Undressing Disability: Emily Yates at TEDxYouth@StPeterPort (Transcript)

Emily Yates – TRANSCRIPT

Good evening, everyone. Thank you very much for having me.

I want you to think of the word “disability”. What springs to mind? Is it limitation? Is it challenge? I can almost guarantee that the word “can’t” will be in the sentence that you’ve conjured up. What I hope to do today is change perceptions. I’d like the words “can” and “opportunity” to be there when you think of disability. But I also want to talk about what some consider a very uncomfortable, but also empowering, subject.

The subject of disability, sex and relationships. But I’d like my friends at Enhance the UK to introduce it for you.

(Video clip) [Sophie’s story] Until I got MS at 27 years old, I had a very active life. At school I had regular boyfriends, and at sixteen, I happily lost my virginity. I then did A levels at college and met a chap in a club and travelled around Australia with him.

It was a very physical time. We climbed Ayers Rock and completed a diving course. We split when we got home to England, as I wanted to be single when I started university. I had a few short-term relationships and then met a doctor whilst I was working as a physio. I moved in with him.

The relationship broke down when I was diagnosed with MS. My life changed drastically. This is Sophie’s life. These are Sophie’s words, but she’s borrowing my voice.

[Through an eye gaze board, Sophie asked her sister Paula to voice her thoughts]

I’ve always had a good sex drive. When I was working, it was easy to meet people with similar interests. I’ve found it increasingly frustrating. I want friends, relationships and sex. But I can’t wear and walk in clothes that are sexy.

I can’t get into the positions I want to. I worry about getting my clothes off, I’m concerned about problems with my bladder. I want others to know that just because I’m limited physically. I still am a sexual being. I wanted to voice my frustration.

[Sophie didn’t give up on her sex life, but felt that those around her had]

Sophie’s saying: “Well, I’ve had one night stands before, so why can’t I have it now?” And she’s got a damn good point. Sophie wanted to explore and meet people. The carers didn’t want to get involved, they didn’t want to text. I didn’t know whom to talk to about it. Both Sophie and I are very, very open, but it’s a topic that people just don’t want to talk about.

[Discussing sex and disability is often seen as a taboo]

When someone becomes disabled, whether it be through an injury or they’ve become ill, addressing someone’s sexual needs very rarely happens, if ever.

[Enhance the UK is working to change this]

Enhance the UK is a user-led disability charity, and we aim to take away the fear factor around disability and support disabled people in having an active social and sex life. Enhance the UK were great, they’re very open and just made the whole subject normal, which it is.

There are lots of people out there that do need support, and, actually, not only disabled people themselves, family members of those disabled people, loved ones of those disabled people, they need some support too sometimes. And we’re that platform.

Mainstream society thinks that people with disabilities don’t, won’t and can’t have sex, and I think we’re here to prove that’s just not true, that one thing that they might have is just a few more questions about how they go about doing that, and also doing things such as online dating, disclosing their disability, having the confidence to get out there and grab a relationship.

We created The Love Lounge with Mik and Emily, who were two disabled people themselves, and we call them the non-expert sexperts. But they are two people who are open and they want to talk, and if they don’t know the answer, or they don’t think they can give advice, they will research, and they will look for advice that we can then feed back to the people who are writing in to us.

Sex is something that we all want, we all should enjoy, and we all have a right to enjoy. And The Love Lounge, that’s our ethos. Everyone should be able to have sex, and we advise people how they can do that.

[Enhance the UK is campaigning for wider and better sexual education in the UK]

Brook is really supportive of the Undressing Disability campaign and everything it stands for. Disabled women are twice as likely as able-bodied women to experience intimate, domestic and sexual violence. So it’s really, really important that young disabled people have access to good quality sex and relationships education that meets their needs.

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[With better education and support, sex doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable subject]

There is advice out there, and it doesn’t matter how severe your disability is, there is a way that you can be sexual. It may not be penetrative sex, but it is a way to be sensual and sexual, and that exists for absolutely everybody.

Enhance the UK has enabled myself and Sophie to feel comfortable discussing sexuality and disability, and to move forwards, which has meant that she is now happily in a relationship. Simply put, the more help we get from donations and from funding, the more support we can give to people like Sophie.

Just a little update for you: Sophie is now engaged. Yes, it’s very good news.

All right, so let’s go back to that word “disability”, and the fact that very few of us see it as desirable and attractive and sexy.

Why is that, and how can we change that? I’d like to propose three ways of doing so. The first one being to ask questions, the second one to increase our inclusivity, and the third one to up the ante in how caring we are.

Let’s look at the first one: asking questions. I get asked plenty of questions about my disabilities, and not all of them are ones that I want to hear. Quite a few men come up to me in a bar, think they’re being cool, think they’re chatting me up.

Before they even say hi to me, they ask me whether or not I can have sex. My answer: “Yes I can, my friend, but I won’t be having it with you.”

So, how can we ask the right questions? How do we do it? One way of doing that is via The Love Lounge. You’ve heard a little bit about it there. The Love Lounge is run by myself and Mik Scarlet, who is quite a well-known TV personality.

