In the disability rights and justice communities, we have a popular rallying cry, “nothing about us without us.” It means that we won’t tolerate profits being earned from our experiences, stories, and images when we, disabled people, have not been thoroughly involved in the process, from planning to implementation. The sex and disability festival, LoveAbilities, has not lived up to this principle and instead commoditized disabled people and our experiences. Only one half of the founding team is disabled and it is unclear as to who came up with the idea for the festival — the disabled team member or the nondisabled team member — and it matters.
Dr. Martha Tara Lee [nondisabled] has a history of speaking over marginalized people; of speaking for them and not with them; and of seeking congratulations for her actions while ultimately causing harm. This makes the matter of origin for LoveAbilities extremely important; was it birthed when Martha was approached by someone who is disabled and can speak from her own experience? Or, instead, did this idea come from Martha herself, who has a history of harming marginalized communities and seeking accolades for her performative behavior? By supporting the LoveAbilities festival, which narrative would ticket holders be supporting?
Beyond the creation of the festival remain many other troubling aspects to its current existence. In this post, we’ll be breaking them down by topic.
Inspiration Porn Workshops
Of the festival’s 29 informational sessions, only twelve (41%) of them seem to be on the topic of sex and disability itself. Four of these (13.7%) are focused on sexuality and Spinal Cord Injury. The remainder of the festival’s workshops are about “living your best life,” which is a form of inspiration porn. There are more of these styles of workshops than there are workshops addressing actual skills. On the website, the sessions are accompanied by the gamut of inspiration porn stock photography. The problems with the website do not stop there.
Additionally, many of the sessions are being put on by abled presenters who interact with disability in their professional lives as opposed to having lived experience as a disabled person. Information about the disability community should be coming from within, not as an observational exercise but as a sharing of lived experience. Otherwise, these observations turn us into the exhibited rather than the exhibitor.
Inaccessibility of Website, Festival Format, and Sessions
Like the case studies, Autism Speaks, which represents themselves with a puzzle piece image, treats the disabled/autistic person as someone being observed rather than an autonomous person. The LoveAbilities website makes copious use of this problematic puzzle piece imagery, off-putting to many in the disability world due to its connections with cure-seeking, eugenics-based organizations including Autism Speaks. These organizations focus more on the ‘struggles’ of abled family members than on the needs of disabled folks. Autism Speaks also has embraced tactics such as electric shock therapy and other problematic behavior modifying measures not supported by the autistic community.
The website does not use ALT text for the descriptions of graphics and photographs, nor does the website describe the images in another way. This also brings up the question of whether presenters and other speakers would describe their meeting materials such as slides visually for users unable to see the screen. The links on the site are red on a bright white background, which is troublesome for those who have color blindness and photosensitivity. The text on the site is a lighter shade of gray, which is low contrast and thus more difficult to read on the white background. Indeed, the website has dozens of contrast errors on each page. Due to these, the LoveAbilities website does not meet the accessibility requirements of Australia, where the website is hosted.
There are no contacts details listed on the website for who to get in touch with about accessibility needs or issues. On its own, this omission displays a lack of understanding of the wide variety of accommodations needed across the greater disability community. Without someone to contact about accessibility needs, those attending the festival find themselves on their own. Some disabled people may require visuals described, meaning they may find the festival completely inaccessible. Others may need sign language interpreters or other accommodations not offered.
Pair and group work is listed as required or asked of participants throughout the festival’s sessions. Instead of being listed in the individual sessions, this information is instead listed on a FAQ page without additional accessibility options given. Instead, people are assigned randomly to partner with someone who may or may not have competing access needs. Furthermore, this is listed in a section that also states “people arriving as singles (or couples that like to play with other people)” would have this option. Play is often a codeword for sexual activity, but is not defined as such here, leading to the question of what this word means in this space. Does this apply to the BDSM panel and, if so, what type of safety measures are in place? LoveAbilities doesn’t say.
