All posts by Alice Kirby

Disability rights activist, journalist, and proud disabled woman eager to challenge misconceptions, empower others, and celebrate diversity through writing about disability.

The hidden sex lives of disabled people – End the Awkward

Alice is a disability rights activist and journalist. As part of our End the Awkward campaign, she shares her views on the media’s portrayal of sex and disability.

Content note: this blog references offensive disablist language and contains discussions about sex.

Disabled people don’t have sex, do they? It certainly seems that way as our sex lives are so rarely represented in the media, if at all.

Have you ever seen a disabled person having sex in a film, TV program, or a mainstream porno? Me neither.

We are a generation which loves to talk about sex, so why aren’t disabled people part of the conversation? Why are our sex lives are being hidden? And why are we being desexualised? We are consistently portrayed as people who never get our leg over and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

However, things have started to change with Maltesers recent ad campaign. The brand launched three disability-themed adverts which premiered on the opening night of the Paralympic Games, and one in-particular really stood out to me.

A text description of the advert is available at the end of this blog post.

Three women are sat around chatting about sex and one (who is a wheelchair user) talks about getting frisky with her boyfriend who didn’t complain when her hand started spasming! Funnily enough Storme Toolis who plays the part is thought to be the only disabled actor to ever have had a sex scene on UK TV.

It is hard to put into words just how happy I was to see this advert, it reminded me of the conversations I have had with friends leaving them in stitches when sharing my sex stories.

Disability in the bedroom

I have spasms and seizures, and I have them when I’m in bed. This can make sex both awkward and absolutely hilarious, not too different from non-disabled sex right?

In the past I’ve had to explain to a partner that my legs weren’t shaking because I’d had an orgasm – they were going into a spasm.

I’ve also come round from seizures before and not remembered who the person on top of me was. You can’t really get much more awkward then that, especially when you’re in a long term relationship!

Disability certainly keeps sex interesting and there are also some perks. Having so many seizures during sex forces me and my partner to have regular breaks which means it usually lasts much longer then it would without them. And telling people I’m disabled early on is also a great dickhead-filter, especially when online dating. You’d be amazed at how many people have stopped talking to me once they discovered I was disabled, but this has meant I’ve only ever met up with open minded people who I know I can trust to get into bed with.

Having barriers in the bedroom also means disabled people have to be more creative and our sex lives are often far from vanilla, trust me. Look at Scope’s A to Z of sex and disability if you want to find out more!

End the awkward

Maltesers are paving the way to end the awkwardness around sex and disability, but there is a long way to go yet. This is evident from some of the online comments left on the advert such as: “Retards who have sex are disgusting.” And: “I don’t really understand how disabled ‘people’ can be sexual beings without having souls.”

These attitudes need to be challenged, and the best way to do that is for more brands and broadcasters to follow in Maltesers footsteps. The more disabled people’s sex lives are accurately represented, the better perceptions will become. I hope one day I can turn on my TV and see disabled characters (played by disabled actors) having sex and for it not be out of the ordinary.

Beyond the bedroom

But this goes beyond sex, Scope’s 2016 Disability In The Media Study found that 80 percent of disabled people felt underrepresented by TV and the media on the whole.

It seems like this is only addressed for a few weeks every four years when the Paralympics comes around and this needs to change. We are the world’s largest minority group and we need representation every day of the year.

So decision makers, please don’t stop broadcasting about disability just because the games are over, let’s keep it on the box, and while you’re at it why not start representing disabled people’s sex lives too?

Read more End the Awkward blogs, or get involved in the campaign by submitting your awkward story.

Video description: Three women sat outside around a picnic bench. The person telling the story is a wheelchair user and she is holding a bag of Maltesers in her hand. As she tells the story she shakes the bag and chocolates spill over the table. Her friends looked shocked at first but then everyone laughs. Text reads: “Look on the light side”.

“Yes I Can, If…” – campaigning for better disability access

Will Pike is a games developer from London whose parody of Channel 4’s Superhumans advert has gone viral with over half a million views. Tens of thousands of people have signed his petition to ask the two high-street chains which feature in the film for better access.

In this blog, he shares the story behind his campaign and talks about the changes he’d like to see as a result. A text description of the video is available at the end of this blog post.

In 2008 I went to India, on the way back home we had a stop over in Mumbai and the hotel I was staying in was attacked by terrorists. 168 people died, my spine was injured I am now paralysed below the waist.

I’ve been in a wheelchair for eight years now and in that time have been through ever emotion under the sun. I have days when I just can’t be arsed with the barriers and negative attitudes. I made this film because too many shops and restaurants are effectively off limits to wheelchair users like myself.

