How the ADA Gave Birth to a Black Sexpert
I grew up in a world after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act (504). In 1964, 1965, and 1968 the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act respectively were enacted, bringing an end to the Jim Crow system of legal racial segregation. As a black American woman with multiple disabilities, these laws had a profound impact in my life.
My parents came of age after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs Board of Education, which meant they attended integrated high schools, universities, and in my father’s case, law school. By the time I was born, IDEA and the 504 were established which meant the mainstreaming of public school students with disabilities, having accessible classrooms and restroom stalls, special education provisions, etc., were the practical and inclusive norm for me. When I was a teen in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed. It was then, in my college years, where I realized how important the ADA changed the civil rights of people with disabilities. The ADA passed into law made it possible for me to recognize the link between having access in buildings and transportation and the ability to participate in communities. This law provided a blueprint to the world in protecting civil rights for people with disabilities and guidance on how to uphold, enforce, and strengthen them.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness looks like many things, but for me, the right to sexual autonomy and expression were of particular interest. When I was an undergrad at the University of Memphis, I saw a job posting flyer from Disability Services, seeking personal care assistants (PCA) for fellow students. I did not have a spinal cord injury at this point (like I do, now), so I was physically able-bodied. I desperately needed a job, had no car or transportation, and could do this work living in a dorm. For a broke college student, getting an above-minimum hourly wage, a solo dorm room in a suite with my employer, and it worked with my schedule? PERFECT!!!!! Little did I know that this position would be a crash-course in lived experience of disability, the independent living movement, and learning about disability and sexuality. Out of this experience, a future sexual and reproductive health educator, advocate, and activist was born.
Angie was a graduate student with muscular dystrophy. She was intelligent, patient, warm, with quick wit and a sardonic sense of humor. Working for her taught me about the physical and social access issues people with disabilities face. I subsequently used my experience with Angie to obtain more PCA jobs, including being employed by Arkansas Easter Seals and working exclusively with people with cerebral palsy. The lessons and knowledge that had the greatest impact concerned access to intimacy, love, and bodies.
I learned that yes, bodies menstruate, regardless of ability. Being disabled doesn’t preclude you from dealing with using menstrual products, cramps, etc. Adaptive ways to use a pad or tampon aren’t explained or talked about. Doctors visits to get sexual and reproductive health, such as getting a pelvic exam, were difficult to find. The examination tables were not wheelchair accessible, but neither were the doctors attitudes. One 21-year old I worked with told me of being pressured by her doctors and parents to have a hysterectomy. She was told having a period was inconvenient for others assisting in her care, and had been convinced that it would be irresponsible to think about being in a wheelchair and having a child. This stuck with me, because it drove home for me that people do not recognize the autonomy of people with disabilities in making decisions about their bodies –and that it was problematic.
Dating, love, and relationships and the intersection of these areas with disability, gender, and race were the most significant lessons I received. As a PCA, I got on the ground training and knowledge about expressing your sexuality. Sexuality is very much a part of human nature, and disability is a natural part of the human condition. The key knowledge I got out of working with horny college students is that yes, people with disabilities find ways to have sex. I got invaluable insight on how to ask your PCA to ready you for a date. I learned about adaptive positioning of someone’s body in order to engage in intimacy. Witnessing the support and views around who got to date and have sex, particularly around gender and race, was an eye-opener.
During this time, the students I worked with were white women, but my last position was working for a black man with cerebral palsy, who used a powerchair. I was officially academic support (typing papers, taking notes, etc.) Through our work and friendship, when his regular fellow student PCA needed back-up, I stepped in. As we were both African-American, we felt safe together, so we were able to be a lot more forthright and honest in sharing our thoughts and feelings. Learning how men are socialized to equate their sexuality with their genitals, and to strictly define sexual activity as inserting an erect penis into an orifice, was a powerful lesson. As a black man who was unable to masturbate or penetrate unassisted, he taught me how our culture teaches us that if you can’t do that, you are told that you aren’t a real man. He had white friends with similar disabilities, so we were able to really talk about the differences he noticed in how he was treated, as well as who was seen as someone he could date.
