‘It’s interesting to see how our perception of independence changes depending on who we’re talking about. Nobody does everything alone! If I, a university researcher, would purchase household services, it would be seen as a sign of strength and independence. When persons with intellectual disabilities get the same kind of assistance, they are viewed as lacking independence.’
Kristín Björnsdóttir studies masculinity and intellectual disabilities at the University of Iceland. In a session titled Men & Ability, she presented her research at the large Nordic masculinity conference in Reykjavik last week.
When Björnsdóttir interviewed 12 Icelandic men 26-46 years old, only some had moved away from their parents. Others lived in group homes or received other forms of public assistance.
‘When I grew up, most people with intellectual disabilities were institutionalised in Iceland. Today there is a new generation of adults with intellectual disabilities who are not locked up in the same way,’ said Björnsdóttir.
However, the interviewed men were still subject to restrictions against their will. For example, they could not choose what to eat, where to live or when they could have guests over. Two of them had also been forcefully sterilised.
‘They talked a lot about the importance of making their own choices, but in practice they were denied all types of decision-making.’
The men also perceived that the world around them viewed them as demasculinised because of their disability. This was for example linked to a notion of ‘weakness’ and a perception of them as both asexual and hypersexual.
‘It is also taken for granted that all disabled persons are heterosexual. Only two of the men knew of any alternative preferences.’
Some of them used sexism to build their masculinity.
‘Since the world doesn’t see them as ”real men”, some adopt stereotypical gender roles and a sexist discourse.’
The way the education of this group of people is organised in Iceland is also very sexist. Classes are often divided by gender. While women are offered ‘beauty courses’, men can learn more about sport or driving a car.
‘There’s a stereotype that persons with intellectual disabilities somehow remain children forever. Their primary identity is based on their disability and not gender. By adopting very traditional masculinity roles, men with intellectual disabilities can revolt against this notion and enter the adult world.’