Changing perceptions

Alex Cowan

Alex Cowan contributed to Leonard Cheshire’s relationships project, In Touch, with a short film entitled Sex and Disability.

I realised that disabled people in general were, and probably still are, not really thought of as people who could be in a relationship. I wanted to change that perception.

Everybody thinks about sex and everybody thinks about relationships. I’ve always been happy to talk about these subjects with friends. When I got MS, the talk stopped.

This was in the days before there were any disabled people on TV. There was nobody like the brilliant Game of Thrones character Tyrion Lannister, who thinks about sex just as much as anyone else!

I realised that disabled people in general were, and probably still are, not really thought of as people who could be in a relationship. I wanted to change that perception.

There’s an iconic Christine Keeler photograph – the epitome of sexiness – in which she sits naked astride an Arne Jacobsen Butterfly chair. I had the idea of doing a similar photograph but instead with me in my wheelchair.

In 2009, at the Leonard Cheshire Gala Dinner, I happened to mention my idea to the people I was sitting with. They loved it!

Soon I was setting off with my husband to meet renowned photographer Alistair Morrison, who had photographed the likes of Helen Mirren, Tom Cruise and Kate Winslet. Alistair and I got on really well and I suddenly thought, ‘Wow. This is really going to happen.’

Yet in the days leading up to the photo shoot, I looked at myself in the mirror and cried. I knew that MS would have changed my body a bit. But I hadn’t seen myself naked, full-length in the mirror for quite a few years and the image I was seeing did not match the image in my mind. I was very upset.

It was at a time when I was questioning myself. ‘Is it possible for me to be attractive any more?’

But in going through with the photo shoot, and in particular as I responded to the profound but sensitive questioning from Alistair as he took photographs and we were filmed, I found myself working out some terribly important things about how I really felt and saw myself.

I am so pleased I had the opportunity to do the photo shoot and make the film for Leonard Cheshire’s In Touch project. I began to realise that I still was interested in life, I still wanted to go out and have fun. I like wearing make-up and nice things. I want to feel connected with another person, look good, have sex. All of these things make me a sexy, attractive woman.

Many disabled people want guidance about relationships and have problems with their self-image. I think it’s important to acknowledge that impairments bring challenges but we can address these challenges.

Inspired by the photo shoot and film, I’ve given lots of talks about sex and relationships to disabled people, disability organisations and health professionals. I helped develop The Sexual Respect Toolkit to give health professionals the knowledge and skills to support disabled people. I’ve written several articles for journals and I co-led a workshop for psychotherapy students.

There are strong links between my family and Leonard Cheshire. My uncle, Michael Teague, was chair of the charity’s Washington D.C. branch and was great friends with Leonard Cheshire. But my main involvement with the charity is still the photo shoot and the film for In Touch project: this website — along with Leonard Cheshire’s information leaflet for its customers — are part of a fantastic resource for disabled people. It’s vital that disabled people have access to good advice on sex and relationships.