#19 hope
Emily Rose Yates

Able to Love

For the past decades, sexual rights have been subject to public debate. Yet sexuality and disability continues to be a taboo topic around which awareness remains low. Instead of being boundless and unifying, love can be an isolating experience for persons with disabilities. Whilst persons with disabilities often have no one to turn to and ask questions, the non-disabled do not know how to act and communicate with them. Emily Rose Yates has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair-user. She is a disability advocate and accessibility consultant who is on a mission to reduce the “fear factor” that surrounds disability and promote inclusion in all aspects of life-including love. DDD had an opportunity to talk to Emily about what disability entails when it comes to love and her work to change stigmas.

DDD: When did you realize that you are “different” and that how you engage in relationships would be “different”?

Emily Rose Yates: At eleven, I was pretty academic, popular in school and fortunate that I never got bullied – and I really got on with all of the boys in my class. They would sit with me in class and compare notes and they really wanted to be my friends. Yet we never got to the stage where they wanted me to be their girlfriend. Perhaps because I was a tomboy and their friend I was “friend-zoned”. I loved that because it made my time at school so wonderful, but when I was around 14 or 15 years old the frustration crept in.

...I started to be seen in a different way – suddenly I became more the girl in the wheelchair than I had ever felt I was before.

DDD: Do you think that others were experiencing barriers because they did not know how to interact with you on an intimate level?

At the age of 14 or 15 I thought “I need to be a little bit more attractive, I need to start targeting boys.” My interaction with them changed and I noticed that I started to be seen in a different way – suddenly I became more the girl in the wheelchair than I had ever felt I was before. Nowadays things are very different.  I have been single for six months and have been on a few dates with great people. The best dates were those with men who have been upfront and said “OK, so I see that you are in a wheelchair, what does that entail?” But not everybody is this honest, there are so many people who would purposefully ignore your disability and talk about everything but the fact that you are a wheelchair-user because they think that is the correct thing to do.

…we are not talking about our intimate lives, we are still not seen as attractive or sexual beings or – even more than that – as people who can have aspirations, achieve something and be successful.

DDD: Some topics surrounding disability – such as accessibility – are spoken about. However, there is not much conversation about disability and love. Why?

The discourse around disability is set up around two different areas. Broadly speaking one of the areas is physical access which concerns ramps for wheelchair users, accessible parking bays, guide dogs, and so on. The second discourse area is what I would call social access. It includes things like talking about love and disability, or about our attitudes and the terminology that we use to describe disabled persons. Many people are reserved and worried about being offensive or patronizing. We end up not communicating at all and ignoring the situation because we believe that would be the more polite thing to do – which is not always the case! I think that this is partly because those of us with disabilities are not represented in the public place or the media, we are not talking about our intimate lives, we are still not seen as attractive or sexual beings or – even more than that – as people who can have aspirations, achieve something and be successful.

DDD: You have spent a lot of time in Brazil, a country that is classified as an emerging national economy. Moreover, you have travelled through the United States, Southern Africa and South East Asia. How does the social and physical access differ between these geographical and socio-economic contexts?

Generally countries with industrialized economies are very good in providing physical access. Comparing this, for instance, with Rio shows that there are huge differences. However, in Rio I feel like the sexiest person ever because the social access there is great. People do not hold themselves back as much as they do in Europe. When I’m crossing the road and I am struggling I literally have to wait no more than 20 seconds for someone to come up and just give me a hand. There is not that barrier of questioning whether you are doing the right thing, whether what you are doing is appropriate or patronizing. It is so simple and refreshing, this is how it should be and it is almost like we have complicated it a little bit over here.

Potential love partners need to find the fine line between being comfortable with talking about the disability and not making it the main focus of the relationship.

DDD: How can we support people with disabilities to have confidence and go out there and grab a relationship, to love and be loved and to have that social access?

Before you start thinking about someone as a potential partner, you need to understand him or her as a human being. Potential love partners need to find the fine line between being comfortable with talking about the disability and not making it the main focus of the relationship. I think this comes with disability awareness training and having a direct or indirect experience with someone who has a disability. However, when people with disabilities are not participating in society then this becomes harder – it is a vicious cycle really. To encourage interaction there has to be more representation of people with disabilities in the public place and in media. I also find that it is a big duty for disabled persons to discuss their impairment because others cannot immediately know everything about them. Many people with disabilities have bad experiences and the frustration has led them to become very insular. But if they do not raise awareness and create a positive image for disability then who will?

DDD: You offer disability awareness trainings – how receptive is your audience?

Yes, I work for Enhance the UK, which is a user-led charity, so we all have disabilities ourselves. We mainly go into businesses, where many are trying so hard to be politically correct.  It is our mission to reduce the fear factor because we totally understand that for somebody who has no experience with disabled persons it is a bit nerve wrecking and scary to know what to say. People love the training. We are now branching out to talk more about sex and disability. For instance, we go into schools and do body-image workshops and I also co-run something called the love lounge where people with disabilities and their partners, friends or family can call in to ask questions about disability and dating, love and sex. We are trying to use the frank, fun but discursive training mode that we have for the above mentioned trainings – so far it is going really well.

...by setting goals and trying to reach those targets, the focus often drifts too much towards these goals rather than to the importance of the journey itself.

DDD: The recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals specifically mentions disability in regards to health, education and urbanisation. When we speak about awareness and dissolving boundaries, do you think it is beneficial to make such specific references in international agreements or are we making divisions more apparent?

In an ideal world everything would be about creating inclusion for everybody, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, colour, ability or religion. In reality the reason why disability is still specifically mentioned is because society always seems to need a trendy thing to talk about. We focus on a couple of things at a time – be they gender, race, sexuality or disability – and push all resources to providing inclusivity for the chosen group. Now it is disability’s turn – it needs to be spoken about because things are not as they should be yet. What I find problematic about it though is that by setting goals and trying to reach those targets, the focus often drifts too much towards these goals rather than to the importance of the journey itself.

DDD: What you do requires courage, perseverance, determination and self-esteem. Where do you get your motivation from?

First and foremost I feel I have a duty because I know that I am fortunate to have a loud voice within the community – I am able to change opinions and be heard. Secondly, the work that I am doing affects me and others directly. There is no better motivation than seeing that what you are doing changes peoples’ lives, opinions and perceptions.

Interview by Leonie Munk

Photo: “I love you in sign language” by Bert Heymans
2009 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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