Some times a small thing can be an indicator of something huge, something marvellous. For me, yesterday, it was an email. It was a simple typical email. Like any other office, probably anywhere in the world, emails get sent around for people to throw money in a pot to purchase gifts for people who are celebrating big life events: marriages, baby showers, engagement parties. I am away a bit from the office but want to contribute so I have an envelope with money there so for each one I can participate by donating some money. Well, one of those went around wanting to raise some money for an engagement gift for two people at the office.
When my first book on sexuality and developmental disability was printed I was astonished at the reaction and uproar over it's printing and sale. "I Contact: Sexuality and People With Intellectual Disabilities," was a modest little book printed by a small company in Pennsylvania. It received mixed reaction, many loving the simple storytelling way of making points, others thinking the book was vile and that I was a "pornographer." I will never forget the day I opened an envelope to find a letter, blacked with ash, that told me that my book had been burned and that similarly I would burn in hell for sexualizing innocent people with the minds of children. That day was the day I destroyed all of my business cards with my home address on it. I was frightened by the anger and the hate behind the letter.
I remember, too, when I wrote what I believe was the first journal article about supporting people who are LGBT in residential services. I lost contracts for training to agencies who were horrified and who told me that I'd gone "too far." Further, I remember giving my first talk on the same topic at a conference in Ottawa. I was terrified of the reception and the anger that was inevitable so I asked some friends, all closeted, to come to the talk for moral support - all said they would, none came. I didn't blame them, they were terrified that their attendance would give them away, they lived in fear of firing. I gave the talk. I learned then that most people were moderate but that those that weren't really, really, weren't.
Working in sexuality I heard story after story after story from those who live at the blunt end of other's attitudes. Relationships broken up. Love destroyed. Angry parents forcing agencies to forbid relationship. Disapproving agencies using the spectre of angry parents to hide their own prejudice behind. These were dark times where people with disabilities were punished for even the idea of sexuality. Electric shock. Contingent lemon juice shot in the mouth. Facial screening. Boxing gloves on hands, wrists tied to the side of the bed. All punishers for masturbation. Dark times. Dark times indeed.
Sitting beside Winnifred Kempton I was surprised at how small this woman was. I remembered hearing her name in conjunction with what was always called "the Kempton Slides." Hers was the first in depth, fully explicit sex education curriculum ever created for people with disabilities. I should pause here, there were probably others, brave people creating forbidden materials to give forbidden information to those whose sexuality was forbidden. But Winnifred's curriculum had become well known. Somewhere early in my career I ended up at a table, sitting to her right, chatting with a woman who had faced threats and anger and vitriol simply because she believed in the rights of people with disabilities to have information about their bodies and to be treated as adults. I sat in awe of her and could hardly believe that my journey had given me the opportunity to dine with a revolutionary.
Opening an email and reading that someone was gathering some money for an engagement gift is an ordinary thing in an ordinary day. But I stopped, looked at the names of the two engaged. I was sure that they were people with disabilities who worked downstairs in the day programme. I sent an email to confirm that fact. I was right. I realised at that moment that I'd never, ever, been asked to contribute to the gift celebrating the engagement or marriage of someone with a disability in such a casual way. As it would be done for staff, it was simply done for those we serve. No muss. No fanfare. Just an email asking for a couple of bucks to buy a gift to celebrate lives lived.
That email probably means very little to the young staff who would just pull out a fiver and hand it over. But that email, and its simple, casual nature, indicates something absolutely huge. A small thing. An enormous change.
I never thought I'd see it.
And I have.