A few weeks ago, reality television host Dr. Phil sparked a major controversy with his statements about interabled relationships. Much like Ken Jennings’s infamous 2014 tweet, a single statement from America’s favorite psychologist led to a social media movement for people with disabilities.
In an episode of “Dr. Phil” titled “I Swiped Right on My Quadriplegic Boyfriend,” an interabled couple shared their story and the relationship issues they’ve been having. The man, Bailey, became paralyzed 11 years ago and his girlfriend Harley is now his full-time caregiver. During this episode, Bailey said that he feels like a burden to everyone around him, especially his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Harley poured out her frustrations about caring for him and said that she is constantly exhausted.
After hearing this couple’s story, the psychologist concluded that Harley’s role as Bailey’s caregiver was the root of their problems. In a moment that made him the new face of celebrity ableism, Dr. Phil (also known as Dr. Phillip McGraw) told Harley, “You can be his lover or you can be his caregiver, but you can’t be both. … It won’t work. One hundred out of 100 times this won’t work.”
Unsurprisingly, many interabled couples took to social media to counteract his statement. Shane Burcaw and Hannah Aylward posted a video on their YouTube channel discussing why they declined Dr. Phil’s invitation to be on this episode and started the hashtag #100outof100 as a response to his comments. Oddly enough, this story broke right around the same time I interviewed a woman on the SMA News Today Podcast, whose husband is also her caregiver.
Now, I’m not in a romantic relationship, but I would like to throw in my two cents here. As someone with SMA, I have to rely on other people around the clock to help me meet my daily needs. In addition to my paid caregivers, I also have my parents, siblings, friends, and strangers assist me day in and day out.
What most people fail to realize about living with a disability is that our physical needs go beyond getting ready in the morning and going to bed at night. Some of us need help with everything from moving our hands to the joysticks on our wheelchairs, to scratching an itch that’s out of our reach.
While this couple clearly needs to make some changes to strengthen their relationship, it’s the definitive nature of Dr. Phil’s statement that bothers me. By his logic, I should never be allowed to ask any of my friends for help without paying them. And if I were in a romantic relationship, some of my caregiving needs would inevitably fall to my significant other. Although I would strive for more of a balance and have hired caregivers to handle most of my needs, I would still need my significant other for some things.
It’s also worth noting that another interabled couple on this episode gave Bailey and Harley, what is in my opinion, better advice than Dr. Phil. The quadriplegic man in this relationship told Bailey that it’s not his physical paralysis that’s the problem, but rather his mental paralysis. Throughout the episode, Bailey openly confessed feelings of self-loathing, depression, anger, and a lack of motivation to work or do anything productive. Apparently, Harley’s role as his caregiver isn’t the only problem in their relationship.
If anything, this program led to many interabled couples amplifying their voices and sharing their stories. I hope that through this movement, Dr. Phil has learned a thing or two about the problems with making an inaccurate statement that perpetuates disability stereotypes on live television.
For more on this subject, check out this conversation on the SMA News Today forums.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.