Response to Awful Wheelchair ‘Joke’: An Open Letter to Ken Jennings

wheel chairKen Jennings may have won a lot of fans from his record-breaking fame on “Jeopardy”, but his tweet posted in September has lost him a lot of followers and respect. And for good reason. One of the most powerful responses to Jennings’ wheelchair “joke” is this open letter written by sex education advocate, Robin Mandell. She argues that to deny the sexuality of people living with disability is yet another way to deny their humanity. Her letter is packed full of resources that help debunk pervasive myths and guide people to learn more about sex and disability from the very people who experience disability. Everyone should read through her recommendations to help raise awareness.

Here are some power punches:

  • Know about The Microaggression Project and how you can end the perpetuation of “othering”.
  • People living with disability lead fulfilling, healthy sex lives. Sex with someone who has a disability can be the best sex you could be having.
  • A wheelchair actually doesn’t tell you anything about a person’s physical capabilities.
  • There is a wealth of sexy, positive representations of people living with disabilities. Check out the resources below.

This post was originally published at Robin’s Toy Nest. Read the full letter here.

BY ROBIN MANDELL | ReadySexyAble.com

Dear Ken,

So, on Monday you tweeted:

Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair.

What’s most sad about this is that Twitter tells me (as of the last time I looked) it was “favorited” three-hundred eighty-seven times.

What I really want to know is: Why? Why would you write such a thing.

Are you feeling sexually insecure?

Did you think you were being clever? (Hint: You weren’t. If you need supporting research to back that up, here you go).

Are you skittish around wheelchairs? Sometimes people lash out when they’re feeling insecure. Many people in our culture have almost a “primal fear of becoming disabled”, so, don’t be ashamed if you’re afraid; lots of people are.

Yes, what you did was lashing out. No, you didn’t target anyone specifically. You didn’t physically attack anyone, or call them names, or undertake persistent verbal harassment.

What you did was much more on the level of a microaggression. Only, it’s on the Internet. The Internet has this habit of making things grow, taking away the micro and increasing the aggression. Plus, when you’re on a popular TV show for six months, have written lots of books, and are generally being a public figure, people kind of tend to believe the things you say. You wouldn’t want to steer them wrong, would you? (Yes, I might just be wagging my finger at you.)

People with disabilities–these are real people you’re talking about. I know: I am one of them. I’m visibly disabled, though not a wheelchair user. People with disabilities are frequently seen as childlike, incapable, often even subhuman. Denying our sexuality is just one more way to deny our humanity, and that’s exactly what you’ve done. You’re talking about people in wheelchairs, but I’m left wondering: Where does it stop? Do hot blind people make you sad? How about hot people using crutches or a walker? What about hot people who have more than one disability? How does it work if a person’s disability is invisible? If they’re hot, and you only find out about the disability later, is that sad too?

I spend a lot of time talking and educating about people with disabilities and our sexualities.

So, I’m here to tell you: Your statement about people in wheelchairs is just factually incorrect. So yes, you, the fact-maven, are steering people wrong.

Business Insider called your tweet insensitive. I think it goes way beyond that. When talking about negative comments about disability and disabled people, words like sensitivity, compassion, and caring get thrown around a lot. I’d like to see more people talking about respect and knowledge.

It’s not primarily sensitivity you lack here—frankly, I don’t care all that much about your moral compass–(though your decency does leave something to be desired) but plain old-fashioned know-how. Sorry if that’s painful to read, but that’s just how it is. Okay, I’ll stop telling you you’re wrong—at least for a few paragraphs.

Or, maybe the problem here is that you can’t imagine how someone who uses a wheelchair could possibly have sex? So little imagination, Ken!

There’s really not a limit on what sex is, or how to do sex, for anyone.

And, there’s no limit on what sex and sexuality can be for people with disabilities [watch this film documentary, The Last Taboo (2013)]. Please pay particular attention to the first three myths, and the facts that go along with them.

Also, a person’s being in a wheelchair actually doesn’t tell you much about their physical abilities. It doesn’t tell you how they can move their bodies, which parts of their bodies they can feel, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what they like to do in bed. Some people who use wheelchairs are able to walk short distances, or are able to use their legs if they’re not standing up. It’s not always the case that people either walk or not-walk. And seriously, is being able to walk necessary for sex?

I’m not sure if you knew this, Ken, but people with a whole range of disabilities date and some choose to get married.

And know, these generally are not sexless relationships, as people often assume they must be. At least, couples in which one or both partners are disabled are no more or less likely to have sex, or have sexual issues, than couples in which both partners are nondisabled.

Just because you find wheelchairs to be impairments to people’s sexiness, doesn’t mean that other people do. I’ve heard that this sexy calendar of people with disabilities is “hot as hell.”(I’m blind, so can’t confirm that personally).

Plus, some people find other people’s wheels hot!

Sex with someone who has a disability can even be the best sex you could be having.

Or, maybe you’d like to try something a little more daring? Leroy Moore has reclaimed drooling, something seen as infantile and gross, something Leroy personally was encouraged to hide and feel ashamed about, as something sexy and intimate….

To read the full letter visit Robin’s Toy Nest.

Update: To date, Jennings has not deleted or apologized for his tweet. 

ROBIN MANDELL is a healthy sexuality and disability rights advocate based in the Washington D.C. area. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies from Queen’s University in Canada and a Professional Writing Certificate from Washington State University. Over the years, Robin has amassed extensive experience working with people at vulnerable times of their lives, both as a crisis hotline worker and a sexuality and relationships education advocate with Scarleteen. She’s discovered that disability issues receive significantly less attention in academia and social justice movements than they’re due. She has developed a passion for starting dialogues on sex, disability and accessibility, and has come to the realization that, as much as she just wants to be like everybody else, she can use her visible reality as a blind woman to start these dialogues.Robin blogs on disabilities, sexualities, and the connections between them at ReadySexyAble.com and has published articles on various sexuality and sexual health topics at Scarleteen and Fearless press.