Last week I attended the Nordic Network on Disability Research’s (NNDR) conference Inclusion and Exclusion in the Welfare Society. Together with Kirsty Liddiard, University of Sheffield, we had planned a symposium titled International conversations about sexual dis/ableism in times of austerity, to which we had invited speakers from Spain, Iceland and Canada. Unfortunately, Kirsty couldn’t make the conference in the end, and neither could Alan Santinele Martino, McMaster University, Canada, but the rest of us did the symposium. Apart from me it was Kristin Björnsdóttir, University of Iceland and Andrea García-Santesmases, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (the three of us pictured together in the photo below).
The following excerpt from our common abstract explains the context to the symposium:
A number of research studies have demonstrated disabled people’s struggles to be acknowledged as sexual beings in a culture where dominant ideals of sexuality often exclude non-normative bodies and minds. According to reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), the sexual and reproductive health and rights of disabled people are commonly disregarded, and sexual and reproductive health services are largely inaccessible. Across 5 presentations/papers, then, contributors will share their expertise and research, centring disabled people’s own voices, organisations and allies. Our aim is to make space for a collective discussion about the intimate and sexual politics of disabled people’s lives in globally austere and deeply precarious times. In doing so, we ‘unpack’ many of the contemporary debates around disability, sexuality, and intimacy in the twenty-first century. Contributors will draw upon their own research and scholarship to discuss care, welfare reform, sexual access and support, inclusion and exclusion, and the ableist problematics of heteronormative sex/uality.
Kristin started off by presenting the paper Desexualization or normalization? People with intellectual disabilities who need intensive support, about a qualitative research project on the sexual opportunities and experiences of people with intellectual disabilities in Iceland who require intensive support in their daily lives. Since many of the research participants (the disabled service users) did not have verbal communication, the research involved observations and close encounters trying to get to know them and understand how they communicated around sexuality. But it was also a critical examination of support staff practices and attitudes towards the service users’ sexual expression. Kristin revealed gender differences in approaches to masturbation (women’s masturbation were not framed sexually in the same way as men’s), how different bodily fluids were understood differently (the sexually-related ones more negatively), issues around privacy and (non)planning of sexual/private time, and how service users didn’t get to make everyday decisions, such as choosing clothes, resulting in restrictive sexual/gender scripts. The ‘eternal children’ stereotype was very common.
Second, Andrea presented “From sanitary towels to masturbation”, the sexualisation of disability activism in Spain, about how one part of the Independent Living movement has developed ‘queer-crip’ alliances. She showed a trailer for the documentary Yes, we fuck! which explores disabled people’s experiences and thoughts around sexual identity and needs of sexual support. The alliance has different projects such as postporn, art, performance and representation. The community has also engaged people who have taken up work as assistants as well as sexual assistants. Sexual assistance services are becoming increasingly common but also pose contention as not everyone thinks that that is the best way to handle issues around sexuality and disability. The postporn workshops were a way for crips to create self-representation as sexual and desirable subjects and challenge discourses around capacity and desirability. Andrea has written a great article on this project, which she was involved with herself as an academic-activist.
My own presentation was titled What about sexual rights? Disability movements’ priorities in times of austerity and gave examples from my case studies of the disability movements’ work around sexuality in the UK, the Netherlands and Australia. The different policy contexts pose different challenges in terms of the role of disabled people’s organisations in fighting for sexual rights, whether sexual support services are available or not, and if they are how they are organised. I have written about this in my recent paper Mapping the terrain of disability and sexuality: from policy to practice.
There were also other sessions that included papers on sexuality. Sonali Shah, University of Birmingham, presented a project about disabled women’s’ discussions on experiences of access to sexual and reproductive health services, and of ageing with physical impairments in relation to gender and identity. Anne-Cécile Mouget from France showed the connection between social policy and the impact on disabled men’s romantic and sexual lives.
I also attended sessions on disability hate speech and crime organised by Mark Sherry who has edited a coming book on the topic, and a session titled Universal design and emerging new digital technologies where Kelly Fritsch, who has previously done work around sexuality (for example this), presented a very exciting piece on crip technoscience! I was sad to miss a symposium on Cripping time, which I heard was very good – there’s simply too much going on at such large conferences… and the best part of them is actually to get to meet people, making new connections as well as catching up with old friends!
Already looking forward to the next major disability studies conference in Lancaster next September, and in the following year NNDR will be held on Iceland.
Thanks for reading!