Inspired by the Paralympics

After the London Paralympics I was expecting there to be a big shift in places becoming more accessible but it just hasn’t happened. Two weeks before this year’s games started I approached my friend Heydon Prowse about the idea and he got a team of people together to produce the film. Errol Ettiene directed  it and did an incredible job, the team turned a good idea into a slick, professional-grade commercial.

It tops and tails with Paralympic references because I wanted to show how day to day life can feel like Paralympic event for a wheelchair user. But whilst the whole thing was inspired by the Paralympics, these issues still remain for disabled people now the games have ended. This is bigger then just me having a unique experience, this is a global issue indicative of a massive absence of consideration for disabled people. My experiences aren’t isolated and sharing them makes them more powerful and potent. It turns individual struggles into a social issue.

The film isn’t in any way a criticism of the Superhumans ad, but it could only ever do so much. Channel 4 started a relay race about disability awareness and they passed the baton on. They didn’t know who they were passing it on to, but it just so happened it was me. I’m leveraging the awareness their brilliant ad created to further the message. My film couldn’t exist without theirs and whatever success we get is their success too.

Will sat on a sofa against a brick wall

The petition

I’ve been asked why I chose to focus my petition on American Apparel and Caffè Nero and the honest answer is, it was just their lucky day. We were filming on Tottenham Court Road and it just so happened they were the shops that didn’t have wheelchair access. But it was also important that we didn’t pitch this campaign at one-off shops because whilst they have a responsibility, it’s the big chains that have a major responsibility and the ones who are neglecting their civic duty. It could also have a domino effect across all their stores.

It’s not that people are fundamentally thoughtless, it’s just that it’s simply not in the social conscience to be considering these things. It’s only when someone comes along and questions access that things will change.

The people I spoke to in the film felt bad and wanted to help but they are purely innocent in this whole thing. It’s the companies they work for who are responsible for disability access and inclusivity. It’s irresponsible to expect hapless shop assistants to have to deal with that situation. I hope American Apparel and Caffè Nero can see it from that perspective too, it will protect their staff from these embarrassing and awkward situations that they shouldn’t have to go through.

Reasonable adjustments

The Equality Act states that all buildings and public places have a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled people are not disadvantaged when accessing their services.

However, in terms of holding public places accountable, it’s actually down to the customers and patrons of that establishment to draw attention to their inadequacies. If that premises doesn’t then do something about their lack of access or facilities, that person is then responsible to bring them to court. Which basically means that all those people with disability – who may or may not have had their benefits cut, or are finding it difficult to gain employment, or even struggling to leave the house – are the ones who must embark on an inevitably time-consuming and costly legal case.

We really hope that this film, though aimed at Caffé Nero and American Apparel, is able to shine a light upon a flawed and, frankly, ridiculous system. It should not be the responsibility of each and every disabled person to flag up a high street chain; it should be the responsibility of the Government and Councils to assess disability access, educate businesses, and ensure funding is in place for reasonable adjustments.

People may think little things like step-free access won’t make a difference to the majority of the population, but it makes a massive difference for a selective few which in turn has a positive influence on the relationships we have with non-disabled people. In turn the whole community will be accessible and better for everyone. And that’s where the #AccessForEveryone hashtag came from.

Will in his wheelchair outside a restaurant where there's a step

What’s next?

We just have to wait and see! I haven’t been contacted by Caffè Nero or American Apparel, but I wonder whether someone is going to bring it to the big bosses. One way I’d like that conversation to go is that the big boss turns round and says: “Are you telling me we haven’t got step free access in our Tottenham Court Road branch?! Right, heads are gonna roll!” That’s far fetched but I am an optimist at heart.

Both brands have a real opportunity to turn this bad situation good by handling it well. If they acknowledge they were wrong and make changes they can come out of this smelling of roses and will get so much good publicity from this. I will be giving them every chance to handle this magnanimously, with humility, and with a real ownership. But if they don’t, we will do everything we can to highlight their ineptitude.

They really can lose a lot of business because of this. Some people have been commenting saying they will boycott these shops until they make a change and if that becomes the consensus, if that becomes the rallying cry, then together we can change a lot.

You can visit change.org to sign the petition or follow Will’s progress.

Will’s story is also a great example of disabled people being ‘bold and loud’ as consumers – something called for by the Extra Costs Commission. Led by Scope, this was an independent inquiry that looked at ways to drive down the additional costs faced by disabled people. Next month a report will be published reviewing progress with the Commission’s recommendations for tackling extra costs.

