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Love, sex, disability and stereotypes

By Peter Gibilisco - posted Wednesday, 27 August 2014


My title for this essay links these four terms: love, sex, disability, stereotypes. Why is it so strange to include the word "disability" in this listing? There is the ridiculous equation of love with sex, which causes many problems, and one of these is a general coyness about discussing the sexual desires and needs of people with disabilities. But such coyness simply feeds the antiquated subjective stereotypes that presume that people with disabilities are living in another world, a sexless world. Things may be changing for the better, but the ridiculous stereotypes are becoming more degrading and hurtful. Disability is now firmly on the social science agenda and is not some mechanical glitch that can be standardized or conveniently misconstrued to fit such illegitimate stereotypes. Disability should be looked at with great care, with each case giving due respect to the person involved, and they should not have to be unfairly subjected to policies that confirm such uncritical stereotypes.

As Aimee Mullin points out with great perception in her article on sex and disability:

They say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and, whatever that person who originally minted this phrase meant, it has a truth different from that most people accept. Most people think it means that everyone has their own standard of beauty, which is of course somewhat true. However, there is another interesting element to this which I think becomes more clear if I say, "Beauty is in the mind of the beholder." Beauty is not, at least as we experience it, a quality inherent in an object or person. Rather, it is an interpretation of that object or person. People have said this before of all sorts of things, such as colour, but this is really a different matter than colour. A thing, of course, is not red itself. That is a psychological interpretation of the light waves we receive. But all things that we experience as red do reflect that particular wavelength. They are in a sense red after all.

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OK, generally what is believed to be beautiful and sexy can be explained in subjective terms according to culture, personality and appearance. On the other hand, there are levels that can be objectively attained in giving and receiving love, in quality of relationships, in degrees of "sexiness" and in general beauty. And such objective attainment within what we might describe as relationships formed by people of "inter-ability" characteristics is happening today and, I suspect, is bound to increase in the future.

I had conducted some research on inter-ability relationships between those depicted as being "extremely disabled". The results were interesting, and heart warming, to say the least. One of my most recent research endeavours was to tour the web-site of both Megan (able-bodied) and Barton (severe cerebral palsy), focusing on their marriage and love life. They also shared a passion to communicate with the written word. Their ability to love and laugh together was founded on the mutual passion for writing. Barton and Megan Cutter went on to publish a book titled Ink in the Wheel: Stories to make love roll. As Alice Osborne points out in a book review:

Gradually, and with support from a life coach and others, the Cutters have moved forward together. If anything, they seem closer and as they insist, "the story is left undone." Ink in the Wheels ends with this, "The story is not merely our own…We hope our story has inspired you and gives you courage to embrace the truth within your own story, and by doing so, make each moment precious.

The key to me seems to lie in a person's confidence about the actual realities that matter in life. And in such a love relationship as Barton and Megan, they must look to an equitable compromise in times of disagreement. But is this not simply the major contributing factor within many forms of true love? Love is a powerful force even if greedy humans persist with self-serving action on the basis of their own negative stereotypes to hide their own inadequacies and to convince themselves that they feel better for doing so. For example, in a question posed on Yahoo concerning, 'if you would marry somebody with cerebral palsy'?

There was this pathetic stereotypical response from someone who never had the mental capacity to answer with meaningful empathy. Instead, this respondent gave this cruel and satirical response; 'One plus is that they drool a lot, so they're mouth is rather juicy. Are you picking up what I'm laying down? Huh?'

Such unjust and demeaning stereotypes which ignore the life-time frustrations of the person concerned continue to play a major role in the way people with various disabilities are depicted in our cruel and sensation-oriented society.

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I was diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia at fourteen and in these thirty eight years, with this severely progressive disability, I have been no stranger to inter-ability relationships. But finding the right person to be able to handle me and my disability has been difficult. That has been hard enough; how I am also to deal with the demeaning and deplorable stereotypes held by many in our society? Such attitudes, I believe, continue to make it difficult for me to create, develop and sustain the kind of mutually-caring relationships I would want to develop.

I do not have a complete philosophical account of why I enjoy the chance or fulfilment of making love. Well I guess it's because I am a human. Maybe, for starters, this is one form of human pleasure I am still capable of performing. I mean that in a wholistic sense. Whilst, my abilities of performance may be dwindling and on a level of consciousness that is distressing, my ability to love has increased. And for the life of me I don't see why I also have to combat the utterly ridiculous stereotypes of some. Despite the dumb thinking and incoherent logical responses of others in relation to this matter, I certainly don't have a cognitive disability. This means that I would respect myself for my knowledge. But like many stereotypes this is to some degree an inescapable societal reality. But not a fact, only the fulfilment of social misguidance.

Such social misguidance is still alive and feeds off the back of uneducated degrading humour that disrespects different cultures, and thus stereotypes continue to dig deep roots. It is so socially and culturally degrading to have such negative uneducated quotes [as previously noted above], carry such weight in the depiction of social norms.

Disability must be treated individually. For a start, disability is much more than a political scientific tool, something that is full of rhetoric with no meaningful coherent actions. An approach which sees it only as a concept to be manipulated must add weight to the stereotypes.

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Peter Gibilisco would like to acknowledge the assistance of Amanda Gunawardena and Bruce Wearne in writing this article. The article is adapted from Peter's new book The Politics of Disability.



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About the Author

Peter Gibilisco was diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition called Friedreich's Ataxia, at age 14. The disability has made his life painful and challenging. He rocks the boat substantially in the formation of needed attributes to succeed in life. For example, he successfully completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, this was achieved late into the disability's progression. However, he still performs research with the university, as an honorary fellow. Please read about his new book The Politics of Disability.

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