You may have heard of him. What we do is we run an open forum where people with disabilities, their friends, their family, their loved ones, anybody that knows them and has a question, can write in with anything regarding disability, sex, relationships, dating. You name it, we’ve heard it, and we’ve answered the question. We’re the only forum out there that allows this to happen. It is really, really important that these conversations are starting, and they’re happening, and more people are talking about disability, sex and relationships.

Especially with the online world today, I have so many young girls writing to me, saying they’ve just set up a Tinder profile, and they are not sure whether to put their wheelchair within their profile picture, or to put something about their disability in their bio. The answer is: it is totally up to them.

But it is really, really vital they get that information that they need. And they have a forum, an opportunity, a platform to express their feelings. I really do urge you, if you have a disability yourself, or know somebody that does, or you’ve got a burning question that you really want answered, to write into us at The Love Lounge, via Enhance the UK.

The second point that I’ve got to make is all about increasing inclusivity. When we think about access and inclusion, this is a really tough one because we often think about wheelchair ramps for hotels, great; British sign language interpreters for people that are deaf, brilliant; and guide dogs for the blind. All these things are absolutely amazing and vital for an inclusive society. But what we often don’t consider is the social sphere that we’ve got going on. Within that social sphere exists sex education within schools.

What I want to propose is that we have inclusive sex education. Because, as you heard in the video, disabled women are twice as likely as their able-bodied peers to suffer from sexual abuse. Twice as likely.

Now, we all know and probably accept that disability does equal a degree of vulnerability. But what doesn’t aid that vulnerability is the fact that sex education in schools currently isn’t very relatable for anybody with a disability.

A girl in a wheelchair would sit in a lesson, and she’d be watching these sex ed videos, and their bodies would function totally differently to hers. They don’t look like her body looks. So she comes out of the lesson with, actually, very little knowledge of how her body would work within sex. Very, very similar situation for somebody who is hard of hearing or somebody who has a learning difficulty.

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The content within these sex education lessons is really tough to understand if your reading age isn’t particularly high, for example. You come out of the lesson none the wiser about intimacy and relationships.

Where are you supposed to get that information from? We can now see that’s where that vulnerability increases, and that’s where the chance of sexual abuse increases as well. It’s really, really important that we think about that. Enhance the UK have set up a petition on change.org.

So please, if you fancy signing it, please do so, just search for us.

The third point: upping the ante in how caring we are. Many young disabled people require a little bit of care and support, within their home lives, within their school lives, whatever they’ve got going on. One thing that often isn’t in any of their care plans is anything to do with sex and relationships. Particularly for young disabled boys going through puberty, they are often labelled as naughty, aggressive and angry.

When, actually, they are probably really flipping sexually frustrated, with nobody to talk to about it, nowhere to turn, and no idea of what’s going on within their bodies. This is something that, again, we must change.

The good thing is that we are all sat here today, and we’re having a conversation about it. And these conversations are happening, they are increasingly becoming out there for people. So, there is something that is going on that’s brilliant.

But there is also another side of my talk that I need to talk to you about. And that’s a rather uncomfortable subject of devoteeism. Devoteeism is probably something that not many of you have heard about, because it really is an underground world. It is something that I have only just discovered after presenting a BBC 3 documentary on disability and sex. Devotees are people who find people with disabilities sexually attractive because of their disability.

Whether you be a wheelchair user, an amputee, or managing incontinence on a regular basis. That issue is really, really attractive to a devotee. It might be hard to believe, but if I were sat in a bar with hundreds of models, a devotee might just pick me.

Now, there’s something about devoteeism which can be really empowering. You know, disabled people feel 100% accepted for who they are, for every little piece of them, and especially for the pieces of them that mainstream society has often told them are not very desirable.

So, devotees can be a great thing. But there can also be a lot of vulnerability and power issues surrounding devoteeism. Devotees are known to stalk people with disabilities, are known to set up fake social media profiles, are known to film disabled people on their mobile phones as they are going and doing their weekly shop. This is something that people with disabilities and without disabilities need to be made aware of.

Devotees can also create online catalogues of what they call Disability Porn. Don’t mistake this for the porn that we all know. Disability porn rarely has any sexual acts in it whatsoever. It really does just involve people with disabilities doing the most boring, everyday tasks that you can imagine. Transferring from their bed to their wheelchair, having a wash in the morning, going around Tesco, or getting in and out of their car. To me and you, not really worth seeing.

But the whole point is that these tasks exhibit the disabled body and show a struggle which devotees find sexually arousing. I’m not here to judge, I’m not here to advocate for or against a relationship with a devotee.

What I am here to advocate, and what Enhance the UK is here to advocate, is for everybody to know their sexual rights, for everybody to have an opportunity to have a filling, satisfactory, consensual, exciting relationship, whether they have a disability or not.

We are also fighting for an informed understanding within education, an inclusive education at that I hope I’ve given you some insight into the world of disability and sex.

Thank you so much.

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