There are many reasons autistic people have difficulty having a romantic relationship. Some are due, in part, to being autistic. But others are not – they are barriers placed in front of people by influence outside of them. In the first part of this series of posts, I talked about how sexual abuse has hindered many of us from seeking relationships. In future posts, I’ll be talking about independent living services, transportation, and society’s ideas (and the “ick” factor in most people’s eyes) about disabled people in sexual relationships.
In some relationship, the government doesn’t just not place barriers in front of the relationship, they actually give incentives for the relationship. The US government (and likely others) is in the business of promoting relationship. Well, rather, the business of promoting some relationships – those considered good for society.
For instance, heterosexual married couples can get a substantial tax break by being married (assuming the two spouses have significantly different incomes – the government rewards relationships with a stay-at-home spouse but penalizes relationships with two equal wage earners), can inherit property from their spouse without tax penalty, get to make health care decisions for incapacitated spouses (barring other legal directives), are automatically presumed to be legitimate parents of any offspring, have unique immigration law benefits, often have legal protections that allow them to not testify against a spouse, and typically get a large share of inheritance in the absence of a will. Most of these can’t be written into contracts or achieved through non-marital means (contrary to some of the statements made by people against gay marriage – a US citizen can’t, by contract, allow their same-sex partner to become a citizen, for instance).
But, for financial reasons, there are penalties against some people. Two single people who make $150,000 will, most likely, pay much less in taxes than two married people making the same ($150,000 each, that is). So there’s a valid financial reason that these people might not want to marry. That said, a couple making $300,000 likely can afford the additional tax burden.
What does this have to do with autism? Disabled people are not always in the group that the government rewards, once they marry. In particular, disabled people receiving means-tested government benefits, such as SSI, will lose some of their benefits. Two people receiving SSI who marry will lose 25% of their total benefits. In 2012, a single person on SSI will receive $8,386.75to live (I dare anyone not on SSI to try to live on that amount). But in marriage, each person will receive $8,386.75 x .75 or $6,290.06 each. That’s a loss of over $2,000 per person. Granted, it’s cheaper to live as a married couple, and maybe it’s even 25% less expensive to live that way, but when you’re barely getting buy, it’s going to be a lot more attractive to stay single, just like the couple making $300,000. But the difference is that the 25% the single couple loses is a lot more likely to affect their ability to provide for life-essential items than the money the wealthy couple loses (note also that the couple making $300,000 doesn’t lose 25% of their income by getting married).
For a video description of the SSI penalty (thanks, Paula C. Durbin-Westby for having found this resource):
Of course SSI isn’t the only benefit program that is affected by marriage. A close friend is purchasing a house under a state program that provides disabled people with loans for modern, accessible housing, at slightly reduced rates. Without this program, even with his job, my friend could not afford a house – and certainly couldn’t afford to purchase the house, both because of the additional loan cost and the costs of remodeling a functional but inaccessible home (pretty much the only homes on the open market) into an accessible one. With the state program, the state takes the loss on the cost of the modifications above fair market value for the house (as anyone who has remodeled knows, the modifications often cost more than they add to the value of the home). So far, so good – a program that is working and helping someone, without costing the government significant money (and certainly less money than if my friend were to lose his job and end up with the government paying to house him in a nursing home, as that’s likely the only accessible option where he lives).
There’s just one problem: my friend would like to get married. But, for a period of one year, he is barred from having other people with income living in the house. That’s because his eligibility (which is close to the top of the eligible income) is based on the income of the residents. He could get married tomorrow, but not be able to live with his wife – nevermind having his girlfriend move in with him, which is also not acceptable. If she were to live with him, he would face the real possibility of no longer qualifying for the home under the government program and also not being able to refinance privately (due to his and his girlfriends’ relatively low incomes). So, if he gets married, apparently the government expects his spouse to live somewhere else. I can’t imagine that expectation existing for any non-disabled person, as a condition of their home purchase!
Finally, many living situations people with disabilities – including autism – find themselves in are single-gender/sex facilities, such as group homes. After all, we wouldn’t want disabled people having sex, and of course only straight people would break that rule and have sex with each other – so these rules are actually intended to keep the environment non-sexual, with the assumption that sex is unimportant, at least to disabled people (I’ll also note that such facilities are not good for people who are gender variant). Moving out of such facilities can be a huge financial challenge (and challenging to obtain the independent living assistance that might be required). Such facilities often have rules about visitations and such, too. Want to have your girlfriend stay the night? Too bad. That’s not allowed. And, even if the significant other has good income and can afford to pay for good housing outside of this environment, that’s not typically a commitment people make early in a relationship (not to mention someone might not want to accept being totally dependent upon someone else for their living quarters, even if they are married – that type of situation is ripe ground for abuse, as being able to leave is a key part of being able to report and seek help for abuse).
These are real issues. They are every bit as important to solving as the disincentives to employment of disabled people. Yet, unlike the disincentives to employment, these don’t get the attention they deserve or disabled people would like. I suspect that’s due to a subtle, but real, prejudice among most people: people should only be on benefits if they “truly” need them, and true needs don’t include things like living with the person you want to live with. Meanwhile, they also believe that people should be working if they can, so they are willing to at least consider getting rid of those barriers (that said, they won’t get rid of the ones that truly matter, like health insurance – but at least you can have a conversation about that, since it involves taking away a government benefit from someone once they are working).