12 Nov My body, My choice
At the core of this conversation, we need to recognise the humanity of disabled people. Disabled people have the same desires to be loved and to experience intimacy; to feel seen and understood in our relationships. Disability makes some things more challenging due to the nature of someone’s disability but doesn’t make it impossible.
Social expectations and assumptions also create a sense of pressure on disabled people to behave (or not behave) in certain ways. Sometimes it’s helpful to have people enabling us to just sit with our disability and gain a better understanding of ourselves and our bodies; before any external expectations enter the discussion. Expectations and assumptions don’t always work for disabled people, and that’s ok. We have to be creative and find new ways.
Consent, autonomy, respect and intimacy are crucial aspects of life. We must work together to combat the misconception that these don’t apply to disabled people. they definitely do; and may even be more important to unpack when it comes to disability, to avoid further separating and isolating disabled people from the rest of society.
This is a bigger, more complicated discussion than simply being about sex and sexuality. I believe that yes, we must talk about sex and disability and what information is available to those with disabilities to empower more people to embrace the idea of sexuality being an equally important part of disabled life. I also believe that in order to successfully embrace the importance of consent and autonomy in a sexual context, we must simultaneously consider how accessible these are in everyday disabled life.
One thing we learn about consent (and continuous consent) is constant and effective communication with partners. What happens if a disabled person does not or cannot communicate in mainstream ways? What about someone with cognitive impairments or disabilities? Should these challenges deny the opportunity to give consent with regard to what is being done to our bodies? It should not. It can take time for those around us to learn how we communicate and what the best ways are to receive consent, and that time should be taken.
Far too often, disabled people are excluded from decisions and denied experiences if it isn’t possible to engage as non-disabled people do. This leads us into talking about what body autonomy means when you live with a disability.
I have a physical disability, so I need help with a lot of things. I have learned I have to be open about what my needs are in order to ensure that these are supported effectively. Every day I have to trust people to assist me with intimate (often unsexy) things like using a toilet, having a bath, getting dressed in the morning. These are all functional interactions that I need to happen for me to live, out in the world. This functional touch is very different to what would happen with a loving touch and we have to talk about them differently. It matters that functional touch in the form of receiving care does not take the place of receiving love and experiencing pleasure.
Body autonomy is much broader than just what happens to my body. It’s also about how I move and where I go. I realised how much autonomy I didn’t have and how much I relied on others when I got a motorised wheelchair at 9-years-old. For the first time, I was in charge of my own body and my movements, on my own schedule.
There are many instances where disabled people’s wishes, concerns or desires are disregarded when people are making decisions on our behalf, trying to act in our “best interest”. I question whose interest is being served when things like forced sterilisations are still a very prevalent reality for many disabled people. My body, my choice?
These decisions cannot be made without including the disabled person (whose body it is) in the conversation. Respect underscores all of this. We need to be more respectful of the diverse ways and means of how disabled people experience life. We need to make more space for all of these diversities so that those of us living with disabilities to be our full selves in all our disabled glory.