Blog as it appeared in the Guardian on 14th July, 2016 (though with different title)
We need to push the boundaries and create new role models to push the barriers of acceptance and normality around disability and sex.
Revolution (from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”) is a fundamental change that takes place when a population rises up in revolt against the current authorities. So per definition, a revolution cannot be waited for.
The flower power time of the 60’s was about much more than sex. It was about love, peace, freedom and gender equality, but sex became the barometer. Hennessey states that persons with a disability are often portrayed as sexually non-participative in society. As a barometer, this means that the revolution for the overall equality of persons with a disability still has a long way to go.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Eurostat and national sources, the gaps are evident. The employment rate for people with a disability is 40% – versus 75% for those without.
There are an estimated one billion people in the world with a disability, many with children, so to think all of these don’t have sex is at the very least, an ignorant and foolish notion. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, sex is in various layers but is also included at the bottom base of the pyramid, ranking equal to food. The fact that independence of an individual is affected does not mean that the need is too.
In 1981 I became a paraplegic following a fall from a tree. I was fourteen at the time and just at the start of my own sexual revolution. I remember that my cravings did not change, but my confidence did. But instead of shying away or waiting for answers, I quickly learned that it was my responsibility to put people at ease about my disability.
Fear of the unknown is a logical phenomenon and with such a plethora of disability types we can hardly expect everyone to know it all. So for the revolution to succeed we need to continuously educate, demonstrate and mitigate to avoid us all being lumped together in a pile of prejudice and want. And this applies to the subject of sex too.
Out on the road there will be near misses and inevitable crashes, but the carmaker Henry Ford said; “Failure is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” On a mini-scale, sex and relationships became a barometer of my overall revolution; that of overcoming my disability. Translated to a much grander, global scale, if we all push the boundaries of our own revolutions, then the collective momentum will gather speed and improve inclusion. Just as we have seen progression and acceptance of interracial sex and same-gender sex, we will slowly move into an era where disability-sex is considered natural too.
But to push the boundaries of what that means, we rely on role-models and artists to combat perception and resistance. The film Sessions with Helen Hunt in which a man with an iron lung wishes to lose his virginity to a professional sex surrogate had an estimated budget of $1M and it made $6M in it’s first year. The IMDB score was 7.2 and judging by the reviews, people could relate to the story whether they were disabled or not. As Ben Lewin, a polio survivor and writer/director of Sessions put it, “There is an interesting disability-chic movement”.
Other films such as Untouchable by Nakache/Toledano and Gabriella by Archambault explore disability and sex. And books are forthcoming too, such as Death Comes Twice, by the Belgian author Faas Kramer; an erotic thriller in which successful and desirable persons in wheelchairs get murdered. All of these creators have disabilities them
selves and apply their experiences to write about what they know, purposely pushing the borders of acceptance and normality. I greatly encourage this. Not that I have a disability fetish, but because love and sex is natural.
The greatest business advice I ever received was when my regional CEO called me into his office one day in 2008 and expressed his concern that I was ‘unusually quiet’. He said to me, “Remember to always take initiative.” My disability is no excuse for waiting. Nor should it be an excuse for anyone else. We are what we are. But what we do defines us. Let’s not wait for the revolution but let’s create it and see the barometer rise. Increasing the level of understanding raises the level of normality, which in turn opens up the notion that everyone has some form of disability. This is a comfort, not a threat.