Video description: Paralympics billboard, zooms into the word “superhuman”. Alarm clock turns to 7.00am. Man laid in bed opens his eyes, sits up, and smiles. He spins around his bedroom in his wheelchair. Plays plastic toy trumpet. Dances into the bathroom. Sits in the show, miming the lyrics into the shower head. Puts a shirt on, grabs his hat with a reaching tool. Leaves his house, flipping hat onto his head. Wheels down the a busy high street. Tries to enter Caffè Nero, wheels crash into a step. Tries to enter Pizza Express and speaks to a waitress about accessible toilet facilities. Does a wheelie and dances down the street. Goes into American Apparel and talks to staff member. Wheels into a pub, stops himself at a flight of stairs. Then wheels down the ramp, sits with a friend both clinking their pint glasses. Text reads “Leaving the house can feel like a paralympic event for wheelchair users. change.org/accessforeveryone”.

“As a disabled person, you don’t have to be an athlete to be superhuman”

Kim Daybell is a Paralympic table tennis player and is studying medicine at the University of Leeds. He represented ParalympicsGB at the London 2012 Paralympics.

We spoke to Kim about London 2012, attitudes towards disability and Channel 4’s flagship Paralympics trailer.

Competing in London has been the highlight of my career so far and it’s been amazing to see a change in attitudes towards the Paralympic Games over the last few years.

London helped break down a lot of barriers, it challenged people’s perceptions and showed the public that disability isn’t something to be scared of.

Instead of people seeing Paralympians as disabled people, we started to be viewed as athletes. I think the focus is becoming less about disability and more about seeing us for who we are and what we are achieving.

Kim, a young disabled men, competes in a table tennis tournament

Channel 4 did such a great build up and coverage of the games people were suddenly realising that we can really compete. I think shows like The Last Leg have definitely helped reduce some of the stigma too.

London’s legacy has also helped to bridge the gap between the Olympics and the Paralympics. Before 2012, Paralympians weren’t really in the public eye and we didn’t get a lot of media coverage.

Now athletes have become household names, people like Ellie Simmonds, Johnny Peacock and Richard Whitehead have become just as big as some Olympians. Paralympic athletes have been in the shadow of Olympic athletes for so long, it’s good to see that starting to change.

The games becoming more mainstream has also encouraged young disabled people to get into sport. Since London, kids are now being given more opportunities because we’ve had a lot of money put in at a grass roots level. Our squad now has a pathway program and we have someone who goes around and looks for young talent to bring in. Initiatives like this have meant we’ve seen many more disabled people playing sport.

We’re all superhumans

Recently I featured in Channel 4’s trailer for the Paralympic Games, it was a great experience and I was really pleased with how it turned out. I know there has been some controversy around the advert, specifically around the ‘superhuman’ theme. I have seen the term be interpreted in different ways, but to me it just describes disabled people who are doing things above and beyond what non-disabled people can do.

Access an audio described version of the advert.

Some people have said it comes across as a bit patronising, but I don’t see it like that. I think the people in the advert are great role models and great examples for disabled people out there.

However, that doesn’t mean that as a disabled person you have to fly a car with your feet or be an athlete to be superhuman. A superhuman achievement could be anything from completing a university degree to going shopping, it doesn’t just apply to Paralympians. To me, it represents the idea that disabled people can go out and do anything they set their mind to.

I think that’s why they chose to feature disabled people who aren’t athletes in this campaign. The superhuman concept is inclusive, it encompasses all disabled people who are doing amazing things and the advert celebrates this.

People have also questioned why the Paralympics are marketed differently to the Olympics, but I don’t see this as a negative thing. It is to be expected because they are completely different things. They’re separate sporting events and separate organisations, so it makes sense that the marketing isn’t the same.

There is nothing you cannot do

I’d encourage disabled people who are interested in sport to embrace the opportunities that are now available to them. Look online for what’s available in your area, sports clubs are now catering for disabled athletes more than ever. ParalympicsGB are always looking for talent, they’re willing to take on anyone who wants to give it everything they’ve got.

Having been on the Paralympic scene for a while now, I honestly believe there is nothing you cannot do. I’ve seen some truly amazing things, we’ve got a guy in our squad who hasn’t got hands who plays table tennis. Anything can be achieved if you set your mind to it.

You can follow Kim on his Paralympic journey on Twitter.

Find out more about ParalympicsGB on their website.

Calum is using magic to challenge attitudes

30 under 30 logo

This story is part of 30 Under 30.