In 2004, I acquired a spinal cord injury (SCI) while I was pregnant. By this time, I knew legally what the ADA meant and from my previous experience as a PCA, I learned the importance of what protections the act was meant to enforce and uphold. The awesome hospital where I did my rehabilitation for the SCI was incredible in explaining the ADA, the Federal Aviation Administration disability policy, and the normal of how my body was going to physically function. However, the same could not be said of the information around having a sex life, or reproductive health support and advice. During the four months I was there I recall going into exactly one class, that only lasted an hour, on sexuality and relationships. We were shown a 45-minute film that made it seem like our sexuality was a thing of the past, and we had to be content with cuddling. It was at that moment, a fire erupted in my soul, screaming, THIS IS BULLSHIT!!!! I knew better! People with all kinds of disabilities have sex! I was in my second trimester of pregnancy, and dealing with all kinds of new information, but I knew this was wrong, and that somehow, one day…I had to do something to help correct this.
Dealing with obstetric and gynecological issues as a disabled woman was also challenging. Learning how the medical industrial complex is not educated in the disability sexual and reproductive health needs of people with disabilities was disheartening, and at that time, there were not a lot of written resources available. Thankfully, the hospital had an excellent peer support program, so I was able to talk with other people with spinal cord injuries who were parents, and get invaluable information and advice.
Fast forward a decade later, and I finally decided that I was going to find a way to talk about sexuality and disability. For me, it started as a grassroots effort. My first talk about sex was during an ADA and Disability series held at Charis Books and More, a bookstore in Atlanta, GA. I was on a panel with people with different disabilities and we openly discussed our sex life. Participating on that panel encouraged me to seek more opportunities to talk. Next, I volunteered to speak with first-year medical students about taking the sexual history of people with disabilities.
Disability community was my home as I became a sexuality educator.
Through an ADAPT action (a disability-led, non-violent civil rights group), I learned that it takes advocacy to uphold and strengthen ADA legislation. At an ADAPT action, I met Bethany Stevens, a disability and sexual health educator and scholar, and this incredible person became my mentor.
From her, I learned about disability justice and incorporating those concepts into my work. I attended conferences and gave presentations about sexuality. My first professional conference as a presenter was at the 2013 American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) annual conference. My presentation was “Working with the Kinks within your Kink: Disability and Bondage, Domination, Service/Submission, and Masochism.” I was surprised and nervous to learn that this topic had never been discussed previously, especially as I did not have a graduate education. This is where I learned that when it comes to sexuality, hearing from someone with lived experience is invaluable and those of us living with disabilities are the experts on our bodies and the issues. Hearing from someone who had been working as a rehabilitation services director tell me that people with disabilities should be required to have notes from their doctors before engaging in kinky sex clearly drove that point home. It taught me an invaluable lesson in pointing out that people with disabilities have autonomy over our bodies and we get to determine how we have sex. I asked her if she needed a note from her doctor to have sex. She got offended, and sat down. #SorryNotSorry
I moved cross-country a few years ago to get certified in sexuality education. Through the San Francisco Sexuality Information Training, and the City College of San Francisco, I was able to get the credentials and sexual health education expertise that I felt was professionally missing. I also came to California in order to meet someone and be in a relationship and now I am married with an additional partner(some disabled people are polyamourous, and I am proudly one of them). My career has managed to lead to speaking nationally and internationally to some very interesting places. I’ve spoken at an AVN, a porn industry convention, presenting a session on disability access and marketing in adult novelty marketing– a first for the convention. Thanks to the legal protections established in the ADA, I have access and support in accessing communities around the country. Having this legislation has enabled me to teach others that people with disabilities are able to have sex, love, and relationships, and should have autonomy and freedom to make those choices.
Robin Wilson-Beattie is a speaker, writer, and advocate for disability and sexuality as well as one of the first people to talk about disability, sexuality, and marketing to adult product retailers and manufacturers. She combines years of personal experience with medically sound research to provide a unique perspective on how life and identity impacts one’s sexual expression. Her speaking engagements include multiple keynotes and panels, including three consecutive years speaking at the Adult Video News convention in Las Vegas.
Her work has not only helped tens of thousands of disabled people, but also inspired many others to become advocates for sexuality and disability education, an incredibly underserved area.
Robin is a member of the Association of American Sexual Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), the Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN), and a graduate and member of the San Francisco Sexuality Information Training (SFSI). Currently, she is working on a book that shares the dating and relationship experiences of people with disabilities. Robin is a deep-fried Southern woman, mid-century buff, and proud Mama of one amazing person.
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