Teaching at a local university years ago, I attended a rehab conference held at a nearby college. The reason I wanted to go was simple; I wanted to know more about disabilities and rehab and here was a free, golden opportunity. Little did I know that today I would, once again, see that the same question asked that day would be answered in an online article in The Chronicle of Higher Education where the author outlined how an article he had written had been censored by prestigious Northwestern University. Northwestern, for Pete sake, one of the premier schools in this country and one I thought was progressive. Seems that’s not so.

But, then, he did explain how nurses in his rehab setting helped young men to understand that sex was possible and they demonstrated. I guess it was the demonstrations part that got the hackles of the editors up and they yanked it. No pun intended here. The title of the article was “Head Nurses” and I needn’t explain the specifics of these nurses’ duties to you.

He wrote in The Chronicle:

“For the past 37 years, I have routinely been asked, “Can you have sex?” I consider those who ask me that question rude. But more important, the question emphasizes my lowly social status as a paralyzed man. Despite 40 years of progressive legislation designed to empower people with disabilities, negative stereotypes persist. We are considered to be inferior, physically deviant, and asexual. That puzzles me, because I have witnessed the development of a substantial literature on sex and disability.”

Reading the article, I was sent back in time to that other college two decades ago.

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An attractive, muscular young man in a wheelchair was one of the presenters. His topic? Sex and the Guy in the Wheelchair. A sure-fire topic if ever I saw one and, yes, I did go to the seminar.

Seated in his lightweight chair, he started out with guns blazing telling the audience of mostly young students and just-a-bit-older professionals that he was going to answer our main question and he was doing it at the get-go. “Yes,” he said in a clear, loud voice accompanied by a broad smile, “I do have sex but
perhaps not the way I did before.”

Silence and nervous laughter. Now, he really had our attention. Would he go into graphic detail or just allude to certain topics, techniques and references we could seek out after the seminar? The room was incredibly quiet and this room was packed to the walls with an audience whose full attention he held in the palm of his gloved hand.

He didn’t go into detail, just laid out the ongoing problem he and others had with everyone’s interest in his sexual activity or lack of it — albeit they never came right out and asked. Mostly, they skirted the edges of the issue.

So long ago and yet the questions are still there in an era where materials are readily available and yet the questions persist. Why? Are we so tantalized by the unusual when it comes to sex? I do think that plays a role here.

When I saw the article in the Chronicle, it struck two responsive chords; disbelief at the censorship and shock that people were still asking that question. I do believe, as the author said, that is rude. But not only that. It exhibits a lack of initiative on the questioner’s part regarding anyone with disabilities.

How many people with disabilities feel like less-than-whole persons? We have presented ourselves as a society of inclusion and we have passed laws like the ADA to facilitate access, but we don’t educate ourselves? Must we be led by the nose to the trough, as it were, to drink of the repository of knowledge? We’re all guilty of it but we may not be totally aware of this lack of intellectual searching and those with any challenge presented by a visible disability feel the sting of that laziness.

Where does your “knowledge of disabilities” meter stand today? And please remember that not all disabilities are so visible. Some are quite hidden until you are made privy to them. The deaf come to mind, but so do persons with MS or benign essential tremor which WebMD has informed me is an obsolete term. I stand corrected and will refer to it as “essential tremor” from here.

I knew an elderly woman with this type of tremor and, while walking home to her apartment building in New York City, she received riveting looks. They thought she was drunk. So much for informed people. For all they knew, she could have been having a stroke or had Parkinson’s. No, they took the other route and vilified her for her drunkenness.

Ever notice how when someone meets anyone who is deaf they immediately raise their voice as though that could improve the communication? Their visual cues tell anyone with a hearing impairment that they are not being seen as whole. Have you ever heard anyone ask a CODA (child of deaf adults) how they learned to speak? Do you find that question a bit obnoxious? I do. Sounds like the deaf can’t “teach” their children to speak because they don’t vocalize. Nonsense.

Anyone who has MS (multiple sclerosis) is faced with the same problems as their symptoms wax and wane. They may be seen, especially if not diagnosed correctly, as having bipolar disorder, a rather difficult personality, looking for sympathy (especially when they have ambulation problems) or asocial. Among a host of others in the autoimmune category, MS may stand out most prominently because it causes so many physical and psychological problems and the person doesn’t appear, at first blush, to be disabled. They are.

What more can I say? Educate yourself about persons with disabilities. Everyone will benefit by it.

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