MA Diploma Disability Studies
I decided to write a review on the social group known as The Outsiders. The
group's main aim is to enable disabled adults to form personal relationships,
including specifically sexual ones (Shakespeare 1996), either with each other or
with non-disabled members. The group has been in existence for several years,
and has attracted a great deal of attention, including reaction from present and
former members, and in particular from within the Disabled People's Movement .
Many of the comments made by former members of the group have been critical,
sometimes highly condemnatory, and frequently made by disabled women (Rae 1984).
In both my professional and private capacity I am interested in sexuality and
disability, and specifically in the ways in which disabled adults can establish
meaningful relationships with other people (disabled or on-disabled). Issues
such as sexuality and the forming of relationships are regularly discussed in
mainstream youth and community work, but rarely with regard to disabled people
(which is not surprising since disabled people are often absent from mainstream
groups). Indeed, it is only in the last few years that disabled people
themselves have been in the forefront of this debate, and the leading
protagonist have usually been activists within the wider disability movement,
who are well aware of other social and sexual issues such as gender, sexism,
homophobia, and so on. The Outsiders was set up (and is still fronted by) an
able bodied woman who for many years has been well known in the controversial
arena of sexual liberation and soft-core pornography, so it is hardly surprising
that her group has both supporters and critics. A recent BBC-2 documentary
series (From the Edge) devoted a whole programme to the group, and this essay
picks up the main themes that were aired.
SEXUALITY AND DISABILITY
Morris (1989) writes "once we first become disabled we are usually denied any
form of sexual identity." It is certainly true that among the many negative
stereotypes of disability some of the most commonly held views are that disabled
people are non-sexual, or sometimes asexual beings, or that they are likely to
be attracted only to each other.
THE OUTSIDERS CLUB
The Outsiders Club was established by Tuppy Owens in 1979. Tuppy, a self-
proclaimed stalwart campaigner for sexual equality, and a trained sex therapist.
She conceived the idea of a social group for disabled adults after her close
male friend, Nigel, became blind. Fearful of the effect of disability ever
afflicting her own life - and blindness in particular - she became determined to
assist Nigel in any way she could. She began by taking Nigel to parties where
she described to him in great detail what other women were wearing, and took
delight in it. She claimed that this enabled him to have more fun, as he could
imagine what women were wearing, even though he could not see them. One question
raised by this is: whose needs were being fulfilled? I have already suggested
that many able-bodied people have quite misguided views concerning issues of
sexuality and disability, so was Tuppy fulfilling a sexual fantasy of her own,
or performing a valid role for her friend? (Shakespeare, Gillespie-Sells et al.
The club produces its own Practical Suggestions Guide, a guide considered
offensive and oppressive by some members of the disability movement (Shakespeare,
Gillespie-Sells et al. 1996). The reason for this view is that the guide's
content is based around a medical model of disability which suggests that
disabled people's problems are due to their impairments, not to environmental
and attitudinal factors (Oliver 1996). In other words, in the view of the
critics the guide fails to acknowledge the dominant model of disability which is
widely propagated by the disability movement. There is a 'medical' side to
disability (or 'impairment') and it is at least arguable that some (maybe most)
problems of sexual function are intrinsically medical - and not imposed by
society. However, issues of shyness, assertiveness, and social/sexual confidence
may well be rooted in expectations of disapproval, contempt or rejection from an
unaware non-disabled public.
HOW THE CLUB TREATS ITS MEMBERS.
Billy Prosser, a member of the club considers that the topic "Disability and
sexuality is taboo", ie sexuality as expressed by disabled people carries a kind
of stigma. Goffman in 1963 uses the term "stigma" to refer to an attribute that
is discrediting. To an extent this derives from traditional cultural and media
assumptions about physical beauty and "attractiveness". Disabled people are
seldom portrayed (for instance in films, on TV, in books, comics or magazines)
as sexy, or desirable, or sexually alluring to non-disabled people. The club's
membership is made up of able-bodied and disabled people. What is interesting
about the ...
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