Going clothes shopping as a disabled woman is a nightmare, says D H Kelly
Few things make me feel more of an outsider than shopping for clothes in person.
On top of the commonplace problems of having non-standard proportions, I don’t cope at all well with the bustle of crowds, bright lights and loud music. Half the clothes are displayed high up, out of my reach, and often in narrow aisles I can barely navigate without my chair catching items on the lower rails.
Then there’s the staff. Clothes shop staff can be occasionally lovely, but I have encountered too many who are frosty and condescending to a wheelchair-user who needs a bit of help, treating me like a child playing at dressing up. They huff and puff, roll their eyes with impatience and disapprove of my choices.
There have been plenty of occasions when I have given up shopping because I am intimidated by the staff – some of those ladies have very long fingernails.
On one occasion, at a well-known high street clothes shop, I was told that the entire ladies department was upstairs and there was no lift. Having some awareness that the shop was violating the Disability Discrimination Act, the scarlet-taloned assistant offered to fetch me some clothes, if I knew exactly what I wanted. I said that wouldn’t work because I would need to try things on. She responded, “You could use the men’s fitting room. Nobody would mind you.”
My clothes-shopping nightmares epitomise the way that, as a disabled woman, I am often treated as though I have no gender.
Clothes-shopping, style and presentation are not supposed to matter to me. I’m not even supposed to feel self-conscious about getting undressed in the presence of strange men. And those men, in turn, aren’t supposed to think of me as a woman, not enough to feel self-conscious about getting undressed in my presence.
Of course, in some future egalitarian utopia, perhaps we will all strip in front of strangers or wear clothes made of see-through plastic, but in this world, where there are firm and gendered social rules about this stuff, it’s disconcerting to find oneself being made an exception.
It’s impossible to fully disentangle issues of gender and sexuality. In The Observer’s Sex Poll 2008, 70% of people surveyed said they were unlikely to have sex with a someone with physical impairments.
While some of that is about the perceived attractiveness of disabled people, I’m sure that a big part of this is that disabled people, especially those with physical or intellectual impairments, are perceived as being without sexuality – in the broadest possible sense.
Sometimes this is phrased as disabled people being seen as asexual, but asexuality is at least a sexual identity (if a rather marginalised one). Disabled people aren’t seen as merely disinclined towards sexual behaviour, but, along with small children, we’re seen incapable of the inclination.
Part of this is to do with a profound lack of imagination when it comes to the mechanics of sex and disabled bodies. Many people seem to believe that they can judge the full physical capacity of any disabled person they encounter and there’s this idea that if you can’t perform the baby-making act, then not only do you have no sex-life at all, but you are no longer a sexual being.
I remember being party to these discussions in my non-wheelchair-using youth, where the thought experiment was proposed, “What if you met the man or woman of your dreams, who was perfect in every way, but then they were paralysed from the waist down and you could never have sex ever again?” A very small minority of disabled people really can’t have a sex life, but even that doesn’t stop them from having a sexual identity, having romantic relationships, caring about presentation and so on.
Then there’s what I call the Inside I’m Dancing problem. The title of the film about two young wheelchair-users implies that if you can’t get up to boogie, you can only ever dance in your head.
Because our bodies are seen as defective, it is assumed that neither we nor anyone else can take pleasure in our physicality. Disabled bodies are things to be overcome, things other people have to ‘see past’ in order to see us as people. Bodies can be extremely painful and rebellious, but most provide access to a wealth of sensual pleasure, can be attractive and bring pleasure to others as well.
Finally, because of the strong association between disability and medicine, many people assume that the only intimate relationships we have involve the roles of carer and dependant, and are therefore inherently unequal. Our non-disabled partners are automatically praised and sympathised with as our self-sacrificing carers. Such a picture of our relationships negates the possibility of sexuality. A disabled person is someone to be looked after, not loved.
We are regarded much like very small children who need gendered clothing and haircuts in order for to identity us as boys or girls, except nobody’s really interested whether we should be wearing pink or blue. Disabled toilets are unisex. Disability paraphernalia is depressingly neutral – not that I want a pink wheelchair with Hello Kitty on the seat, but I’d like aids to be like all the other gadgets and tools we use everyday; designed with the idea that the user will have some degree of aesthetic taste and a sense of identity. There’s no style magazines for disabled people, no fashion lines for people who sit down all the time and we never see disabled models.
Of course, the way that disabled people experience gender varies according to their impairments – or how their impairments are perceived. From films and television shows, we see that it is possible to have a mental illness and be a feminine, sexually attractive woman, as long as your sad face is beautiful, as long your mental illness isn’t one which manifests itself in non-feminine behaviour (like aggression or not washing one’s hair regularly) and it helps a lot if you can be rehabilitated through the power of romantic love (such as in Secretary).
Women can have chronic physical illness, so long as they fade away quickly and quietly to a lacrimonious score and never complain – let alone survive and learn to live with their condition. Women can also have sensory impairments, which like physical weakness, can compound their feminine vulnerability (such as in the terrible Jennifer Eight).
All other impairments are portrayed almost exclusively by men.
Men can have mental illnesses, so long as it is dramatic and accompanied by genius – men who cry for no reason or sleep all day are never seen. The quirky but loveable guys with intellectual impairments or autism are always men. Disabled characters with mobility impairments (those who are not villains) can be sexually attractive, but they have to be hyper-masculine – like mountain-climbing sports coach Kenny from The Book Group, or battling-through-all-pain Dr House from House.
There are very few dramatic portrayals of men with impairments which make them physically weak or vulnerable; men with depression and chronic physical illness are more likely to be told to pull themselves together and push through it. Non-athletic men with visible impairments seem even more vulnerable to street harassment than disabled women.
Meanwhile, women with mental illness who behave erratically or aggressively, or who self-medicate with drink and illegal drugs, are more likely to be condemned as ‘crazy’ and considered incapable of being a partner or parent, than poorly men who behave the same way. And while many women with physical impairments deviate from the feminine aesthetic ideal by being unfit, lopsided, overweight, underweight or under-developed. The blogger Wheelchair Dancer has talked about being described
as butch because of the upper-body strength she’s built up self-propelling her chair.
Occasionally, being treated as not quite a woman or not quite a man has its advantages. My boyfriend, who is also disabled, is never obliged to assert his masculinity by bluffing his way through conversations about sport, since nobody assumes he’s interested.
Personally, I don’t want to have children, and I’ve made it to the age of 30 without so much as a hint of encouragement, let alone pressure in that direction. But such advantages are personal, and it’s not much fun for disabled women who want children and are frequently met with shock, disapproval and profound lack of sympathy if their hopes are not fulfilled.
In general, the de-gendering effects of disability are extremely disadvantageous, apart from treatment in clothes shops and depressing statistics about the number of people who might be prepared to sleep with us. As Philippa Willetts wrote about earlier this year, disabled women are more vulnerable to sexual assault than non-disabled women, and the idea that we are without sexuality compounds this vulnerability.
Disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic abuse. The idea that we are not quite women and not capable of ‘normal’ or equitable romantic relationships is part of what puts us at risk.
As a feminist, I want to live in a world where ideas of gender have far less effect on our lives and the way that men, women and non-binary people are treated. The experiences of disabled people don’t really show us what it would be like to have no gender, only what it is like, in a very gendered world, when some people simply don’t count.
Image of disabled access sign at a shopping mall uploaded by Flickr user Vanessa Pike-Russell. Image of a couple at the seaside, with one partner in a wheelchair used with the consent of the persons shown. Image of a statue of artist Alison Lapper, pregnant (made by Mark Quinn) uploaded by Flickr user florathexplora.