On Monday 9th November, Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward, took place at St Mary’s Church, Sheffield, as part of the Economic and Social Science Research Council’s Festival of Social Sciences. Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward was a workshop for people with learning disabilities and/or autism (hereby labelled people), self-advocates, their families, friends, allies and those who work with and for them (e.g. care staff, support workers, social workers, and associated professionals). Members of the public, students, and activists who share an interest in the workshop themes were also welcome. See here for a blog post I wrote pre-event.
I’d been planning the event for some time with academic and community colleagues: Dan Goodley, University of Sheffield; Katherine Runswick-Cole, Manchester Metropolitan University; Nick Hodge and Jill Smith, The Autism Centre, Sheffield Hallam University; and Sinead McHugh-Hicks and Sam Matthews from Dimensions, a not-for-profit organisation which supports around 3,500 disabled people and their families throughout England and Wales. We were really lucky to have local autistic activist Grace Parry come to speak on the day. Grace shared her experiences as an autistic woman on the asexuality spectrum (as she described it); Grace’s talk reminded us also of the right to not desire intimacy with others and to listen to labelled people first. We were also thrilled that Romeo Biggs, a labelled Trans self-advocate co-researcher from Making Space, Canada, told his story through a screening of his short film, which you can see here. Attendees were really taken by Romeo’s poignant film in which he centred his denial of institutional and familial support as a Trans person. We also had self-advocate Jodie Bradley from Speak Up Self-Advocacy Rotherham, who at the beginning of the day spoke about her recent international work on intimate citizenship. In short, collaborating in these ways enabled us to bridge academic, community, practitioner, activist and disciplinary divides to host a seminal event exploring the complex interplay of labelled people’s lives, intimate citizenship, and austerity. In this post, I’d like to speak a little bit about what happened on the day. Additionally, check out our lively Twitter hashtag #WaysForward2015 to see the tweets from the day.
What is intimate citizenship?
‘Intimate citizenship’ is a term coined by the British Sociologist Ken Plummer (2003). It refers to the evolving relationships between the private and personal with public aspects of our lives. More simply, matters of sexuality, childbearing and rearing, loving partnerships, intimate labour and work, gender identity, friendships, care and caring relationships, spirituality and other ‘personal’ concerns are increasingly contoured by, and penetrate, public life. Intimate citizenship necessarily involves negotiating body-based, psycho-emotional and social contact with others. As such, intimate problems, commonly understood as private, have significant public and policy implications. Intimate citizenship brings into relief how our apparently private and personal choices — who we love, our work to maintain loving and intimate relationships, and our consumption and capacities that shape and sustain this work — inevitably involve and affect others. Inevitably, changing political and socio-economic relations of public life significantly shape such relations, making austerity a key determinant in the extent to which socially disenfranchised and vulnerable groups have access to and can make claims for intimate citizenship. Katherine Runswick-Cole and I made a short accessible film to explain intimate citizenship; you can watch it here.
What happened on the day?
One of the initial activities of the day was discuss the question: What does it take for you to be intimate in your life? This was purposeful towards getting attendees to think beyond “what disabled people need” and more towards a shared reflexivity of the complexities of intimate life for all people, and about the many components that go into making intimacy a reality. I wanted to challenge our far-reaching naturalised cultural assumptions about intimacy, to show that intimacy is always political, economic (with tangible material underpinnings), cultural and social, and that intimacy (for those who want it) is a form of privilege and seldom a right.
We held Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward because intimate citizenship is fragile for many, and is often routinely contested, controlled and contained in the lives of labelled people. This is despite the fact that the rights of disabled people to pursue several spheres of intimate life associated with love, labour and care, including sexual identity and expression, friendship, marriage and cohabitation, family life and parenthood, are enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
In short, we wanted to make space to bring together a range of people – academics, labelled people, community folk, service providers, and students to consider this reality and imagine ways forward to something more; a better reality for labelled people who desire intimacy. This really took shape in Dimensions’ presentation, which asked attendees to consider its practice as a care provider and suggest improvements. It was deeply refreshing for a service provider to open itself up to wanting to learn more (from a range of voices) in order to improve its service provision in this area and, in turn, the lives of those it supports. I would really relish the chance to work with Dimensions again: its positioning of sexual and intimate politics as a priority area speaks volumes about its ethics of care as an organisation.
To do so is particularly important when, in practice, we actually know little of disabled people’s experiences of intimate citizenship; little detailed exploration of people’s intimate experiences has been undertaken. Even less is known about the spaces disabled people may easily access and stake claims to their intimate citizenship, especially in austere times, and how this may shape intimate subjectivities, relations and practice. Nor do we know what new ableisms — the exclusions, disadvantages and silencing of people with impairments — or other barriers are encountered within the exercise of intimate rights – particularly in the context of austerity. Considering Intimate Lives: Ways Forward served to create a space where these (changing) facets of intimate life could be discussed, heard, politicised, provided and acted upon. Dan Goodley and Katherine Runswick-Cole’s knowledge cafe at the end of the day asked attendees what they had learned, what they were going to take forward from the day, and the impact it would have in their own work, lives, service and practice. This accountability affirms that the intimate lives of disabled people are not individual problems, but are shared, collective, and social; we are all accountable as disabled people, activists, advocates and allies.
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