Consent in disability
Brian’s journey to accept himself and his new body led him to meet people who were in the same struggle as he was – and sometimes, in a completely different way.
I met Joyce in one of my physiotherapy sessions. At the time, she had been in a wheelchair for seven years while I was just in my second year. The period spent on a wheelchair among disabled people is practically intertwined to your identity. Joyce and I were basically the same age, but she was more mature looking, confident, and talkative. She had been going for physiotherapy in that facility for most of her seven years so she knew her way around, and knew almost all the staff. I on the other hand, was the awkward newbie.
Inevitably, our paths crossed. We started talking, and later exchanged numbers. At that period in my life, I was apprehensive about having other disabled people as friends. I hadn’t fully accepted myself so how could I accept them? For the sake of having someone I could relate to, I started talking to her. Within no time, we were chatting all day.
Joyce was in an on and off relationship with her college sweetheart. She was fully independent, so she lived by herself in a rented flat not too far from her parents’ house. She opened up to me about hating her life. She would often fantasize about disappearing to a foreign land where no one knew who she was. I thought that her desire to have a new life was due to her physical disability – but her issues reached far deeper than that.
Apparently, Joyce had had a string of toxic relationships. Most of the men she ended up with, including her college sweetheart, saw her as an object of sexual adventure and kink. Her estranged college boyfriend would surface and resurface depending on his mood or level of intoxication. He had a key to her house and would sheepishly creep back into her life after a few beers. When he came, he came for one thing.
‘I am doing you a favour. I know no one else wants you like I do,’ he would say as he fondled her and took off her underwear – without her consent. She hated him for making her feel like a piece of meat but oddly, she also believed what he was saying.
Related: He Pinched My Butt Without Consent!
Joyce had been unlucky in love. She faced prejudice and was always made to feel inferior by the men she chose to love. She had started to believe that drunk booty calls she hadn’t consented to was the best she was ever going to get. So she lay still and looked away as the drunk man selfishly pleasured himself. Joyce had a high-level injury. She had no sensation in her vagina, but it still hurt, a different kind of pain.
Unable to say no or break free from the hold, Joyce kept living that life until she had a serious Urinal Tract Infection (UTI). As her urologist would later reveal, the man had been getting too adventurous down there and things were going to places that they shouldn’t have been going to in the first place.
This was a wake-up call. Her family got wind of what had been going on and they took her back home, where she went through therapy for four months. For so long she had been led to believe that she was too damaged to have a voice or a choice. So she kept silent, but her silence never once represented consent.
Many disabled people, both male and female, often find themselves in the murky waters of feeling like they have to be fickle and only go where the wind blows. Physical disabilities make it hard to defend oneself from unwanted sexual advances. Unable to fight, and too stigmatized to speak out, most disabled people opt to keep their mouths sealed and suffer in silence.
Intellectual and developmental disabilities pose a much more serious problem because people with such disabilities won’t even realize what is happening to them. And if they do, they might not have the mental capacity to understand if it is right or wrong. For severe intellectual disabilities, communication is a struggle and hence, whatever happens to them might never see the light of day. Should it ever, the perpetrator will easily deny it, and society will gladly take their side over the drooling and awkward looking disabled person.
Unfortunately, not all disabled people have the fortitude to voice their feelings. The responsibility therefore falls to those that surround them. Parents, caregivers, friends, should keep them close and beware of who they allow into their lives. Establish a bond so close with them, that they will feel free to address any issues they might be experiencing.
Consent is important for everyone, including people with disabilities. Do you and your partners understand consent?