitudes of family members to their relatives with disabilities who wanted to marry persons with physical disabilities.
Attitudes of Relatives of Spouses without Disabilities towards Marriage with Persons with Physical Disabilities
Several beliefs and perceptions exist about disability in Ghana, as discussed in the introduction which, this study identified the underlying cause of attitudes of families of persons without disabilities towards the choice of a partner with a disability. Findings indicate that families of both men and women without disabilities were unhappy about decisions to marry persons with disabilities. Findings indicate that some families perceived marrying a person with a disability as a humiliation to the family.
My family did not accept it, they were not happy. It got to a time that they were not talking to me, even my mom. My mom wasn’t happy at all, at all (emphasis)! It was recently that she started speaking to me. They were saying that I had brought disgrace to the family for going in for somebody who cannot see and all that. Because of that, we could not do the church wedding. Yes, we did the customary wedding. Even because of that... they did not inform the whole church, they did not. My mummy could not invite her friends (Riches, female with no disability; husband has visual disability).
Other families viewed both men and women with disabilities as a burden due to the perception that persons with disabilities are incapable of taking care of themselves.
They did not spare me at all. Some family members opposed and even my biological brothers were not on talking terms with me but then what God has purposed, man can do nothing about it. They said if I marry someone who has visual disability, how can he cater for me? (Perfect, female with no disability; husband has visual disability).
Some of my family members complained that there are a lot of ladies out there but why did I go in for a person with visual disability. They did not know her, what she could do and all. But then I told them that, I am the one going to stay with her and so I know what is good for me (Hope, male with no disability; wife has visual disability).
My uncle saw me and said ‘ooh my son!’ What have you done? Can your wife go to fetch water in our place? And I said with God all things are possible (Faith, male with no disability; wife has visual disability).
Yet, other relatives were concerned about the origin of the disability of the prospective spouse because of the belief that a person with a congenital disability will give birth to a child with a disability.
The area that I am coming from, we laugh at persons with disabilities... so they wanted to know if the condition was congenital or acquired. So, when I told them it was acquired, some of them were saying that okay but it is not everybody that accepted. We have understood that if it’s not by birth... your children will not have the disability. My uncle also asked me whether she can cook and I said yes and my father asked me ‘can she give birth?’ and I said yes (Assurance, male with no disability; wife has visual disability).
Attitudes of Relatives of Spouses with Physical Disabilities towards Marriages with Persons without Disabilities
While reactions of families of persons without disabilities to the marriage of those with disabilities were mostly around their beliefs and perceptions about disability, those of spouses with disabilities were more concerned about the wellbeing of their members. Thus, they rather considered issues such as whether prospective spouses without disabilities really loved their members with disabilities.
I directed her to my sister for more interrogation because she wanted to be sure if she (my wife) was really serious about marrying me... so, when I brought her home, they were all happy (Riches, male with visual disability; wife has no disability).
She asked if I had been to their hometown and if they had accepted me and if the man is not also coming to take advantage of me and then leave me (Assurance, female with visual disability; husband has no disability).
However, some of these families, especially those of persons with visual impairment, feared that their members (both the employed and unemployed) might become a burden on them when they married.
I was living with my brothers, but when I decided to marry her, I was asked to leave the house and go and rent my own place. I had to leave. As a disabled person for that matter, a visually impaired, they thought that when I marry, I am just going to be dependent... because they knew I was jobless and they were feeding me and so if I marry, I am going to give them more burden (Orange, male with visual disability; wife has no disability).
I started all the marriage process after my visual disability... But, then, since I was unemployed, some felt I was going in for a wife who will also become a burden on the family and they will have to also cater for her. (Mr. Perfect, visual disability; wife without disability).
Attitudes of Family Members towards their Relatives with Disabilities’ Decision to Marry Another Person with a Disability
Marriages between persons with disabilities were generally accepted by both families. It is noteworthy that these marriages were along the same disability types. For example, persons with mobility disabilities marrying others with mobility disabilities.
Because of my situation, my mother even advised me not to marry an able-bodied person because the person’s family will complain so I should marry my fellow person with a disability. The people in my town were surprised that I was coming to marry a person with a disability but nobody said anything bad. No one in my family said anything against the marriage (Charming, female with mobility disability; husband also has mobility disability).