 

Calum Morris is a 21-year-old magician from Sheffield. He has spent years honing his skills and has set up his own business.

As part of 30 Under 30, he talks about the opportunities his career has given him and how useful magic can be in changing attitudes.

I’ve been interested in magic since being a kid, but it wasn’t until I saw Dynamo walking across the river Thames that I decided I wanted to do it professionally. I was impressed at how he’d taken it to the next level and that night I got my old pack of cards out and started practicing again.

Four years ago I set up my own business. I came up with my stage name, Magi-Cal, and used it as a personal brand. I like to entertain people, cheering them up and putting a smile on their faces, magic gives me the chance to do that everyday. I now perform at birthday parties, corporate events and weddings. I do a mix of stage shows, micromagic and impromptu street performances.

This job has also given me the opportunities to meet world famous magicians. I get on really well with Dynamo, last year he invited me to go backstage at one of his shows, he’s a really nice, likeable guy. It was great to meet Derren Brown and David Blaine as I’m a big fan of them both.

Calum, a young disabled man, holds up a deck of cards and poses for a photograph with famous magician, Dynamo

Breaking down barriers

I like to think I’m challenging misconceptions of disability through my work. I’ve always been told what I can and can’t do. At a young age my parents were told that I would never be able to speak, but they never gave up on me. These negative attitudes have only propelled me to overcome the barriers I face. I like to disprove people and always strive to be the best I can possibly be.

People often don’t know how to act around disabled people, they feel awkward and think they have to speak differently to us or talk down to us. Magic is a great way to interact with people and challenge these attitudes. Over my career I’ve definitely seen things start to change and I want to continue to do this.Calum, a young disabled man, performs a card trick in front of a group of people

My disabilities can make learning some tricks more difficult. Being dyspraxic means I’m a bit clumsy, my hand movements are not as fast as people without the condition. This has meant I’ve had to work very hard to master card manipulation and sleight of hand. I always have a deck of cards on me and take every opportunity I can to perform, constantly practicing has helped me really hone my skills.

Most people learn tricks through books but this has never been easy for me because I’m dyslexic. Reading can be a struggle, but I make the most of what I’ve got and think of creative ways to overcome the challenges I face.

As much as my disabilities have been hindering, they’ve also helped me in the industry. I’m able to be much more imaginative with my magic because I’m able to see opportunities for tricks that others can’t. I’ve come up with some really weird pieces that others may not have thought of. I’ve managed to get into Sheffield’s Magic Circle, which wasn’t easy but has really helped me to progress and grow.

I really want people to see past my disabilities. I don’t want people to book me because they feel sorry for me, but because I’m a likeable person and a good magician.

What the future holds for Magi-Cal

This summer I’ll be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’ve been going every year since I was born and in August I’ll be doing street performances on The Royal Mile. This was always my favourite place to go as a kid, and I’m excited that I’ll be there as an entertainer this year!

Magic is one of the few things that helps people forget about the troubles of day to day life, that’s my favourite thing about it. It’s all about the good feeling it gives people. And if I can make people’s day that little bit better, if I can bring a bit of happiness into the world, I think I’ve done my job well.

Calum is sharing his story as part of 30 Under 30. We are releasing one story a day throughout June from disabled people under 30 who are doing something extraordinary. Visit our website to read more of the stories from the campaign.

 

I want people to have a say in the future of our country

30 under 30 logo

This story is part of 30 Under 30.

 

Alice is a keen campaigner and star of our Scope for Change training program.

As part of 30 Under 30, she shares her experiences of the program, how it has given her the confidence to run her own campaigns and why it is important that everyone uses their vote in the EU referendum.

I’ve been interested in activism ever since my dad introduced me to grassroots politics as a kid. He took me to my first demo when I was twelve years old and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I love the way direct action works, how it unapologetically demands our voices be heard. Change will never come about whilst we are unwilling to engage in the system, despite how broken it may be. Direct action gives us the opportunity to challenge and offer an alternative.

Alice, a young disabled woman, smiles at the camera with her dad

Getting the tools I needed

I had never organised my own campaign until I joined Scope For Change. I applied to the program last year and I was over the moon when I found out I had been accepted. We are a group of twenty-two young disabled people all interested in activism.

In March we attended a ‘bootcamp’ where we had extensive training on how to run a successful campaign. We were taught a wide range of tactics from how to utilise social media to getting the support of politicians. This training not only gave me the tools I needed, but also the confidence!

Running my own campaign

Currently I am running a campaign to encourage people in my neighbourhood to vote in the EU referendum. Engaging people in politics is something that I am passionate about. Too many people bury their heads in the sand and become ever increasingly apathetic. I can understand why this happens, I too have little faith in our current political system.

