Love, intimacy in disabled community at forefront amid recognition of acclaimed movies
Michael wasn't going to let Grace walk home alone in downtown Pittsfield that night.
The two had just been introduced at a party, the night was ending, and Grace had gathered her belongings.
"I'm going home," Grace Chilton, now 79, recalled telling the guests.
"Not by yourself, you're not," Michael Kuvent, now 61, said before she could leave.
Michael walked Grace to her home on First Street to keep her safe on that night oh so long ago.
It was some time later that the two, now a couple, were walking home from a married couple's house when Michael popped the question.
The two got married in July 1985, and they remain so today, still living in Pittsfield.
Theirs is a love story that contains typical ingredients: meeting through a friend, the courting process, the proposal, then married life itself, which can feature such togetherness activities as making home-cooked meals, holding hands or dancing.
But it's also a story in which the two principal characters have cognitive disabilities.
In a world where people with some form of disability make up 15 percent of the population, according to the World Health Organization, disabilities can form bonds in physical and emotional intimacy -- but they also can cause misunderstandings.
Those issues have been explored in three recent, critically acclaimed movies -- "Silver Linings Playbook," "Rust and Bone" and "The Sessions."
Each film, which either is up for or has been up for various Oscar or Golden Globe nominations, explores the needs of all people -- from a friendly hug to sex -- but the main characters have a disability.
"They have the same wants and desires as we all have," said Kenneth Singer, executive director of Berkshire County Arc (BARC), a Pittsfield non-profit that offers community services to people with a disability. "They want to be touched. They want someone to hold their hand. They want someone to know that they care."
On Thursday night, BARC hosted a Valentine's Day dance at the ITAM Lodge in Pittsfield. Glittery hearts, pink balloons and slow jams were the backdrop to the chatter of about 230 attendees. As they finished eating, some took to the dance floor.
Ever since "The Sessions" was released last fall, Jassy Timberlake, a board-certified therapist at Northampton Sex Therapy Associates, said she has been inundated with media requests about the topic of sex and disabilities.
Timberlake said about a third of her group's clients come from the Berkshires, and some have physical disabilities. She said people with disabilities often are ‘infantilized' by their families and wrongly are seen as "sexless or asexual as a result" by society.
'The Last Taboo'
Alexander Freeman, a 25-year-old junior at Emerson College in Boston who has cerebral palsy, refers to love and sex as they relate to people with disabilities as "The Last Taboo," per the title of his latest documentary.
"I may be in a wheelchair, but I still like sex," Freeman said. "People with disabilities are just as sexual as anybody else and do a lot of the same things other people do -- just in a different way."
In the spring of 2011, Freeman focused on six people living with physical disabilities who openly share their feelings on love and intimacy. Even Freeman's story is featured in his documentary, which isn't widely available but had an unofficial screening at Emerson last fall.
"When someone sees someone with a disability, they can't relate to them because people have a hard time identifying with someone who doesn't look like them," Freeman told The Eagle during a Skype interview. "People look at a person with a disability as sick and weak."
Freeman struggled to verbalize some of his answers during the interview, and instead typed them in the chat window.
Freeman, who is in a wheelchair, said the impetus for "The Last Taboo" was a bond he shared with a close female friend at the beginning of college. She wasn't disabled, Freeman said, and "the sense of touch was incredible" for him.
"In a way, she really saw that I have these feelings and these emotions and she was willing to share herself, and showed a side of myself that I hadn't explored yet," he said. "I felt that somebody wanted me."
Pittsfield resident Jessica Peck volunteers at the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Berkshire County and also has the disease. She said she already knows the advice she'll give later in life to her two daughters (9 months old, 5 years old), neither of whom is disabled.
Those words will be similar to the ones her parents gave her when she was younger.
"Be happy, date whoever you want, and look at them on the inside and out," said Peck, who described herself only as being in her early 30s.
Peck said she is in the sixth year of a relationship with the father of her youngest daughter. Peck met her boyfriend through a blind date set up by her friend.
"I was a little iffy at first, because blind dates aren't really my thing," Peck said. "He was actually shy at first. We started going out, and we've been going out ever since."
Peck said she's happy in the relationship.
"I saw a nice, sweet, loving, caring guy who knew me for who I was and not for my disability, and that's what I like," she said.
Peck said the couple has decided against marriage because it would be a disadvantage financially for them.
David Zahorian, a 31-year-old Great Barrington resident, experienced young love. He has a learning disability and spends a lot of time painting at Community Access to the Arts (CATA) in South County.
He spent most of his childhood as a student at Camphill Special School, a private school in Pennsylvania for people with developmental disabilities.
There, Zahorian met a girl, an Alaska resident, when he was 10. Both were living in an on-site house for students at Camphill, and they were friends in those early years, Zahorian said.
"We had a lot in common -- we liked to do a lot of fun things," he said. "In the winter, we'd go sledding."
Zahorian graduated from Camphill in 2000 and moved to Great Barrington while the girl moved back to Alaska. Today, they are a couple -- chatting via Skype, writing letters, and visiting each other. Zahorian said his girlfriend plans to spend all of May with him in the Berkshires, and Zahorian wants to take her to a play put on by CATA.
"I feel that I'm very lucky to have her, and she feels lucky to have me," Zahorian said.
He said his girlfriend has brought up the ideas of marriage and children, and they're still considering both.
Peck said people with disabilities always should take a chance in dating, and they shouldn't let anything hold them back.
"If they are afraid to date [because of] who they are, that's totally wrong," Peck said. "People shouldn't say they can't do anything."
To reach Adam Poulisse:
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_Poulisse
Recent movies centered on people with mental or physical disabilities:
n ‘Silver Linings Playbook': About the love between two people with bipolar disorder. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture. Jennifer Lawrence won a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy.
n ‘The Sessions': Inspired by a true story about a 38-year-old man (John Hawkes) who is paralyzed from the neck down by polio, and the sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) who helps him on the journey to lose his virginity. Nominated for one Oscar -- Hunt for best supporting actress. Hunt and Hawkes each were each nominated for a Golden Globe.
n ‘Rust and Bone': French film about a killer-whale trainer who loses her legs in an accident and then forms an intimate relationship with a kick-boxer. Marion Cotillard was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress, and the movie was nominated for best foreign-language film.
n The 85th Academy Awards will air next Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC.
Help for the disabled
Among the local places where people with disabilities can go for assistance:
n Berkshire County Arc
395 South St., Pittsfield
n United Cerebral Palsy
208 West St., Pittsfield
535 Curran Highway
n Cadmus Lifesharing Association
20 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington
n Riverbrook Residence,
a residency and community-based
day support center for women,
4 Ice Glen Road, Stockbridge
n Berkshire Meadows,
a year-round and accredited
residential special-education school
for children and young adults,
249 N. Plain Road, Housatonic
n Northampton Sex Therapy Associates
40 Main St., Florence, Suite 206
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.