Disability activism – an interview with Emily Yates

Emily Yates

Disabled sex education advocate. Lonely Planet travel writer. Emily Yates is pushing the boundaries for disabled people. Nicole Alexander talks to Yates about her documentary Meet the Devotees (individuals who fetishize disabled people) and much more.

Have you ever met anyone who is so undeniably impressive? I was lucky enough to do just that. Emily Yates has two documentaries available on BBC 3 iPlayer and YouTube and, as a disability activist, she is fast becoming a hero of mine.

Emily invited me to her flat in Glasgow for fish finger sandwiches and a chat. Sitting down in her beautiful brightly coloured kitchen with her newly acquired furry companion – an orange kitten named Otis – Emily told me about her life.

Emily, 27, was born in Skipton, Yorkshire (made famous by the movie ‘Calendar Girls’). She has Cerebral Palsy and is a fulltime wheelchair user with a pretty awesome set of wheels.

At 18, Emily moved down to London to study English Literature, then travelled to Australia to complete the second year of her degree at the University of Melbourne. There she had an encounter which would inadvertently change her life. Emily had posted a picture of herself all glammed up for a Uni ball on her Facebook. Someone commented on her picture “pretty cripple”. As Emily laments in her BBC 3 documentary, “cripple? why bring that up?”. This derogatory remark encouraged Emily to research further, and she discovered the somewhat murky world of ‘Devotees’, individuals who fetishize disabled people. Emily describes it as “falling down a very dark hole in the internet”. This research would one day turn out to be very useful.

In 2012 Emily volunteered for the London Paralympics. She was invited to speak at a press conference on her first day, along with politician and former athlete Lord Sebastian Coe. Emily must have seriously impressed Seb Coe because he ended up quoting her in his closing speech! Asking for “15 minutes of his time” she was then invited to Rio for the 2016 games to help make the underground more accessible.

Emily worked hard in Rio; when she first arrived, only five out of 36 stations were accessible. With Emily’s help, 34 were accessible in the space of two years. When I asked Emily how she coped with all this work on top of her disability, not to mention Brazil’s blistering heat, she explained it was three months on then three months off and she was able to take time to rest and explore Brazil. However, it was a constant “battle between mind and body”. These words resonated with me so much. I empathised with her frustration in not being able to get out and do everything she wanted. Though Emily’s partner had a great point when he cut in to say that anyone would be tired doing what she does!

And he’s not exaggerating: Emily now has two documentaries under her belt. After she spoke with a BBC 3 producer about her foray into the world of Devotees, the producer commissioned her to make a mini documentary about it.

As part of the documentary, Emily consented to make a ‘sexy’ video for a group of devotees. Now, one might picture soft lighting, lingerie and a come-hither stare. But the Devotees wanted to see Emily ‘struggle’ into her car from her wheelchair or put on a pair of tights. They particularly wanted to view her leg spasms. It was heartbreaking to see Emily get upset because the video wouldn’t really be about her. She wanted to be “sexy and added bonus” for the video, but the Devotees just wanted to see her do everyday things. They weren’t seeing her super-attractive gorgeous self, just her disability.

I asked Emily what she truly thought of Devotees. Were they creepy?  Harmless? She hadn’t made her mind up. To me, there is something insidious about wanting to watch someone struggle but if all the participants involved are willing then they might, perhaps, view it as a varying form of S&M. I was shocked when Emily said a lot of Devotees give to disabled charities and are advocates themselves. Is that irony? Empowering disabled people in public, but wanting to see them vulnerable in private?

Emily has been making a real difference in her work to increase disability awareness training in the UK, and is also a vigorous advocate of sex education.

On the subject of sex, Emily told me she first had sex at the age of 20 and often felt “pretty not sexy”. When featured on BBC 3’s What Not to Say, Emily recalled a time a boyfriend “googled how to kiss a woman in a wheelchair”. Always best to be prepared, I suppose! Emily currently feels pretty confident about her sex life and has made peace with her limitations. “Would (her partner) like to do a million more positions in the bedroom? Sure!” Wouldn’t we all.

Working with Enhance the UK, a charity which wants to change society’s views on disability. Emily speaks passionately about the lack of sex education for disabled people – particularly in schools. “Disabled people come out of education either hypersexualised or infantilised.” She addresses her own isolating feelings towards sex education: “I saw no bodies that looked like mine”. New government legislation is finally making sex education in UK schools LGBTQA+ inclusive. Could disabled people be far behind?  Working with the Undressing Disability Campaign, Emily hopes not.

When it comes to the poor media representation of disabled people and its need to be improved, Emily and hundreds of like-minded people are working to change perceptions of disability utilising media. “But it’s not going to happen overnight. If Joe Bloggs is sittin’ on his couch watching TV and his perception of disability is changed even a little bit, that’s a massive victory.”

After two documentaries, television presenting, writing and accessibility advocacy, what is next for Emily Yates? I, for one, can’t wait to see!

Follow @emilyryates on Twitter and stay updated via her official website.