This year there is a new player in the lucrative calendar market and it's called "Undressing Disability 2014". Created by the charity Enhance The UK, it features photos of disabled people posing in their underwear with the goal of challenging stereotypes that disabled people aren't sexy while raising money to roll out inclusive sex and relationship education in schools. The launch of the calendar was featured in these esteemed pages earlier this week and the piece includes an interview with Enhance The UK's CEO Jennie Williams in which she explains the thinking behind the calendar.
Reading Jennie's comments set me thinking about my up bringing as a disabled child. The first thing that I think it is important to state is that I didn't realize I was different until quite late. Sure I wasn't very good at the running and jumping games and always got caught first when playing tag with the children who lived near me on the street in Luton where I grew up, but no one ever pointed and said "you're disabled". In fact it wasn't until I was well into my first year at junior school at the age of 8 that a fellow pupil threw an insult at me about my limpy leg. While the rest of the children also started to highlight my difference by giving me nicknames like Peg Leg and Limpalong, the child who started it always took it to a higher level. So much so that I decided to stop him one day by kicking him with the leg that caused him so much offense directly in the bits that made him different from the girls. I can safely say that being struck in those bits by a leg encased in a metal caliper stopped his taunting in one swift kick. By now the other less insulting names had become part of who I was and I proudly took on the monicker of Peg Austin the Six Million Dollar Cripple when we played Bionic Man. I mean I actually had a metal leg!
My parents fought to ensure I attended a mainstream school, so my education was exactly the same as anyone else attending school during the 1970s. That goes for sex education too. It started in the first year of high school with flowers and frogs, but by the third year we moved on to human reproduction. Anyone my age will remember the book with the photo of a man and woman standing naked with very 70's pubic hair which caused so much mirth. By the time my Mum and Dad decided it was time for that "talk" I felt I had already done sex at school, which is what I told them as I blushed a fetching shade of red. Of course I was wrong, but no more wrong that any of my non-disabled school mates when they faced the same situation. As life went on I would discover how little school sex education readies you for the real world of relationships.
Annoyingly just as I had started to enter the world of love and flowers life threw a spanner in the works and at the age of fifteen I was rushed to hospital with a spinal collapse, which resulted in me using a wheelchair. Not only did I loose the use of my legs but I also found myself unable to achieve erections. Even today the general consensus is that to have sex as a man you need to get a stiffy, so this really knocked my confidence for six as a teenager in 1981. I was sure that my chances to find love or even to have sex were over, and so I became a "really good friend" to a group of women at my six form college. Unexpectedly this friendship blossomed with one of my mates into a full sexual relationship and she showed me that sex is so much more than what I had been taught in school. While this relationship did not last it showed me that even as a disabled man with an impairment that impacted on my sexual function I could find both sex and love.
Since then I have become a bit evangelical around issues of sex and disability. When I started my career as a TV presenter and journalist in the early 1990s I convinced Channel 4 to commission a documentary on the subject called Willing and Able, which I think explored many of the issues that Enhance The UK are still trying to confront over twenty years later. I give talks and advice to newly disabled people on sexuality and I am a sex and relationship columnist for the disability issues magazine PosAbility. I am also very happily married to my wonderful wife Diane and I hope she'll agree with me when I say we have no complaints in the bedroom department.
I do think that I owe much of my sexual confidence to attending a mainstream school throughout my childhood. Not only because I received the usual sex education classes but also as I had the same experience of awakening sexuality as the rest of society. Sometimes I was knocked back, sometimes I wasn't. Sure at the age of fifteen I had a major hurdle to overcome, but my up bringing gave me the tools to get through this period and come out the other side as sexually confident disabled man. Anything that helps us move towards a future where disabled people will feel the same and the wider society considers disabled people as sexual, even sexy, is fine by me. So bravo Enhance The UK.
Just in case you're interested, here's my entry for next year's calendar.