However, I believe referendums give the electorate a rare chance to participate in a form of direct democracy and we should be excited about this opportunity!

Our community is one which doesn’t have much of a voice in society. We live in social housing and the vast majority of us can’t find work because we are disabled. We are often judged and not listened to.

The aim of my campaign has not been to tell people how to vote but to empower them to go out and exercise their democratic right. I wanted people to know that not only does their opinion matter, but that it is significant and can make a difference.

A pile of leaflets relating to the EU referendum. They say "Should we stay or should we go?"

A unique opportunity to have a say in the future of our country

Over the last few weeks I have made hundreds of leaflets and posters explaining how to register to vote and why it is so important to do this. I have printed these in a large font and on coloured paper to make them as accessible as possible. Two of my lovely neighbours have been wonderful and helped me deliver these. I have assisted people to sign up who would have otherwise struggled to do this independently. Door knocking has also played a big part as some people are unable to read English, this has sparked conversations and it’s been interesting to hear how people are voting and why.

Throughout my campaign I have emphasised that we will not be voting to elect someone to represent us, but are being asked a direct question. Should we remain in the EU or should we leave? This is a unique opportunity to have a say in the future of our country and we should embrace this.

On 23 June, I have arranged a meeting place for local people to gather at various times throughout the day. We will be walking to the polling station and voting together. I believe this will encourage people, especially those who are unsure where the polling station is or are unfamiliar with the process. I know some of my disabled neighbours will really struggle to do this independently and my hope is that voting collectively will provide the support they need.

I have always been an activist, but Scope have given me the confidence I needed to run my own campaigns and I can’t thank them enough for this gift. I plan to run many more in the future which I hope will be as successful as this one promises to be!

Alice is sharing her story as part of 30 Under 30. We are sharing one story a day throughout June from disabled people who are doing something extraordinary. Visit our website to read the stories so far.

Are you voting in the EU referendum? We want disabled people to have a clear understanding of their voting rights and options. Read our blog about voting and elections for more information.

What it’s like being a disabled candidate standing for election

Guest post by Jared O’Mara, an events manager and candidate for Sheffield Council. Jared has cerebral palsy hemiparesis and is standing in the 2016 local council elections. Here he shares his experience of being a disabled person standing for election, including his own personal views on encouraging more disabled candidates in politics.

Being disabled and standing for election has not been easy. I was born with cerebral palsy hemiparesis, which in my case means that the entire right side of my body is significantly weaker than my left. I have reduced mobility, poor balance, and regular bouts of tiredness and fatigue. I can also only type with my left index finger.

Even before becoming a candidate, I’ve had to struggle up and down difficult stairs just to get to candidacy interviews. When out in residential areas, I’m constantly on edge, wary that a dog may jump up at me and knock me over. All the extra campaign on work on top of working full is time is more tiring for me than it would be for a non-disabled person.

But I relish it.

I’m not scared of hard work. I really want to get elected so that I can serve the community of good people from my local area where I grew up.Photo of Jared, a young man, who smiles at the camera

I believe that disabled candidates can be at an advantage to non-disabled candidates. Having a disability can make us more passionate, resilient, empathetic and hard working than non-disabled candidates by virtue of everything being harder for us in life. My hope is that one day political parties and voters will realise just how amazing we disabled people are and how we’re perfectly placed to represent them in councils and parliaments.

Locally, my fellow candidates have been amazingly supportive in terms of working around my sleep patterns and driving me around when they can to save me getting taxis.

There is no financial support to help disabled people to stand and no parties have helping disabled people into public life as a priority. There used to be the Access to Elected Office fund but that has been cut.

This made me very angry and, from a personal point of view, it has cost me a large three figure sum in disability related costs that could have helped me take part in the election.

We sadly live in times where non-disabled people hold most of the power and they can be ignorant to the contribution and unique perspective that disabled people can make and offer.

I feel that every disabled candidate, whatever the party, could be better supported by the powers that be and more should be done to get disabled people with a wide range of different disabilities into public life

A return of the Access to Elected Office Fund, full legal aid provision for disability discrimination cases and All Disabled Person Shortlists would all go a long way to helping disabled people stand in elections.

With approaching local council and London Mayoral elections, as well as the EU referendum, we want disabled people to have a clear understanding of their voting rights and options. Read our blog about voting and elections for more information.

Tomorrow, we’ll be sharing another experience from a disabled councillor.

Header image: Courtesy of Sheffield City Council