However, some family members were concerned about how the couple could carry out household chores, given their disabilities.
My family accepted it but then we know the family is made up of a lot of people and so there were times that some met me and complained that, now that I have decided to go for this burden upon myself, who will fetch water for me (Mrs. Forgive, female with mobility disability; husband also has mobility disability).
Formerly, I was staying with them when they were advising me to go for a hearing person but then, later on I moved to Tema to be on my own. So we parted for a long time so when I introduced this lady, they didn’t utter a word. The first day I introduced her to my mother, initially she thought she was a hearing person but when she got to know she was a person with a hearing disability, she didn’t say anything (Mr. Gentle, hearing disability; husband has hearing disability).
Others were also concerned that the children of these couples could also have a disability.
My wife’s parents were thinking that two persons with hearing disability getting married maybe we will give birth to children with hearing disability. They had that thought in their mind. They had lived in some community where deaf people had married and given birth to deaf children that is why they had that perception that we may also give birth to deaf children (Mr. Pleasant, male with hearing disability; wife also has hearing disability).
Discussion of Findings
The study which sought to explore the pre-marital experiences of persons with physical disabilities and their spouses establishes that several factors impact on the choice of a partner for persons with disabilities. It reveals that negative perception about disability, such as disability is a curse and illness, persons with disabilities are asexual and dependent, impact on their chances of marriage. Societal barriers and their effects on persons with disabilities are well documented in the literature (Avoke, 2002; Kassah, 2008; Kassah, Kassah & Agbota, 2012; Naami, 2014; Nyame, 2013; Slikker, 2009).
The perceptions people hold about disability plays a significant role in attitudes of both prospective partners and their families towards the marriage of persons with physical disabilities. Findings indicate that families of both men and women without disabilities opposed to decisions to marry persons with disabilities for several reasons. One reason is the stigma attached to disability (Huang, Ososkie & Hsu, 2011; Slikker, 2009). The perception that both men and women with disabilities are burdensome because they are incapable of taking care of themselves was another contributing factor (Hunt, Swartz, Crew, Braathen, Chiwaula, & Rohleder, 2017; Nyame, 2013). The outcome of the study further indicates that, some families believe that marrying someone with a disability, especially, congenital disability, would cause the birthing of a child with a disability. Surprisingly, some families of persons with visual impairment also feared that their members (both the employed and unemployed) might become a burden if they marry. Marriages of two individuals with disabilities also received some reactions from family members. They presumed that these individuals could not carry out household chores (especially in the case of visual and mobility disability), and were also more likely to birth children with disabilities. Some of the participants who stayed away from marrying other individuals with disabilities cited the issue of assistance to complete household chores as their reasons. While most relatives of the spouses without disability opposed marriages to persons with disabilities, relatives of persons with physical disabilities applauded decisions to marry persons with disabilities consistent with Nyame’s (2013) study. For instance, relatives of persons with hearing disabilities encouraged their relations to marry other people with hearing disabilities to enable effective communication. This finding is contrary to that of Gartrell, Baesel and Becker (2017) who found that, in Cambodia, the families of women with hearing disability preferred that they married men with no hearing disabilities.
Similar to rejecting spouses with disabilities by families, persons with physical disabilities also encountered rejection from prospective spouses without disabilities. Marriage proposals by males with disabilities were refused by ladies they loved and wanted to marry. Also, some of the ladies were unfaithful to these men. The females with disabilities were more vulnerable to abuse by the men without disabilities, who were also less likely to marry these women, even after impregnating them. This finding supports studies indicating that gender and disability interact to create multiple challenges and vulnerabilities for women with disabilities (Kassah, Kassah & Agbota, Naami, 2015). For both males and females with hearing impairment, communication was a unique challenge to their pre-marital experiences with hearing people. The study found that writing fatigue and fear of infidelity because they could not hear/understand phone and other conversations of the partners impacted their relationships.
Several other factors influenced the selection of prospective partners in this study as in other studies. A person’s character, defined in this study as respect, caring, humility and understanding, was one of the major factors consistent with Maliki’s (2009) study. Another factor that affected the choice of a marriage partner was employment. Both prospective partners (particularly, women with and without disabilities) and their families considered prospective partners who were employed. This is not surprising given that women with disabilities are less likely to be employed (Dhungana, 2006; Naami, 2015). Thus, marrying another unemployed person could impact greatly on the couple.
