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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sex: The Final Frontier

Sex is not a easy topic. When you factor disability into a discussion about sex it often leads to psychic overload. This psychic overload is particularly evident when one discusses sex and a person with a cognitive disability. This should not be a shock but people with disabilities enjoy sex. I enjoy sex. Heck, everyone I know enjoys sex. But paralyzed men and women and especially people with a cognitive disability such as Down's Syndrome are not supposed to even think about sex. We are simply thought not to be sexual beings. This is wrong, very wrong.

Sex and disability is in the news in England. Newspapers are abuzz about a soon to be broadcast television program: Cassidy's Real Britain on BBC3. The show chronicles the family life of Lucy Baxter, the adopted mother of three boys, all of whom have Down's Syndrome. One of her son's, Otto, 21 years old and an aspiring actor, wants to have a girl friend. Like every other young man and woman his age he wants to have sex too. He has been looking for a girl friend for three years. Lucy Baxter has tried to help her son Otto find a woman. What makes Baxter and her son Otto unusual is their openness and blunt statements. Otto has stated he is "on a mission to find a girlfriend. My reason is I want to have sex. I'm looking for girlfriends everywhere". Lucy Baxter is not shy about helping her son and has stated she would be willing to pay a prostitute to have sex with Otto. Is this shocking? Based on the comments posted by readers of the Daily Mail, BBC News, Telegraph and other news outlets the answer is a resounding yes. Lost in the furor are some astute observations by Lucy Baxter. Among the more thought provoking comments she has made are:

"Society has a learning disability when it comes to Down's Syndrome".

"Why shouldn't he enjoy the same experiences as other men?"

"I would have no problem paying for Otto to got to Amsterdam to visit a brothel if thats what he wanted".

"I have brought up Otto to relate to everybody so he has always been to mainstream schools and mixed with everybody".

"I believe that he has every right to have the same opportunities as everybody else".

"I can't see that one can be a rounded individual in our society if you don't participate in everything that we participate in".

"Unfortunately Otto is caught between two different worlds, two different cultures".

To me, Lucy Baxter sounds like a level headed woman that loves her son Otto and has a good grasp on the social implications of disability. Her statements are shocking for those unfamiliar with disability in large part because for generations people with a disability were institutionalized, sent to segregated schools, and locked away in their own families. Disability and shame went hand in hand. So called "normal" expectations and experiences such as sex were thought to be impossible for all people with a disability. Progress has been made because people with Down's Syndrome are no longer institutionalized and locked away at the urging of doctors and social workers. Social integration is far more common for people with cognitive and physical disabilities. Many parents must fight long and hard to integrate their children with disabilities into public schools in an effort to help them become as independent as humanly possible. However, needless obstacles are still the norm and Lucy Baxter's experience raising her three sons demonstrates this. The good news is that the laws are now on the side of people with a disability. For the first time in history people with a disability have civil rights. Thus a strong willed woman like Lucy Baxter can advocate and enhance not only the quality of her son's life but the life of other people with a disability. In short, schools can no longer legally isolate children with disabilities.

I consider the statements made by Lucy Baxter important in that they point to a profound flaw in terms of disability rights. What happens to children with a disability when they graduate from secondary and post secondary schools? What happens to a person like Otto Baxter when he expects to lead a routine life? While schools begrudgingly provide people with a disability an education the real problem arises when people with a disability try to enter the work force. The rate of unemployment among disabled people is appalling. In the United States the unemployment rate is about 70%. Without a job and the ability to live independently people with a disability have severely limited options. Given this, Lucy Baxter's comments about two different cultures is particularly insightful. For those without a disability, a job, love life, sex, and family are perfectly reasonable expectations. For people with a disability the same expectations are considered to be beyond their grasp. The reasons for this are obvious to me: bigotry. Society pays lip service to the inclusion of people with a disability. Sure we will build ramps and elevators for people that use a wheelchair, nursing homes for the elderly, and special schools for people with cognitive disabilities but we do that out of the goodness of our collective hearts. This thought process makes me furious. I have rights, civil rights, as does Lucy Baxter's son Otto. I lead an ordinary life and see no reason why Lucy Baxter's son Otto cannot lead an ordinary life. Part of the ordinary life includes sex. And to reiterate I like sex. I bet Otto Baxter will like sex too. I am sure all the readers of this blog that like sex too.

The problem as I perceive is straight forward: society does not perceive people with a disability as being complete human beings. Part of being a complete human being includes having sex. I know this is an issue because unlike my fellow males that can walk I am asked about sex by women before we ever make it to the bedroom. Shoot, strangers ask me about sex and every woman I have ever had sexual relations with has told me the first question they are asked when others realize they are dating a man with a disability is "Can he do it?" People with a disability can indeed "do it" and when we "do it" like it just as much as a person with out a disability. Thus Lucy Baxter's effort to empower her son to have sex is not lurid or inappropriate. Instead it simply highlights the fact her son has the same feelings and desires of every other human being.


Becs said...

Brava, Ms. Baxter. A little education goes a long way.

I briefly dated a quadriplegic (too long distance to sustain) and with some grown-up discussion, we both found ways to do what we wanted to be done.

I have a cousin with a cognitive disorder. I know she's had boyfriends and she has also had relatives just generally keeping an eye on things so she doesn't get taken advantage of emotionally and financially.

BTW, check out Nice video on working with dancers with disabilities.

william Peace said...

Becs, Like you I respect Ms. Baxter. Simply put, sex is an integral part of life. If one understands what is involved from a physical and emotional standpoint, not exploited, than denying this part of life is wrong.

Yes, I saw the video of Gimp and hope to see it this weekend. If you have not gone to it, Wheelchair Dancer has a very interesting blog about dance and disability related topics.