My Body, My Relationships

A woman sits in her wheelchair, wearing black trousers and a bright orange vest. She has short hair and is scowling, tied to the security gate in front of her front door. 11 DECEMBER 2014 JU GOSLING AKA ju90 WRITES: Today I had the very great pleasure of being present at an event that was not, for reasons which will become obvious, advertised in our programme. For the past 12 weeks, with the support of the Big Lottery Fund, we have been running a course for women with learning difficulties entitled ‘My Body, My Relationships’. Today was the official sharing and certificate presentation at St Luke’s Community Centre, followed by what proved to be an excellent celebratory festive lunch provided by Sarah and her team at St Luke’s Community Café.

The ‘My Body, My Relatiobships’ course has been created to empower disabled women who for whatever reason have been denied access to alcohol, drugs and sex education at school. It has been led by Together! Project Worker Tae Catford, with input from the health sector and the police, and support from Carla Aveleira. Each half-day session has used a combination of discussion, and arts activities ranging from music and drama to cake decoration, to explore the issues in the context of Independent Living. The group also visited an exhibition at the Science Museum in West London, travelling there by public transport.

The ‘My Body, My Relationships’ course was developed in response to some of the difficulties that we have witnessed our participants and audience members experiencing. Disabled people, particularly those with learning difficulties or profound levels of impairment, are routinely touched by care workers, Dial-a-Ride and medical staff etc without having our permission asked first. This is both abusive in itself and leads to further abuse, as disabled people perceive themselves as having no rights over our own bodies, and no right to ‘no’. This lack of awareness of personal boundaries can also lead to disabled people being segregated for fear that they will touch others inappropriately – “no touching, no touching” is a regular chant from support workers at the local FE college, as they march the ‘special needs’ students past their peers to eat lunch in an area segregated from the rest.

The disempowerment of disabled people means that ‘mate crime’ is also a growing problem in the borough, as it is nationally – particularly where disabled people are targeted by gang members, drug dealers and sex workers in order to use their homes for illegal activities. Meanwhile ‘Independent Living’ is frequently used as an excuse by support staff and carers to ignore disabled people who are drinking at dangerously high levels, often alone in public places. Central to the course was an understanding of everyone’s rights and responsibilities over their own bodies within the context of different social relationships, and an awareness of the right to have control over our own lives, homes and relationships.

At the start of today’s proceedings, course participants acted out some of these scenarios with a new understanding of their rights embedded. In the first scene, a woman asked a support worker for her own mobile phone instead of only occasionally being granted use of the support worker’s, so she could have more regular contact with her family. In the next scene, a woman told her sister and her sister’s friends to leave her home because they were drunk, rather than continuing to use her home to socialise in. In the third, a woman told her support worker that the next time she went out with her boyfriend on a date she wanted the support workers to sit at a separate table, not with them as previously. Another woman explained that loving your own body is better than having sex with strangers.

The group finished by reading us this poem they had written during the course:

Last night I watched Dirty Dancing
Feeling snug as a blanket
Got a funny little belly
Happy like a butterfly

Then that gobby bitch upset me
Could right swing for her
Feeling fit to kill ‘er

But Im going for some light lunch now
And a little sleep
In my onesie soft as sheep
Dont let the bed bugs bite.

We feel very proud of the women who worked so hard over three months, as well as all of the team who created and delivered the course. The course itself is now available for commissioning by disabled people’s organisations, housing associations, care providers etc – we can deliver it ourselves in London and the South-East, and/or can train a trainer to deliver the course elsewhere. The current participants are going to become Peer Mentors, and we hope to secure further funding in 2015 to develop this role. Many congratulations to all concerned.