The Enhance Disability spokeswoman talks about Cerebral palsy, disability fetishes and sexual desires
Bright neon pink hair, pink nails, an orange and pink swirled sweatshirt and hot pink beaded accessories. I am so taken back by the kaleidoscope of colour before me that I don’t even notice the young woman is in a wheelchair.
My appointment follows her appearance on BBC Women’s Hour.
Curious, I ask what the program is about.
“Masturbation,” she beams.
Emily Yates, 24, has pale blue eyes and squints slightly every time she talks. Her hair is cut in shaggy layers and hangs loosely around her face; a pale complexion intensifies her generous coatings of glossy pink lipstick.
Since the age of nine she has been confined to a wheelchair. Yates and her twin sister were born 10 weeks premature, and were both later diagnosed with Cerebral Palsey. At the age of nine Emily had a series of operations to straighten her body, lengthen her tendons and twist her bones back into shape. It was an experience she describes as, ‘extremely painful’, and left her permanently wheelchair bound.
We are closeted inside her Premier Inn suite near Regents Park. Scatterings of Quality Street wrappers and an unfinished mug of cold tea are the only telling signs of habitation. It is cold and clinical; its occupant sits in stark contrast.
Raised in the wild Yorkshire moors, disability, Emily recalls, was never a hindrance. “My parents never wrapped me up in cotton wool”, preferring the Northerner ‘crack on’ philosophy, which, ‘stood’ her in ‘good stead’. She was never bullied, and as the only disabled kid in her class, was never treated like an oddity.
“Had I been bullied, I would now have a different outlook on life,” she says. “I thank everybody in my life because they have given me a really positive attitude about my body and disability. To the extent that unless there is something that really phases me, I rarely think of myself as disabled.”
Emily adjusts her chair lever and moves closer. She casts a momentary wistful glance down at her metal captor and apologises profusely for making me come ‘all this way’. She may not think of herself as having a disability, but she cannot deny that her life is defined by it.
The Disabled Living Foundation estimates 10 million people in Britain are disabled. Emily, as their most enthusiastic spokesperson, is working ‘really hard’ to get rid of the taboo and fear factor that surrounds disability.
“I think disability is seen as something that can’t be successful, attractive and normal. A burden rather than a benefit,” she tells me.
Emily has come to London for the week to discuss her most recent endeavour, sex and education for disabled students.
In February 2016, former PM David Cameron blocked petitions for inclusive sexual education in schools. Currently, parents can ‘opt’ out their child from receiving sexual education. Some, like Emily feel this is an impingement on ‘every child’s right’. Crucially, children with disability receive no sexual education at all.
“Disabled children will definitely not get inclusive sexual education,” she tells me. “If a wheelchair user goes into a sex education class the bodies they see on the screen are only ever able-bodied.”
Consequently, thousands of disabled teenagers are sexually oblivious. Emily tells me about her friend John. He is currently on a care plan at Blossom House in Forest Gate. His individualised plan consists of a daily walk around the enclosed gardens with his minder, craft activities in the afternoon, and if he is feeling able, some light reading with the nurse at night. John is severely retarded. Strangulation from the umbilical cord at birth left him brain-dead and physically unstable. A near fatal accident with a kitchen knife and his fifth runaway attempt naked, John’s parents decided he needed full time care. Now 16, they have been cautioned that his behaviour grows ‘increasingly aggressive’.
“But he’s not!” Emily exclaims passionately. “He is just really flipping sexually frustrated. He has no sexual outlet whatsoever and he has no one to talk about it. He probably doesn’t even know what is going on.”
Her hands gesticulate wildly while making her point. The topic ignites passion.
“Sexual well-being for us doesn’t have a place,” she says with zest. “John is 16, he is a growing young man and he has a working dick. Of course he is aggressive, he has all these emotions and doesn’t know what to do. How is that right?”
UK based charity- Enhance the UK- are currently working with young adults, like John, at Blossom House. As a charity aimed to educate people of all ages about disability, their current campaign, ‘Undressing Disability’ tries to raise the standards in sexual health and awareness for disabled people. Their mantra; make sexual education inclusive.
“Not everyone might be able to have penetrable sex, but you can be sensual, and it can be sexual. Everybody has a right to that and everybody has the ability to do that in some way,” she asserts.
Exposing ample bosom in an Agent Provocateur corset, Emily looks sexy, relaxed and confident in the leading campaign photo for Undressing Disability. However, appearances are deceptive. While Emily is the face of a sexually brazen and honest campaign, she is not untouched by insecurity and self-doubt over her disability.
“I am not always as confident as this,” she tells me.
Put Emily in a boardroom, or live on the BBC and she is poised and articulate. When it comes to dating and relationships, however, she has a “subconscious lack of confidence,” and is “working really hard to change that.”
A trip to Rio as the Accessibility Consultant for the Metro, a documentary for BBC 3, building her brand- My Purple Compass- and posing unclad is Emily’s 2016 so far. However, it is not unscathed. Her able-bodied boyfriend of four years ‘left her’ six months ago.
“It was the disability that broke us up,” she says quietly. “I feel I have gone back to being 16 in my head a little bit, and having to build that confidence again, because it is really hard to build a confident identity around disability.”
For Emily, this is why inclusive sexual education is so important. A disabled person in more vulnerable circumstances needs society’s help to rebuild a confident identity. In the current circumstances, Emily “dreads to think,” what it would have been like.
Exteriors are deceptive. Anyone who proudly wears a favourite colour so explicitly must be extrovert. However, towards the end of our interview Emily and I remove our facades and talk as two very normal, but sensitive 24 year olds. We exchanged banter about BBC 4, the gruelling pressure of a Master’s, discovered a mutual love of travel and funnily enough, the colour, pink.
I leave the colourful Emily and her colourless suite. Her former words, “disability is something that can’t be successful and attractive,”