A matchmaking service in Germany has successfully brought together lonely hearts with mental disabilities. Long taboo in many places, Bernd Zemellas is teaching patients that love and relationships are human rights.
Some Germans wants to bring love among the mentally disabled out of the shadows.
The Protestant Foundation in Alsterdorf near Hamburg is the largest facility for the mentally disabled in northern Germany, with more than 1,200 residents. It's also the workplace of psychologist Bernd Zemellas, who is famous for "The Treasure Chest," a matchmaking service for people with mental disabilities. Since he started his unconventional dating service in 1998, Zemellas has attracted more than 300 clients.
Zemella doesn’t see any difference between his and a "normal" dating service. "The keyword ‘normality’ here is decisive," he explains. "Fulfilling one’s desire for a partner is a human right in my opinion. And helping people take a step in that direction is a major concern of mine."
More than 300,000 people in Germany are mentally disabled. Depending on the degree of their handicap, many are housed in assisted-living situations and eek out a living through social assistance and by doing odd jobs in workshops that employ people with disabilities. Others work and live entirely independently and only require ambulant help. Nonetheless, talk of relationships or sexuality between disabled people has remained a taboo subject. All too often, society views mentally disabled people like children – naive and asexual. Zemella is working to change those stereotypes.
Looking for a first love
Many of the people who come to Zemella have never had a relationship. For some, daily life is so hard to tackle that there is no leisure time remaining to hunt for a partner. Others must be taught that they have the right to sexuality and relationships. Normally, it’s the people caring for the mentally disabled who must first broach the subject, introducing their patients to the idea of the "right one," or "treasure hunt" and lead them to their local matchmaker. Very few go to Zemella on their own.
And those who do make it to Zemella tend to play traditional roles when searching for a match. Women, he says, tend to wait to be "chosen," whereas men tend to be more active when it comes to searching. Accordingly, the psychologist says he has three times as many men in his index cards than women. The same selection criteria are applied as at any other matchmaking service – couples are brough together based on appearance, hobbies and other interests. But the degree of handicap is also important.
"Those who are less mentally disabled want to be with someone who they can do something with," Zemella explains.
Bring people together the old way
Using a digital camera, Zemella takes snapshots of his customers and places their data in his computer. However, unlike many dating services, Zemella doesn’t leave it up to the computer to make the match-ups.
"I still do everything by hand. In principal I could let the computer do that, but I still have a relatively small number of customers. I go to a lot of trouble. I take at least one morning each week to go back and look and check to see things – was that right decision?" he says.
Two children hold hands
Whether or not a match has been successfully made is usually already determined on the first date. Some pairs are even hand-in-hand before they leave the psychologist’s office. Parents and caretakers often attend the first meeting between a potential couple and Zemella.
Of Zemella’s several hundred erstwhile lonely hearts, 40 pairs have been successfully brought together and two couples have married. Others have moved in together, while some just see their "sweetheart" a few times each week because they reside in assisted living situations and are unable to get together more often.
There can also be other challenges. Many couples face resistance from their families and friends, since loving relationships between the mentally disabled are still a foreign idea to many.
"I’ve already had the concrete experience that, after I took on a woman, I got a call a few days later," Zemella explains. "It was from her father. The parents said: ‘This is not something our daughter should be doing. Please take her off your list. I assume that in many cases, the parents are afraid that these relationship will increase the desire to perhaps have a child and start a family."
Parents often fear that the offspring of their mentally disabled son or daughter will also be born with a handicap, Zemella said. But today this legal gray zone has been eliminated. Minors can no longer be sterilized and fully grown women can only be given the operation if they voluntarily submit to it. If they’re not capable of making a decisions for themselves, it must be made by their legal custodian. Many parents also worry that a child could overstrain a mentally disabled couple.
Few embark on family path
To date, the desire for children among mentally handicapped couples has been more the exception than the rule. Of all the couples Zemella has brought together, he says only two are seriously considering embarking on the family path.
If they do, there are avenues of support available to them. They can live in special facilities that provide care for both the persons with disabilities and their children. But in the cases of the worst disabilities, sometimes the children would have to be places in a foster home. That’s why Zemella finds it important to provide guidance not only to the couples, but also to their parents.
"I don’t want to create any misconceptions, since the whole thing can be problematic," says Zemella. "To that end I share the concerns of parents. But people can and should speak openly about this rather than just categorically saying: ‘No, that’s not something for you, and that’s why this ‘relationship chapter’ is nothing for you.’"