Consent and Disability is A LOT more nuanced than you might think: How do we foster a culture of consent in a care setting, and outside of it too?
Welcome back to Caring About Sex and Disability.
Over the past couple of years, discussions of consent have become a touchstone of the world around us. Pop onto any social justice followers Instagram or Twitter and it won’t take you long to see some version of “consent is sexy” on someone’s post. Funnily enough though, one area where we seem to have forgotten all about consent is people with disabilities. We are touched by medical professionals and doctors from the time we are little; we are touched in the grocery store when people try to move our mobility devices out of the way, and this sends us as disabled people a very clear and loud message that people are allowed to touch us as they please. I care about consent so much because I deal with carers everyday, so I understand intimately what it’s like to have that little bit of agency taken away. For the latest issue of Caring About Sex and Disability I want to offer some possible ways to bring about a culture of consent, both from the perspective of a carer and from the viewpoint of a prospective partner. So, let’s care about this together.
1: Ask If It Is Okay To Touch Before, During and After
For both a caregiver and a prospective intimate partner, I think that this one is extremely important. So often disabled people are not asked if the touch is okay, we are simply touched. We are not given the chance to process the idea of being touched by someone, it just happens; and, when it does, it can be extremely jarring, both physically and emotionally. If the disabled person is asked before the touch, they understand it, and they are given the chance to decline. During the touching itself, the disabled person can get used to it; and, if asked how the touch was afterward, the disabled person can give honest feedback about their emotions around the touch. What I think is most critically important about this approach is that all along the way, the disabled has agency. In a care setting agency is SO IMPORTANT because it is so often overlooked. In a more intimate setting, agency around disability is just as important, and so this suggestion might work well to engender a culture of consent in the bedroom with a disabled partner. Give it a try!
2. Understand That Consent and Disability Is Nuanced and Layered
One of the most important things I think that we need to be mindful of in regards to consent and disability in a care setting and outside of it as well, is the layers of consent that are often intertwined within one another. For instance, if I am receiving care as a disabled person and I need a shower, this means that I have to consent to a few layers. I’ll have to consent to being undressed, being transferred from my wheelchair to my shower seat, being naked, being cleaned and having my body washed and touched and so on and so on. Each of these steps is another part of consent that I have to grapple with, and it is important to be cognizant of the emotions around that for the disabled person when you are caring for them. Because caregiving is not an easy profession, these little things can be overlooked, but I promise they make a big difference for the disabled person you are helping.
In a similar vein, consent is layered and nuanced for a disabled person during intimacy as well. If I consent to sex as a wheelchair user, this means that I have to trust my partner to transfer me, position me, touch me, undress me, dress me again, etc. during our time together. That is so much more involved than simply saying “yes” or “no” and I think these layers need to be given space in and around conversations of consent and disability, and I believe, sadly, they are not.
3. Teach Parents, Partners & Carers About The Layers of Consent
Parents of disabled people, partners of disabled people, and carers of disabled people need to be taught about these layers of consent so that they can understand how the disabled person in their lives navigates consent. I’d suggest gently asking the non-disabled people in the disabled person’s life to imagine what it would be like to always be touched, but never to be asked if they wanted to be touched. Ask them how they might feel if it were them, and ask them how they’ll feel when it will be them. I might also suggest asking them to explore their emotional responses to a lack of consent; how does it make them feel when that boundary is crossed? If they express uneasiness, you can let them know that disabled people feel that same discomfort when they are touched without consent.
There is so much more to consent and disability that I want to explore, but I hope that these 3 discussion starters get you to care about consent differently than before–especially when it comes to disabled people, their agency and how consent makes us feel.
I’m Andrew and I really do care about you! Until next time!