While there are some accessibility measures taken, such as live captioning and audio transcription with recordings, this also feels performative due to the lack of overall accessibility. For a conference across countries, there are no interpreters offered either for spoken word or sign language. There are no explanations as to which platform this festival uses, meaning users can’t even look into procuring their own accommodations ahead of time.
Policies: Safety and Consent, Privacy
Also lacking in accessibility is the Safety and Consent policy, which has been written for neurotypicals. “The Director of the festival reserves the right to ask anyone to leave, if they are causing disruption to the festival and the other participants.” What exactly is “disruption?” It’s up to the Director to decide, but how can attendees keep from being disruptive without guidelines as to what is considered disruptive? The page fails to list safety protocols, who to speak with should the need arise, and no guidelines for escalating issues.
Attendees are unable to give informed consent around attending as there has been no information provided regarding their privacy, recording opt-in, etc. To have informed consent, there must be transparency of procedure, which the festival lacks in numerous ways.
In a similar vein, at least two sessions feature presenters speaking about case studies — another instance of the observation of disabled people being highlighted over the lived experience of disabled people. To make matters worse, too often with case studies, the practitioner has not provided informed consent about participation in the study to the recipient of their services. There is no transparency around these sessions to know if or how much the observed disabled people know about what is being shared about them.
There is a complete lack of transparency regarding many things with LoveAbilities. For example, the festival has a very long, impressive list of sponsors, yet the festival is also asking for donations. With so many sponsors, why is there a need for donations — where exactly is all the sponsorship money going that donations are still being requested? As for the sponsors themselves, they didn’t seem to question who was involved with the scope of the festival; it seems as though sponsors signed on without vetting anyone involved for disability-related lived experience or other expertise, nor diversity of disability, LGBTQ, or BBIPOC experience.
The Resources section reflects this lack of range of inclusion. The included sources are very limited in their scope of representation; most are books or sites by festival organizers and session hosts, which is self-serving and limited. Due to this there is a distinct absence of a variety of voices/representation from diverse backgrounds. The perspectives of many, particularly those of Black individuals, are not included. This lack of inclusion is present throughout the festival.
Diversity Does Not Equal Inclusion
Diversity in an event’s lineup is required to help cover more experiences, especially where academia and other professionals are involved. We have to remember that diversity isn’t just inclusion; it’s involving disabled folx from a variety of walks of life in every single step of conference creation and implementation. What is being done at LoveAbilities feels as though the organizers grasped at whomever they could get as possible session participants to fill in X gap of marginality; this is tokenization. It isn’t hard to find people who do work in disability and sexuality from diverse backgrounds; hundreds of us, if not thousands, exist in varying forms and practices, but the festival organizers and programmer have failed to provide any semblance of diversity, let alone inclusion, among their session speakers and facilitators.
The About page on LoveAbilities’ site says, “To ensure that the sessions are dynamic and interactive, our speakers and facilitators are all experts in their field.” Speakers and facilitators can be experts in their field, but without lived experience they can’t be experts in disability work without being disabled. The LoveAbilities festival’s marketing calls people experts without stating what they are experts in. That being said, qualifications aren’t just letters after names or degrees, but include putting in the work to integrate into other fields — but there’s little indication from the session titles and descriptions that this form of integration is being done. This makes it painfully obvious that there was a lack of inclusive & equitable planning measures whilst developing LoveAbilities.
Those participating on panels and giving workshops are largely focused on SCI (spinal cord injury). However, the festival is being advertised as a cross-disability event. Due to the lack of inclusion of topics around, and scheduled participants from, other disability communities, not all disabilities will benefit from this festival as is being stated. We question why this festival’s marketing wasn’t focused more on SCI versus the greater disability community.
LoveAbilities says, “Come join us and embark on a new learning journey!”
But this isn’t a new journey at all — folks have been doing sexuality education, particularly for people with SCI, for decades. The SCI population was among the first diagnostic population to create and be provided with sexuality education tailored to their disability’s needs. And there have been other disability and sexuality conferences, namely Breaking Silences, which offered virtual access to much of their second year’s offerings.
Given all the troublesome aspects of the LoveAbilities festival, we’re declining the invitation.