Furthermore, disability status influenced the choice of a marriage partner by both individuals with and without disabilities and their families. While some individuals with disabilities married other persons with disabilities due to past negative experiences with persons without disabilities, others settled with their counterparts with disabilities because they were afraid that a choice of a partner without a disability could be rejected by the partners’ families. Yet, others chose their counterparts with disabilities because they believed that they would be more comfortable living with them than a person without a disability. It is noteworthy that, these individuals married people with the same type of disability.
Religious affiliation was an important factor to almost all the couples in the study. This finding is consistent with Alavi, Alahdad and Shafeq’s 2014 and Baataar & Amadu (2014) studies. Although Maliki (2009) outlined fertility as one of the most important characteristics that people looked out for, none of the couples in this study mentioned it as a characteristic they looked out for in a potential spouse.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The study concludes that, although persons with physical disabilities have the right to establish and sustain families, they encounter several challenges in their attempts to marry. These challenges are due to myths and negative perceptions about the causes of disability, the capability and sexuality of persons with disabilities. Also, the language used to describe persons with disabilities and the absence of their voices on issues that concern them heightens the negative perceptions about disability. These perceptions lead to the stigmatization of persons with physical disabilities and their partners. The African culture which requires the involvement of families of would-be spouses complicates relationship issues for persons with disabilities.
Overall, the study concludes that understanding disability issues could minimise most of the barriers that persons with physical disabilities and their partners' experience with marriage. Thus, we recommend that the National Commission on Civic Education (NCCE) and the Department of Social Development conscientize the general public on disability issues. These institutions could collaborate with the media and civil society organisations, such as faith-based and non-governmental organisations to create awareness about the rights of persons with disabilities to marriage. This recommendation is in line with Article 23(1) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD, 2006) which states that;
States Parties shall take effective and appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against persons with disabilities in all matters relating to marriage, family, parenthood and relationships, on an equal basis with others, so as to ensure that:
Additionally, the media could partner with the various organisations of persons with disabilities to give them a platform for their voices to be heard. The media could organise programmes to exhibit the capabilities of persons with disabilities as well as some of their experiences, such as the phenomenon of this study. Understanding persons with disabilities and their issues could reduce the barriers in relationships and society as a whole. Further, we recommend that the Ministry of Education incorporates disability studies in the curricula of schools from basic to tertiary levels. This could help reduce the misconceptions about disability.
Persons with disabilities of marriageable age must exercise their right to marriage just like everyone else. They should be given the opportunity to socio-economic participation since these also impact on their marital relationships and consistent with goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which attempts to reduce inequality by empowering and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all, including persons with disabilities. But, attitudinal change towards disability and persons with disabilities is key to the realisation of this goal and all other SDGs.
Just like any other study, this study also has limitations. The major limitation of this study is that data was collected through joint interviews where some partners were more vocal than others in some cases. But, the researchers directed questions to those spouses, especially the women, both those with and without disabilities, who were not forthcoming with responses so that they could also share their experiences. We, therefore, recommend that further studies include individual interviews to complement the couple interviews.
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Author Biographical Notes
Mrs. Joana Okine is a Graduate Assistant with the Social Work Department, University of Ghana. She holds a BA in Social Work with Sociology and an MPhil in Social Work both from the University of Ghana. Her research interests are disability, care-leaving and health-related issues.
Dr. Efua Essaba Mantey Agyire-Tettey is a lecturer in the Department of Social Work of the University of Ghana. She holds PhD from the University of Siegen, Germany, MPhil and BA from the University of Ghana. Her area of specialization is Disability Issues, Family and Child Welfare and Social Protection.
Dr. Augustina Naami is a lecturer at the University of Ghana. She holds a BA degree in Economics from the University of Ghana, Master’s and PhD in Social Work from the Universities of Chicago and Utah respectively. Her research interest focuses on disability, gender, the intersection of vulnerabilities, poverty and social policy.
International Journal of Disability, Community &
Volume 18, No. 1