I’m young, vibrant, disabled – why wouldn’t I be having sex?

I’m a 23-year-old man – assuming I don’t have sex just because I use a wheelchair would be funny, if it wasn’t so frustrating, writes ‘Heartstopper’ actor Ash Self

Thursday 02 May 2024 12:06 BST
‘I’ve become eye-wateringly aware that when others look at me, they see a wheelchair – not a person’
‘I’ve become eye-wateringly aware that when others look at me, they see a wheelchair – not a person’ (Hannah Mittelstaedt)

I’m sure most disabled people my age can attest to people making wild assumptions about us. And it’s not just strangers, but people close to us, too.

They look at me and immediately make snap judgements about what I can and can’t do; and what I should and shouldn’t do. And it’s getting really boring.

I’m a 23-year-old man – assuming I don’t have sex just because I use a wheelchair would be funny, if it wasn’t so frustrating.

I started using a wheelchair at 17. Before that, I did what I think most older teenagers in London were doing: drinking vodka mixed with lukewarm diet coke in the park; trying to work out if I was being flirted with or lightly bullied.

And this is what people expect of teenagers. They might not like it, but I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone. Yet as soon as you become a disabled teenager or young person, for some reason people expect you to no longer be interested in doing “irresponsible young people stuff”. And it’s a complete misnomer.

That’s not to say my life isn’t any different now that my movement is restricted. It is. I woke up on my 18th birthday in a hospital bed, while most of my friends had spent theirs getting so drunk you could almost hear their livers screaming from beneath their T-shirts.

Yet turning 18 meant exactly the same to me as it does to everyone else: I could vote, see whatever I wanted in the cinema and buy alcohol legally for the first time. The nurses even discussed sneaking me out to the pub if I wasn’t discharged by the evening.

Thankfully, I was discharged – and I got home to find my closest friends ready to take me to the local Wetherspoons. But once we got there it became apparent that the bar staff expected me not to drink. They assumed I was going to buy a pint just because I could – and then stare at it for a bit and leave.

I went up to the bar in my chair and the barman examined my ID for what felt like 10 minutes before looking at my friend like he was asking permission to serve me. I was repeatedly asked that night if me drinking was “a good idea”; and honestly, it probably wasn’t – but not because I was in a wheelchair.

As for why I chose to go to the pub: well, why wouldn’t I? I’d had so much of my independence stripped from me in the year leading up to my 18th that I was determined to reclaim it, even if it was just a pint’s worth.

Since then – in fact, the whole way through my twenties so far – the same thing has happened. I’ve felt more need to justify my right to drink a singular pint in the last five years than I ever did when I was drinking illegally as a teenager.

But the discrimination doesn’t stop with the awkward looks when I’m on a night out with my mates. The government are currently waging a war on people with disabilities and poor mental health.

There’s a benefits “crackdown” as disabled people may be offered vouchers instead of cash payments, and Rishi Sunak continues to demonise “sicknote Britain”.

And, as we’ve seen in recent news reports, disabled people like me are treated as though we have completely different desires, needs and wants to anyone else.

Sex is no different. I’ve found, through dating apps, that a lot of people just don’t know how to interact with disabled people. They don’t treat us like we’re the same as anyone else on there, looking for love (or just a good time).

I’ve become eye-wateringly aware that when others look at me (or my profile picture), they see a wheelchair – not a person. As a country, it seems to me that we’ve decided that wheelchair means vulnerable, meek, and needy; someone you probably shouldn’t have sex with, or you’ll end up on a list.

It’s not just young disabled people that experience this, either. Disabled people of all ages are infantilised relentlessly. We’re expected to be objects of pity or inspiration, but never desire.

People want me to convince them to donate to Children In Need – not get off with me. And while my experience on dating apps has generally been pretty positive and I’ve dated really great people, I still get messages offering to “look after” me.

I know most are well-meaning, but all I really want is for people to look at me and not think: “Oh, poor thing, I wonder if he needs help” – and instead think, “damn, he’s fit”.

Ash Self is an actor and writer from East London

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