Romance, sexual identity and relationships with disability
Navigating feelings around the experience of romance, sexual identity and relationships can be challenging at the best of times but it is even more so when you are a disabled woman. I have had quadriplegic cerebral palsy all my life which causes uncontrolled spasms and stiffness in all four limbs. I feel that one of the key problems linking disability to love and dating is that many people still assume that people with such disabilities or any sort of difference do not have any desire for romance or physical intimacy at all, when in fact it is not something that you as an individual can control particularly when it is something beyond a crush. Nevertheless, the assumption that people with physical or mental impairments don’t think about or deserve this side of life must be overturned.
I am a 29 year old woman who knows she wants these experiences, yet on the rare occasions I have received romantic attention the giver has often consumed alcohol and by paying me a compliment or planting a kiss on my cheek I think they feel they have done me a favour as they assume I would never normally receive this kind of attention. Whilst it is true that such encounters may prove exciting and memorable for a young teenager for example, I am a fully fledged woman who is way past the idea of merely being excited by the idea of romance and wants to dive into romantic love and sexual exploration for herself if conducted within a safe relationship, just as many of my friends have done long before me.
One may say “Isn’t a logical step towards finding a man actually dipping your toe into the world of dating?”and, of course they would be right, but for me and many other disabled people it is a lot more complex than this. In my case I employ a care agency to get me up in the morning and put me to bed at night as well as carry out certain aspects of personal care. With this in mind the agency usually arrive at specific times which in the evening is much earlier than someone of my age would normally go to bed, therefore I have to ensure that I am at home and available to fit in with their rota which means I often have to cut my social events shorter than I might like to in order to get home. Technically although I could socialise in the afternoon or early evening, it’s true that a lot of social interaction amongst people of my age takes place at night.
I also think it is important that those working within sexual health services are better able to answer questions and concerns of disabled and interabled couples navigating romance and sex and offer any support they may require.
Linking more broadly to the aims of Models of Diversity as an organisation I too feel that the fashion and beauty industries should be more diverse in the range of models used in projects and campaigns they support. There needs to be massive amounts of change in fashion when it comes to creating clothing that is practical, age and occasion appropriate and reflects identities beyond the disability particularly for consumers like myself with physical impairments.
When it comes to media representation I am of the view that a greater diversity of voices should be accessed in order to tell important and thought provoking stories that do not showcase the disabled experience as one dimensional or universal.
Growing up I was never bothered by the fact that there weren’t many disabled people showcased on TV as I knew we didn’t make up a large majority of the population. What mattered more, but did not always happen, was that on the rare occasions disabled characters were used, many of their stories focused on the disability itself and how it affected them, not showcasing the individuals as multifaceted; that they were more than their disability. Although in modern TV these problems are being addressed and of course this is a positive thing, such layered stories need to be told with more regularity to ensure that disabled people realise that their perspectives on the world are valid and their stories worth telling, so that the world may see them as everyday individuals. In summary, I hope I have highlighted some of the challenges that make disability romance, sex and dating; and generally feeling positive, more of a challenge for disabled people in society. I think more must be done to ensure the representation of disabled people as worthwhile and worthy sexual partners and this can be facilitated through the key cornerstones of society that are the media and fashion industries. These markets can also help to present people with differences in a more favourable light generally.
People with disabilities need to be valued and respected and more needs to be done across the creative industries to show we matter.