Impact Feature Issue on Sexuality and People with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities
Identity, Disability, and Sexuality:
Reflections From a Son and His Father
We – Nick and David – are a colorful son and father duo who reside in the Twin Cities. We both work in the human services field. David (dad) works in health care and Nick works for the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. For this article we were asked to reflect on the father and son conversations about sexuality we've had over the years. In order to write it we really needed to do some thinking about who we are, and the philosophical approach we have taken toward the topic and our lives. These are our reflections. We hope you enjoy them.
I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a household where my differences and challenges were not the first thing everyone talked about. This was a key part of the philosophy that my dad took on in raising me. When my dad would introduce me to people he would say, "I would like you to meet my son Nick," and not, "I would like you to meet my son with a disability." This was crucial in my identity development. To have that separation between me and my disability made all the difference in the world. Carrying that separation throughout the rest of my family and friends was challenging at times, but overall it proved to be very successful. Once family and friends saw that my disability did not change the way my dad saw me, or the way that he treated me, they were able to see that my situation was not all that different from other young people.
My disability was not the only challenge I had growing up, however. When I was five my entire world was turned over – my mom died. My dad had always been a great constant in my world, but how was he supposed to deal with the loss of my mom and keep me grounded in life? To this day, this situation still shakes me. We pressed on though. The difficult circumstances gave us tools to use. I found independence in doing things on my own because my dad would not do everything for me. This "tough love" was very hard on both of us at times, but I firmly believe that I would not be who I am without it.
My experiences in school and with peers also shaped my identity. I believe the first time I actually felt labeled "different" was when I was in about fourth grade. I remember leaving my elementary classroom (my school day was not all mainstream classes yet – in the afternoons I was attending some special ed classes) and one of my friends went up to the teacher and asked, "Why can't Nick stay in our class all day?" Now, I don't know if the teacher thought that I couldn't hear her, but I remember her saying, "Oh, don't worry about it, he's just different." Now I couldn't have been more than 10, but I knew what "different" meant. I remember going home and asking my dad if I was different. He simply said, "You are a lot different than she is."
Likewise, when I was in junior high I worked up the courage all year to ask a girl at my bus stop out for ice cream. When she agreed to meet with me and we found ourselves eating ice cream and not talking very much, she broke the silence by saying, "Nick, I don't think we can see each other again. Isn't there someone else like you that you would be interested in dating?" I don't think that it initially occurred to me that when she said "like you" she meant "with a disability." Interestingly enough, the answer to her question was no. There weren't any other students with disabilities that I was interested in dating. The only other person who had a disability at my school was my good friend Josh; he and I had been great friends since preschool, but I knew I wasn't interested in dating him! As I dug a little bit further in talking with her I found out that she had numerous other concerns about my disability; most of all she was concerned that I would pass my disability on to children that we would have. Keep in mind that I'm still sitting there with my ice cream in hand. Until this experience I had never thought how my disability would affect others in my life.
In situations like these I was able to have real conversations about my life with my dad. It was through these conversations where I learned that it was my responsibility to be knowledgeable about myself and explain my situation to other people.
When it came to my identity, disability, and sexuality I found that I was the driving force behind a lot of conversations that we would have. My dad was always available to talk to, and there wasn't a conversation that was out of bounds. There were conversations that were challenging, and talking about sex was definitely one of those; but those challenges were not unlike any other father-son talk on the topic. It is hard for men in our society to talk about sex. It may be part of our culture. And male youth, myself included at the time, are often not mature enough to handle the topic and will convince themselves that they know about it already rather than have an honest conversation with an adult.
When the book Where Did I Come From? (a book about reproduction) appeared when I was 13 years old, there was no way that I was ready for the conversation my dad tried to start about it. I remember it being very difficult for me to take the book seriously because of the subject and the cartoon format. I was not mature enough to handle the topic. But, I did take a look at it when I was on my own; that allowed me to take in the information, and then I approached him with questions on my own terms. In my experience, I gathered a lot of information about sex from school, friends and the world around me and then I would bring up questions with my dad. I believe this helped break things down for me and I did not feel like I was having a big conversation. Instead, I asked questions here and there and pieced things together. This made the nature of the discussion less anxious and more spontaneous.
There have been and there will always be assumptions about my abilities, about the things that I can do. But the only ones that I have to believe are those that I tell myself in the mirror. Today, I have a girlfriend, Jackie, and we have been together for almost three years. She's wonderful. To my knowledge she doesn't have any diagnosed disabilities, and she does enjoy ice cream!
I owe a lot of thanks to my dad for helping me become that confident guy in the mirror. Not a week goes by that I don't talk to him about my life. We are very fortunate to have the relationship that we do; I love him for it. Talk soon, Dad!
I do not remember talking specifically about sex with Nick – I'm old now, however. I do remember that if he asked a question I would answer the question, or if I didn't know the answer I promised to find the answer, and did. I believed answering his questions as they came up was easier for him to digest than to have some big discussion where only ten percent would sink in, kind of like taking too much vitamin C – your body can only handle so much and the rest goes off as waste.
I do remember believing strongly he wasn't any different than anyone else where sex was concerned, or in any other life experience for that matter. Sure, he may have to approach things a bit differently, but I/we focused on building self-confidence and concentrating on the things he could do really well, and less on things he had trouble with. I fully expected him to have girlfriends and date like most other adolescent males. It never occurred to me that he wouldn't.
It was obvious early on that he wasn't going to be a sports hero, so we did other things like camping and canoeing to give him different experiences he could enjoy, build confidence in, and become good at. He got really good at playing Nintendo, and was very confident he could hold his own with the neighborhood kids.
I also knew that the world wasn't going to change for Nick, so we needed to find ways for him to fit in and build confidence. In my professional life I had seen too many families giving their kids with disabilities what I considered to be too much support. I was worried if I did that with Nick it would hinder his ability to become independent. I was actually accused of being mean to him when he was young because in the eyes of some I didn't cater to him enough. Nick has a great personality and that is very attractive to everyone: girls, boys, men and women. So armed with a great personality, confidence in himself, and good looks, I believed he had the tools to eventually go on to have strong relationships with the opposite sex and others of all ages. And he has.