Recently, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across the post of one of the girls I mentor who was born without arms like me. She was gushing about having a crush on a boy at her school. It reminded me of when I was her age, and specifically, of how it felt to be a young woman yearning to be in a loving relationship.
When I was a teenager, I used to wonder about my future in the romance department just like everyone else. I was a late bloomer in the dating arena. My insecurities stemmed not from my “not having arms” but from the way society made me feel different. I am grateful for giving myself more time before dating though. It gave me more time to build confidence.
When I started to seek out serious relationships, I hoped to find someone who loved me for being me, not because I could do cool things with my feet or because they pitied me. Patrick, my former Taekwondo instructor and my now husband, fit perfectly in that mold from the day we first met. He didn’t even realize I that didn’t have arms at first—as he tells it, he just saw a new girl with a pretty face walk into the room.
It was only after Patrick started traveling with me on speaking tours that I realized how some people viewed our marriage as something special specifically because of my disability. In places like the Philippines and Africa, people would look on with mouths agape after I introduced my husband. They seemed shocked that a man without disabilities—or perhaps any man at all—might choose to be with me.
On one trip to Ghana, a man came up to Patrick and said, “thank you for loving Jessica,” as if he deserved a humanitarian award for marrying me. While I know that in his heart, that person meant well, the comment was both upsetting and very telling. I was upset and wanted to ask, “Why wouldn’t he love me? Why should my or anyone’s disability keep them from being loved?”
The comment also revealed the quiet, unspoken prejudice that people with disabilities face—that belief that the differently-abled do not or should not partake in sexual relationships. This is a natural corollary to the worldview that people with disabilities cannot be full-functioning members of society. In many developing countries, where oftentimes children with disabilities are kept hidden at home out of shame, how can people with disabilities be viewed as capable of forming loving sexual relationships?
This societal prejudice has some serious consequences. Because people with disabilities are viewed as asexual, they are often denied access to basic sexual education and reproductive health care. In many countries, people with disabilities lack access to information about family planning and disease prevention, the testing and treatment of HIV and other STDs, and care during pregnancy and delivery. This gives rise to higher incidences of sexually-transmitted infections and sexual abuse.
People with disabilities, especially women and children, are much more vulnerable to sexual violence than other groups. According to data published in the Lancet Journal in 2012, the prevalence of violence against persons with disabilities is 1.3 times higher than that in the general population. Children with disabilities are 3.7 times more likely to be victims of violence than other children.
This is due in part to people with disabilities’ difficulty in accessing violence prevention information and services, their physical or intellectual vulnerability, and their perceived lower value by society. The abuse of a person with a disability may be more easily dismissed, ignored, or unseen.
I’m proud that Handicap International, who I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador, works in countries like Ethiopia and Senegal to ensure that people with disabilities can access information and services related to sexual and reproductive health.
Their services are truly life saving. When I was in Ethiopia, I heard the story of a woman who was born deaf and had never been given any sexual education. She was married to a deaf man who died after suffering from a long illness. No one in her community knew sign language, so she was unable to learn what had happened to her husband. Then she became very ill, and despite several trips to the hospital, she did not know what was wrong with her.
Eventually a Handicap International health volunteer, who was also deaf, found her, and brought her to a clinic that partners with the organization. There she consulted with staff members trained to work with people with different types of disabilities, and was given an HIV test. It came back positive. Clinic workers explained her diagnosis to her and options for treatment. Although saddened to know she had HIV, she was relived to finally have answers and know that her health would improve once she started taking the right medicine.
Handicap International also works to prevent the sexual abuse of people with disabilities in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi. Working in schools and with local authorities and disabled peoples organizations, Handicap International teaches children and adults about their rights and what they should do if they are abused. The organization also connects victims to health and legal services.
Personally, I benefitted from being raised as an empowered woman in the United States. I knew that I deserved as much as everyone else, including the right to a lasting, loving, and safe relationship. I know that many people with disabilities may not feel the same way simply because society has told them that they don’t matter. When I talk to the young women I mentor, I give them the same advice that I would give any other young woman—cultivate your passions, be confident in your uniqueness, keep high standards, and never settle for anything less than love and respect.