Author: Evee Perich
Last year I completed my final placement for my Masters of Social work with Queensland Advocacy Incorporated (QAI). Being a community legal centre within the disability sector I was apprehensive about how my social work placement would look however, to my surprise, my time at QAI completely changed how I approach social work. During my placement I was able to witness the practical application of theories and how these not only inform my practice but define it.
QAI operates from a human rights and anti-oppressive framework so my placement was heavily focussed on issues surrounding violence against people with disabilities. My placement opened my eyes to all the kinds of violence that are inflicted against people with disabilities and challenged not only my understanding of oppression but my focus as an emerging social worker. I was able to research and contribute to systems advocacy campaigns concerning legislative violence such as Restrictive Practices to coordinating awareness campaigns relating to physical and sexual violence. Through these campaigns I was able to see that operating from an anti-oppressive framework shaped everything about me from my language, my values, my approach to work and certainly how I processed information.
By far the most defining moment on my placement was when I was gifted the honour to present at parliament on behalf of QAI. When I was first approached to write a presentation I was under the impression that I would be talking about violence however to my surprise I was asked to speak about sex or more accurately, the unintended consequences of Section 216 of the Queensland criminal code which criminalises intimate relationships with people with impairments of the mind. Section 216 was designed to protect the vulnerable from sexual exploitation, which is a good thing as people living with disabilities, particularly women, are more likely to experience sexual violence than people without disabilities. So laws to protect our most vulnerable are always a good thing however, in the case of Section 216, many legitimate consensual and loving relationships are being ruled invalid and illegal.
Section 216 is a double edged sword of protection and prohibition because, unlike all other jurisdictions within Australia, Queensland is the only state that does not adopt a consent based approach to the law. This immediately silences people with intellectual impairments and once again removes them from any conversation about sex, intimacy and sexual wellbeing. This realisation made me wonder about the consequences when we don’t talk about the sexual wellbeing of people living with disabilities. Or perhaps what I should be asking is why don’t we talk about sex and intimacy in relation to disability? Rights to bodily integrity as well as the right to freely form relationships, including founding a family, are human rights protected in international conventions so why are we so afraid of these conversations? Historically our inability to talk about sex and disability has led us down a path of discrimination, institutionalisation, sterilisation, and eugenics however even today as a society we still struggle to separate the disability from the person. People with intellectual impairments are seen as ‘eternal children’ and labelled as asexual or hypersexual and are always viewed through the lens of risk. This made me realise that we need to find a less oppressive way to talk about sex and disability without exclusively framing it in terms of vulnerability and abuse. People living with disabilities are entitled to have a relationship with sex outside of sexual victimisation, otherwise sex and intimacy becomes something that is only seen as taboo, dangerous and forbidden. Viewing human beings in terms of risk and vulnerability is not only incredibly disempowering but it is at the core of Section 216.
So it seems that my presentation was actually about violence as Section 216 is a form of legislative violence and unfortunately this law represents the wider social and political beliefs around disability and sex. Until I started researching this law and reflecting on the consequences to people living with disabilities I didn’t fully understand how oppressive and far reaching the fallout of this law could be. By avoiding conversations around sexuality and actively preventing access to things such as sex education and sexual expression we are actually increasing the risk of exploitation and abuse towards people living with disabilities. So not only are we disempowering people we are actually making them more vulnerable.
Instead of involving children with disabilities in conversations about puberty we place our own comfort, convenience, and paternalistic agendas first and commit medical violence such as forced or coerced sterilisation.
As an alternative to conversations about consent we punish inappropriate behaviour with antilibido medication and in some cases forensic orders, indefinite detention and label them as sex offenders. Sex education and conversations about consent empowers people to understand and recognise abuse which in turn reduces the likelihood of becoming victims as well as the possibility of that abuse being normalised and repeated by breaking the cycle and preventing people from becoming future perpetrators of sexual violence.
As a substitute to engaging in respectful conversations about healthy relationships we create structural and political barriers around parenthood, under the guise of protection, to justifying the removal of children from parents with intellectual impairments. In 2011 all levels of government in Australia committed to the National Disability Strategy which demonstrated a unified effort among the states and territories to improve the lives of people living with disabilities. The government declared that the idea that people with disabilities could be more disadvantaged by society’s response to their disability than the disability itself, led to greater need to focus on policies to remove those barriers.
The National Disability Strategy states that the level of control an individual has over his or her own life can make a big difference to the quality of their life as well as recognising that social participation and developing relationships are fundamental to the wellbeing and health of the individual. The existence of laws such as Section 216 further confirms that people living with disability have less ownership and control over their bodies and lives than able bodied people. However, this issue is not only present in the sexual lives of people living with disability as it spreads into every aspect of their lives from access to health care, housing, education and recognition under the law.
As social workers we know that feeling connected is a human right; in fact it could be argued that it is what makes us human. Feeling disconnected to our community, to other human beings, leads to feelings of isolation and loneliness which significantly impacts on our mental and physical health. The denial of an intimate relationship, if it is desired, contributes to these experiences of disconnection and loneliness. As advocates we must commit to supporting people to lead full lives including sexual expression, which is why Section 216 needs to be amended to ensure these discriminatory barriers are removed.
Having the opportunity to talk about these issues at Parliament was extremely exciting and humbling however as I was standing at the podium I couldn’t help but feel like an able bodied intruder. It felt almost uncomfortable to be initiating conversations about the sexual lives of people with disabilities as I am aware how dehumanising these conversations can become. We need to acknowledge how we continuously blur the line between public and private lives for people with disabilities however these conversations are important yet it must also be acknowledged that my role as a social worker, as an able bodied ally, is not just to start these conversations but to ensure that people with intellectual impairments have access to the same platforms I did.
As an advocate I can’t forget that I am in this space via invitation only and that my words and actions belong to others, are for others and is only being heard because of the suffering of others. After all my research about this law, I believe that it was perhaps this observation that helped me understand antioppressive practice the most.