“I’ve never really seen people with disabilities getting frisky in public,” said disability and LGBTI/Queer rights activist Jax Jacki Brown.
But Ms Brown wants that to change, and believes the media have a responsibility to help empower people with disabilities to be themselves in public.
News outlets and films continually portrayed people with disabilities as either “tragic” or an “inspiration”, she continued, as though living with a disability was something to “overcome”.
Instead, the media needed to share stories that represented people with disabilities as multidimensional human beings.
“What these stereotypes do, is they do not allow people with disabilities to be fully complex human beings and have a plethora of experiences and emotions that everyone else has,” Ms Brown said.
Linda Stoke, who works in a Deakin University-run program called Sexual Lives and Respectful Relationships, and who often shares her experiences of living with an intellectual disability, pointed to the dangers of a culture that was not open about sex and relationships.
She said some of her peers were not free to be sexual in their own homes, so were forced to search for public places in which to be intimate.
The women were speaking recently at Melbourne University during a panel discussion titled Sex, Sexuality and the Rights of People with Disability, attended by around 100 people.
Ms Brown told the gathering that Australia needed to start breaking down the stigma surrounding disability. She said that years of discrimination had meant people living with disabilities were often perceived as either not sexual or, in the case of people with intellectual disabilities, hyper-sexual.
Although Australia passed the Disability Discrimination Act in 1992, offering protection against unfair treatment to people living with disabilities, Ms Brown said Australia still needed “to change the way we think about disability, desirability, bodies and power.”
The activist and writer said that this was equally relevant for people with disabilities who were also members of the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) community.
Ms Brown said that she faced prejudice even within the marginalised groups to which she belonged. She shared stories of trying to pick up women in gay clubs, lamenting that despite showing “heavy gay flags” her disability was seen by other lesbians as a barrier.
The panelists, who included disability rights advocate Dr George Taleporos and Deakin University lecturer in disability and inclusion Dr Patsy Frawley, also fielded questions, including one from a father of three stepdaughters all with disabilities. He said he worried that when his children were old enough to have relationships, non-disabled men would take advantage of them.
Dr Taleporos responded: “The worst thing you can do is think people with disabilities are powerless. We can be powerful when we know our rights. There is a real benefit in understanding sex and knowing what it feels like in a positive, loving relationship.”
Dr Frawley agreed, saying that through the Sexual Lives and Respectful Relationships program she had seen people’s lives change for the better, once they were educated about their rights. She said people living with disabilities
were often not aware that they had rights and what those rights actually meant, let alone how to enforce them.
The Deakin program, in part, trained people with intellectual disabilities to be peer educators, enabling them to empower others with disabilities by sharing their experiences.
Ms Brown said that sex education together with “innovative and interesting media content that challenges and dispels stereotypes of disability and which shows us as equal, interesting and desirable” were keys to dismantling cultural barriers.
The activist said that as societal attitudes changed, people living with disabilities would be more empowered to make healthy sex, sexuality and relationship choices. She said that as a teen she had struggled to leave relationships for the fear “of not finding someone else and actively being told by important people in my life, ‘You should stay with the person because at least you have someone’.”
Quoting one of her idols, the late disability activist and journalist Stella Young, Ms Brown said: “I am not wrong for the world I live in; the world I live in is not yet right for people with disability, and we need to change it.”
The forum, chaired and organised by Dr Anna Arstein-Kerslake, was funded by the Hallmark Disability Research Initiative at the University of Melbourne.