Oct 312011

I frequently speak on disability awareness, the intersection between disability and sexuality, and other such awesome topics. One big part of that when speaking to able bodied folks is talking about how to make their education and workshops that THEY provide more accessible overall.  Here are some quick tips to think about when writing/talking/presenting, whether around sexuality or anything else. Remember, it’s ok to mess up — I still do it sometimes. NO one is perfect, no one is an expert. This being said, take a moment to review the things you do and say, the language you use, and how you market your classes, and let’s work on recognizing able bodied privilege and working on reducing ableism in our communities.

Think about your language! Lots and lots of words and phrases in the English language come from an ableist perspective. Some are easy to call out; using retarded is not ok, period. Others have wormed their way in more sneakily — calling something lame is ableist, as is calling something (or someone) dumb. Idiot is also quite ableist, although not as obvious to most people. Another HUGE ableist word (and one I myself am still working on removing from my vocabulary, since it is so ingrained) is the use of the words crazy, insane, etc. Lots of people have issues that present mentally; who are we, lay people, to decide what sanity looks like? Saying someone is wearing a crazy outfit, or is insane because they are working to hard IS ableist, as prevalent as the language is in our culture.

Another way ableist language comes up as lot is in doing activities. Rather than say “everyone please stand” you can say things like “if everyone who can stand will please do so.” Instead of “please walk around the room” you can say “please move around the room.” Blanket statements like “everyone has two hands” might be less of an issue in small groups where you can see if people have two hands, but if you don’t know your audience, don’t make assumptions about what limbs people do or do not have.  Bethany Stevens, JD, is great at modeling access in her presentations introductions, and I’ve totally started doing it. Saying “can everyone who can see, see me ok?” and “can everyone who can hear, hear me ok?” is much more inclusive than “can everyone hear and see me ok?” I also make sure to let everyone know that I am open to requests for accommodations throughout the presentation and/or activities.

When you’re scheduling workshops, think about where they are at. If they are not physically accessible (either for wheelchair users, or anyone with a cane, crutches, or knee/hip/foot/ankle issues), you should probably put that on your flier/adverts. On that same note, if it IS accessible, put that on there — people love to know they are thought about and welcome. If it is somewhere in the middle, like there is a rear ramp somewhere, or you have burly folk willing to assist anyone who needs it, let people know that too. Even if you cannot find a perfectly accessible place (frequent in queer and kinky communities, or when working with non-profits who have to rely on donations of space), the fact that you are acknowledging accessibility is a huge step, and many PWD, myself included, can then make an informed decision about what attending will look like. Also, if you’re willing to provide an ASL interpreter, or describe the pictures/power point slides, make sure people know how to request those accommodations in advance, so that they don’t show up just crossing their fingers you have ASL savvy folks on staff.

People learn in different ways (Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences) and everyone processes at different speeds and in different ways. Regardless of who may or may not be in your audience, make sure to repeat your take home messages and important points more than once, and if possible, in more than one way. This will help EVERYONE “get” it better than if you just rattle off facts from your power point.

Know that some folks with disabilities comes with service dogs, or what I like to call service people. Sometimes, we need help getting in, getting settled, getting around, taking notes, making sure we understood what was said, having advocates, having people to carry our stuff, etc. Being respectful to us also means being respectful to our companions, whether of the furry or human variety. If someone mentions they’ll be attending with a service animal (or human), reserving a seat on the end of a row for the dog is generally appreciated. On the same note, if someone needs to see the ASL interpreter, or has vision issues and needs to be close to something to see it (and brings this up), making sure they get a spot close to the front shows consideration.

Having resources available in your area is awesome. Know who the sex positive doctors are; ones that aren’t going to flinch when someone says “how can I have sex safely, given that I have _____ or this condition?” Think about accessible spaces (accessible can mean lots of things; ADA, near public transit, affordable, etc) where people can get sex ed, and have their questions answered. Know who provides cognitive level appropriate sex education to folks with various developmental disabilities? Where can someone with disabilities (and/or their partner) find a local support group? Are their gynecologists near by who offer accessible exam tables to folks with mobility issues? This is just a start, but if you have answers to these questions, it’s a great place to get going.

