Why Throw Sympathy Out Of Windows When Disabled People Act ‘Normal?’
Earlier this week, I was outraged to hear about the recent experience of Anne Wafula Strike MBE. This talented, respected, retired Paralympian and disability rights campaigner very bravely went public to describe the time she was forced to wet herself during a three hour journey on a train which lacked an accessible toilet.
As a follow-up to Ms Wafula Strike’s story, the Guardian carried a piece by respected disability rights campaigner Penny Pepper, in which she described her own experiences with train toilets.
The most recent collection of Guardian letters includes a short response, from a reader, to Penny Pepper’s piece. It is this response that has outraged me now. The response was, and I quote:
Reading Penny Pepper’s article on being able to get access to disabled toilets (Opinion, 4 January) left me sympathetic and moved until I got to the part where she admitted that she had used them for a shag. Really? Sympathy out the window.
As a disabled woman myself, I couldn’t help smiling when I read the two short sentences in which Penny Pepper made that admission. I couldn’t help smiling for several reasons. I smiled because I thanked Penny Pepper for trying, in what I thought was a humorous way, to show the mainstream that disabled people do have sex too. I smiled because, with those two short sentences, Penny Pepper tried to show the mainstream that disabled people can see the funny side of the very serious issue that is the misuse of disabled toilets. Sometimes, in certain situations, we know we can’t beat them, so we join them in their ‘fun.’
However, I am more than a little upset to find that, for one reader at least, the important messages that I got out of those two short, funny sentences didn’t seem to sink in. I wonder why that reader felt the need to publicly pick up their sympathy for disabled people being unable to carry out the world’s most basic human right and throw it out of the nearest window, just because a disabled woman wrote two short, funny sentences about situations in which she has acted ‘normal?’
I wonder what that reader found surprising about those two short, funny sentences. Was it that Penny Pepper, as a person, has misused disabled toilets? Was it that Penny Pepper, as a disabled person herself, has misused disabled toilets? Or- and this would be worse, in my opinion- was it that Penny Pepper, as a disabled person, has ever had ‘a shag’ at all?
Before you accuse me of overreacting, or jumping to conclusions, readers, please consider a worrying statistic from an Observer survey. As recently as 2008, an Observer survey found that only 4% of adults asked had had sex with a person with a physical disability. A worryingly high 70% of adults asked said that they would not consider having sex with someone with a physical disability.
That survey turns 10 years old next year. It should be too old to be relevant. However, sadly, some people are still ready to throw sympathy for our serious and real struggles out of windows when disabled people even mention having sex. So maybe that survey, with all its worryingly high statistics, is still relevant after all.
There is a serious point which must be made here, of course. Yes, disabled people do have sex, too. Sometimes in disabled toilets. However, that is only because we are human, too. Us having sex does not, in any way, mean that Anne Wafula Strike and Penny Pepper do not deserve full sympathy for their outrageous experiences with toilets on trains.
Us having sex does not, in any way, mean that we should be denied access to a fully accessible toilet, anywhere, ever. Toilet use is the world’s most basic human right. Disabled people need accessible toilets for exactly the same reason that disabled people have sex- because we are human, too.