a man pushes a woman's manual wheelchair, helping her towards a car with the door open

Here’s What Dr. Phil Got Wrong in His Episode on Interabled Relationships

I’ve spent a good portion of the last week thinking about a recent episode of Dr. Phil that featured an interabled couple and more ableist tropes than should ever be allowed in 2019. I watched the episode. I read articles about it. And I’m left with one major question: Why are we still buying into the “burden” narrative when it comes to people with disabilities?

Because I don’t recommend watching the episode, here’s the gist: The show featured couple Bailey, who has quadriplegia, and his girlfriend Harley. The two met on Tinder and have been dating for a few years, with Harley being Bailey’s primary caregiver. According to the couple, this has caused tension and frustration in their relationship. I genuinely felt for the couple, who were clearly struggling and trying to figure things out, but it was Dr. Phil’s treatment of the topic – and of disabilities in general – that was just unforgivable.

In fact, the entire episode played out like a lesson in how not to treat people with disabilities. Within the first 10 minutes, Dr. Phil asked Harley, in all seriousness, “You’re a young, single, attractive female. Out of all of the people that you could choose, why choose someone in a wheelchair?”

Oooh, the horror! From the way Dr. Phil phrased his question, you’d think that a wheelchair was the worst thing in the world. It’s a loaded question in itself, and in just asking it, there’s an implication of what the answer should be – that wheelchairs are bad, to be avoided and that no one in their right mind would actually choose someone in a wheelchair, right?

It’s that question that made my jaw drop the most because the assumptions behind it are alarming and troubling. As a woman with a disability (and who’s in a wheelchair), I hear that question and these are the subtexts that I hear…

“People with disabilities are burdens”

“People with disabilities are unworthy of love”

“People with disabilities are less than”

The theme of people with disabilities as burdens on their loved ones kept coming up throughout the rest of the episode. When Dr. Phil first spoke with Bailey, he said, “You hate being a burden.” Sure, he could have been mirroring Bailey’s thoughts and emotions, but at no point did he try to reassure Bailey that, no, he is not a burden. Instead, Dr. Phil just reinforced the archaic disability trope that all disabilities are simply “too much.”

And the grand revelation by the end of the episode? Dr. Phil concluded that a relationship in which one person is disabled and that involves caregiving will ALWAYS fail. Always, as in 100 percent of the time.

“This won’t work,” he said, referring to Harley and Bailey’s relationship. “100 out of 100 times, this won’t work.”

So by that logic, relationships that involve cancer wouldn’t work. Nor would relationships that involve Alzheimer’s. Or mental illness. The list goes on. It doesn’t have to be so black and white, does it? It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and to say that any amount of caregiving will automatically set a relationship on the path to failure is incredibly narrow-minded.

Thankfully, the public agreed and were just as outraged with the episode as I was. People quickly took to social media to share their own stories of successfully navigating an interabled relationship. The hashtag #100outof100 on both Twitter and Instagram pushed back against Dr. Phil’s erroneous statistic, with photos and stories of people in love. The proof is in the tweets and ‘grams – YES, interabled relationships WORK.

For example, take Shane Burcaw and Hannah Aylward, whose YouTube channel shows first-hand that it is possible to be in an interabled relationship. Last week, the couple posted a video about their experience being asked to be on that Dr. Phil episode and why they ultimately declined. Yes, Shane has spinal muscular atrophy and requires care, but in every other way, the two are just like any other couple.

And here’s something important that Dr. Phil seems to forget: There are different types of “caregiving.” It’s not just about the physical. I may require a lot of personal care from my family, but that doesn’t mean I can’t care for them as well, especially when it comes to emotional caregiving. The episode is a perfect illustration of the sort of ableism people with disabilities encounter on a daily basis. People are surprised when I tell them some of the things people have told me and sometimes, I wonder what’s worse: Their surprise or the fact that I’m not surprised by any of it.

It’s because of ignorant statements like Dr. Phil’s that I’ve dedicated so much of my career as a writer to writing about disabilities. I want to tell real stories about the realities of life with a disability. I want to shatter stereotypes that uphold ableism. Because in just 40 minutes, Dr. Phil proved exactly why I needed to write a recent essay for Glamour about people assuming they’ll be nothing but caregivers in a relationship with someone who’s disabled.

For someone who claims to be a doctor with years of experience, Dr. Phil’s “insights” were nothing short of appalling. To conflate caregiving with being a burden is not only short sighted, but also wrong. To see a supposed doctor treat the topic of disabilities with such disrespect and carelessness is unacceptable. People with disabilities have fought long and hard to erase these stigmas, and with one episode, Dr. Phil did more harm than help. Of course we need more visibility when it comes to disability, but not if what’s presented is inaccurate and rife with ableist rhetoric. It is beyond irresponsible to present this narrative of disability. People with disabilities are not burdens. We’re human. And we deserve to be treated with dignity.

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  1. In another kind of close relationship, mother/father of a disabled child. How negative we are placed in the order of society.

  2. I’m disabled and I’ve been married for almost 40 years now and I am very upset to hear this about Dr.Phil! I’ve been disabled most of my life my husband married me knowing that my illness was chronic and was going to worsen as I aged but he married me anyway! Dr. Phil doesn’t know what he’s talking about and should keep his big mouth shut!

  3. I love this article, being in an interabled relationship myself I can say, its response is just amazing. I didn’t catch the episode but I love your response. I’m in a wheelchair, with several disablities, my husband has no disabilities.

    By the way, I agree that just because someone is physically disabled or has altzheimers or mental illness or any other condition (say like cancer or addiction), doesn’t mean those relationships necessarily 100% are doomed to fail.

    Three quick things:

    – It’s called unconditional love for a reason.

    -You love who you love

    – & in every relationship ever, if it’s worth it to both of you – you make it work despite any issues. Every single relationship has issues it must overcome.
    How and why would Dr. Phil classify health concern realated issues any differently? Given the nature that the disabled individual didn’t choose their disability, one would think he could have handled this much better to say the least.

    Well …Deciding to not internalize stigma from Dr. Phil today, that was the moral of that for myself. Ableism at its worst is another way to put that.

    Everyone is made equal at birth by the intrinsic value of being a human being deserving of dignity, the pursuit of happiness, & the hope of an opportunity for a better life – disabled or not, everyone is equally deserving of love despite any diseases, illnesses, or physical limitations.

    If he wants to be discriminatory some more -over things people didn’t choose, have no control over and/or can’t help, I’ll be over here *not* watching Dr. Phil.

  4. I did not see the actual episode but I saw social media explode after it came out. Your article is fantastic! I have a disabled mentor who is married to an able bodied woman and they have a young child. My disabled mentor cares for the able bodied wife and child more than they care for him, he is the main bread winner of their family. These relationships DO work. The thing that is most harmful about this episode is a lot of disabled people already feel like burdens or unworthy of love so I fear this could cause disabled people to harm themselves (i.e opt for suicide or assisted suicide) after seeing it.

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