These are just some very very very basic tips. I would love to hear other thoughts and suggestions on combating ableism in sex education (or education as a whole), as well as questions that other folks might have about providing inclusive settings. Let the discussion begin!



May 182011

I speak and write a lot on sexuality and disability. From classes on Negotiating BDSM in Disability Context to working on multiple writing project, the topic of sex and disability is a pretty big part of my life. And one part of how I talk about/with/in regards to living with disabilities is the Spoon Theory, originally created and written by Christine Miserandio, a woman with lupus. However, I find that the concept of spoon theory applies to most people with disabilities, and actually, to life in general. She talks about how “healthy” people (in her case, those without lupus) have an endless supply of spoons…but I beg to differ. I think spoon theory works very well in regard to polyamory/non-monogamy, in that you have a set supply of spoons, and have to figure out how many spoons each relationship gets. It also works well in general, when you’re trying to explain to people that they may want to be the best employee, the best parent, the best partner, the best sibling, the best soccer coach, etc, but they only have so many spoons in a day/week to divide between all of these things.

Basically, taking the concept that we all have limited resources, and have to decide how to best use them in our life, can be related to anything. In regards to disability, it is truly a great way to get friends and partners of people with disabilities to understand some of the difficulties that PWD may go through in life.

When I teach at a Kink conference, I often have to choose between attending all the workshops and skipping the play parties, or attending a few workshops, napping and then hitting a play party or two, because I just don’t have the spoons (or physical/emotional resources) to do it all. Often, people don’t get it, and view me as snobby or lazy because I don’t “make the most” of the kink conference, but I know that if I don’t practice this self care, I’ll spend the next day or two doped up on percocet and unable to do anything. Putting it within the spoon context often helps people to “get” what I’m talking about.

Here is the beginning of the spoon theory story:

My best friend and I were in the diner, talking. As usual, it was very late and we were eating French fries with gravy. Like normal girls our age, we spent a lot of time in the diner while in college, and most of the time we spent talking about boys, music or trivial things, that seemed very important at the time. We never got serious about anything in particular and spent most of our time laughing.

As I went to take some of my medicine with a snack as I usually did, she watched me with an awkward kind of stare, instead of continuing the conversation. She then asked me out of the blue what it felt like to have Lupus and be sick. I was shocked not only because she asked the random question, but also because I assumed she knew all there was to know about Lupus. She came to doctors with me, she saw me walk with a cane, and throw up in the bathroom. She had seen me cry in pain, what else was there to know?

I started to ramble on about pills, and aches and pains, but she kept pursuing, and didn’t seem satisfied with my answers. I was a little surprised as being my roommate in college and friend for years; I thought she already knew the medical definition of Lupus. Then she looked at me with a face every sick person knows well, the face of pure curiosity about something no one healthy can truly understand. She asked what it felt like, not physically, but what it felt like to be me, to be sick.

As I tried to gain my composure, I glanced around the table for help or guidance, or at least stall for time to think. I was trying to find the right words. How do I answer a question I never was able to answer for myself? How do I explain every detail of every day being effected, and give the emotions a sick person goes through with clarity. I could have given up, cracked a joke like I usually do, and changed the subject, but I remember thinking if I don’t try to explain this, how could I ever expect her to understand. If I can’t explain this to my best friend, how could I explain my world to anyone else? I had to at least try.

At that moment, the spoon theory was born. I quickly grabbed every spoon on the table; hell I grabbed spoons off of the other tables. I looked at her in the eyes and said “Here you go, you have Lupus”. She looked at me slightly confused, as anyone would when they are being handed a bouquet of spoons. The cold metal spoons clanked in my hands, as I grouped them together and shoved them into her hands.

Click here to read the rest of spoon theory.