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Learning about Consent Through (Dis)ability

I have been thinking for some time about the ways in which I have learned about, and practice, consent. I have had a blog post rattling around in my head and calling to be written. So with a little nervousness I write this very personal piece to share my experiences living with disabilities and how that has expanded and solidified consent in my life.

I didn’t always know about consent

You see, there was a time when I didn’t know about consent. This, of course, makes total sense given that I was raised in a society that does not teach consent generally; in a society that propagates rape culture. I knew what felt right and what felt wrong, but I wasn’t always given the kind of options when interacting with others that I know now to exist. I was also raised as a girl, and now identify as a woman, and with that comes some implicit understandings of being in this world that are far from positive. I was taught to not walk freely (day or night), and to fear the world. I found out the world was a hostile place from a young age, despite my young, able body that yearned to (and was capable of) running and jumping and summersaulting.

At the same time that I was learning things no child should learn, I was also internalizing some other things that all girls were learning. Being thrown in the pool by boys while screaming at the top of my lungs and kicking them felt wrong, but I didn’t have the words to describe that feeling. It felt like other non-consensual interactions of course, and like many other instances in my childhood and into adult life, these reactions were consistently diminished. This is not news for many folks in our society who experience harm. This is sadly a fact, amongst many other facts that I dare not get into here.

Enter numerous disabilities

Fast forward about a hundred (okay 30-something) years, and now that you understand the context of not knowing, I would like to tell you about how I began to know (about consent). I have learned a tremendous amount about consent from queer and trans communities, and of course working at VSAC the last year in close proximity to Project Respect. However, I have also learned about the visceral importance of practicing consent in every aspect of my life since the onset of numerous disabilities. Yes, I write, say, shout, and cry the word disabilities. For me, (and this is only about me and not about how other people identify) at this stage in my life the word disabilities feels like a good descriptor of the chronic illness, pain and restrictiveness to my being and bodily movement that I have lived with for the past few years, as it literally prevents me from being able to do the things I could do before. But I digress…

A few years ago I began to experience life altering pain, concurrently with several physical injuries that relegated me to a cane, crutches and/or wheelchair over the span of about a year. Without going into too much of my medical history, what is of importance is that 3 years ago, at 30 years of age, my body began to quite literally fall apart and everything changed. The way I related to my children, my partner, my friends, and my own body, changed. The way I moved in public spaces and interacted with strangers, changed. Whereas before I was able to temporarily side-step the effects of not expressing my own needs and desires, I suddenly had to verbally state how I was feeling and what I needed from other people at all times because otherwise, the consequences were too serious, too immediate. This is the stuff that consent is made of, but I hadn’t fully formulated the thought yet. For example, when someone comes to hug me, I must express that I can hug (if I want to hug them of course) with one side of my body because bending my left arm will cause severe nerve pain. When people ask me if they can hug me, I have a moment to think, and to express the needs I have in that moment based on my physical and emotional well-being.  In bed, it works that way too – my partner is always present, making eye contact, reading my facial expressions, carefully moving my body and consistently asking me “how does this feel?”, “are you doing okay?” “does it hurt less if I put your legs like this?” etc. etc.

A life full of consent

I was not taught to expect consensual interactions between myself and others (from being forced to hug and kiss relatives, to boys throwing me in pools, to experiencing childhood and adult sexual assault). As a trauma survivor, I often felt like something was wrong with me because I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t demand to be asked before someone touched me, because I didn’t know that was an option. It took for me to be physically affected, literally unable to get by in the world without verbalizing my needs and practicing consent, before I was able to integrate consent into my life in a meaningful way.

As much as my disabilities (that wane and increase at different points in time) are life altering in very negative ways, I have one life raft to cling to: without my experiences of disability, I might not have fully integrated amazing lessons about consent. Consent is not just necessary in case someone has trauma or physical limitations/differences, or because some people have relationships to their bodies that change day to day; in many ways, that is EVERYONE. I am also aware that many people who live with physical and/or cognitive disabilities are targeted for sexualized violence, and for me, this has not been the case. Due to the mostly invisible nature of my disabilities and perhaps the later onset in life, I have never been targeted for violence based on ability.

For me, my experiences of living with illness, pain and trauma taught me that I have the right to express my needs all the time, to demand that people engage with me in consensual ways. This teaching has since expanded to consistently thinking about other people’s boundaries, their potential unseen physical or emotional scars, but it has also taught me that no matter what our emotional and physical selves are feeling, experiencing or doing, every single person deserves a life full of consent.