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Exploding Myths About Sexuality Love Is as Possible For The Disabled as For Everyone Else Documentary, Book Help to Dispel Misconceptions

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, January 30, 2004, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Katie Ball was 16, "socially isolated and extremely naive," when she started going dancing. Like most people with disabilities, she had no role models on the path to attracting love.

"I felt like a big blob of fat in a chair," she says, grinning into the camera from her home in Australia where she took part in a one-hour Canadian documentary produced by Chum's digital channel SexTV. "People would dance with me as a dare."

Today, married with children, Ball is among many activists challenging deeply ingrained myths about disability and love.

People are constantly asking her how she had kids. ("Well, duh, I had sex.") They see her able-bodied husband as some sort of saint for marrying her, can't fathom the depth and strength she brings to the relationship.

In fact, most people with disabilities could teach the world a few priceless lessons about body image, self-esteem, communicating, and attracting and making love. And a lot of those lessons are clear in the documentary Willing And Able: Love, Sex And Disability, shot in Australia, the United States and Canada and scheduled to air next month on Citytv.

This does mean it's easy for young people who move or communicate differently to overcome the social barriers society has spent centuries constructing.

("Being seen and accepted as a sexual being seems to be like the last frontier," says producer Lina Cino.)

Nor does it eliminate the chilling reality that people with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual abuse partly because their sexuality is not acknowledged.

But as more books and films appear offering glimpses of what's possible, there is hope that attitudes are changing--and Canadians are playing an important role in this evolution.

When San Francisco-based Cleis Press Inc. looked for an author to tackle the subject of disability and sex, it approached Toronto psychologist Cory Silverberg, a founding member of Come As You Are, an education-based sex store on Queen St. W.

The result was The Ultimate Guide To Sex And Disability, hot off the press this month. Written by Dr. Miriam Kaufman, a specialist in adolescent health issues at the Hospital for Sick Children, Silverberg and Fran Odette, a project coordinator dealing with women with disabilities and violence at Education

Wife Assault in Toronto, the book aims to reach everyone, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation, who lives with disability, chronic pain and/or illness.

"Sexual independence is an extremely potent form of empowerment," the three write in the book's introduction. "It is our belief (and our personal experience)

that by exploring our sexuality, by deciding that we are worthy of feeling pleasure and of realizing our possibilities as sexual beings, we can change other parts of our lives."

Among other things, The Ultimate Guide looks at: building a positive sexual self-image; where to find partners and how to talk to them about sex and disability;

how to make sex safe emotionally and physically; how to discuss sex with health care providers; positions that minimize stress and maximize pleasure; how to deal with fatigue, pain and spasms during sex; and how to adapt sex toys to specific needs.

It also looks at myths about disability and sex, some of them "communicated in such subtle ways that we aren't even aware we believe them."

"I felt like a big blob of fat in a chair. People would dance with me as a dare." Katie Ball, activist

Among these myths:

People living with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses are not sexual or desirable. As one of those surveyed for the book puts it: "I get the feeling people think that because I'm in a chair, there is just a blank space down there."

Sex must be spontaneous. "Being sexual is being in contact with ourselves and our surroundings," the authors note. "The idea that this process can happen without thinking, talking or planning is ridiculous."

People with disabilities are pathetic choices for partners. "This reveals a deep bias," say the authors. "If you live with a disability or serious illness, you must be a pitiable creature " The even more dangerous underlying idea is that if you live with a disability, whatever you happen to feel about yourself or think about the world on a particular day must be related to your disability." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sex is private. When we were younger, many of us learned that sex was inappropriate to talk about or do in front of others, the book notes. So privacy became a requirement for sexuality.

"For someone living in an institution or using attendant services or needing the assistance of someone else to facilitate communication, privacy is a completely different reality."

People with disabilities don't need sex education. "There's a real fear of sexual abuse," says Kaufman, who counsels teens with disabilities. "Sex education is helpful. Kids who haven't had the opportunity to learn anything about it are even more vulnerable."

Ultimately, the secret to success in attracting love is the same for everyone: It lies in learning to be aware of individual needs and being able to communicate with others, The Ultimate Guide advises.

"While the book focuses on disability issues, it creates possibilities for anybody," says Odette.

When they were researching the book, Kaufman, Silverberg and Odette say many people who acquired disabilities later in life "told us that living with a disability has enhanced their sexual communication.

"Disability can allow us the opportunity for creativity and the chance to see ourselves as being different from the impossible role model.

"In this way, disability can become a catalyst for a kind of change and growth that non-disabled people usually can't imagine."

Willing And Able: Love, Sex And Disability, is scheduled to air Feb. 11 at 10 p.m. on Citytv.

The Ultimate Guide To Sex And Disability (Cleis Press, $25.50) should be in bookstores this weekend.

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