There were no curb ramps in Clark Matthews' neighborhood outside Harrisburg when he was growing up. Because he uses a wheelchair, this severely limited his mobility, restricting his access and in some cases, forcing him into unsafe situations. The day the curb cuts were installed in his community, his life changed drastically.
“I could now seamlessly integrate into society,” says Matthews, adding that “growing up with a disability gave me a keen appreciation for the difference that accessibility makes.”
After going to film school, becoming active in disability rights, and organizing with groups such as ADAPT, Matthews became particularly moved to marry his interests, by focusing on accessible media.
GLAAD has reported 20 percent of the population have a disability, yet only 2 percent of the characters on television are disabled.
“The more media I absorbed, the more I started to wonder, ‘Whose stories do we tell, and who gets to tell these stories?’” says Matthews.
What Matthews didn’t anticipate is that his quest to create accessible media would lead him to make a porn film. When fellow activist and classically trained dancer Mia Gimp came to him and proposed disability porn, his first response was, “I have no experience, and we have no money.” But Gimp was insistent, and the more the two talked about the noticeable lack of authentic representations of disabled women in pornography, the more they wanted to do it. Together, they created the award-winning short Krutch.
Putting a visibly disabled woman on screen, and, moreover, having Gimp star in a film that centers her own sexuality and pleasure opens up broader representations. But the issue of accessibility proved wider reaching than Matthews’ original question of “Whose stories do we tell?” As the short started to pick up attention on the porn festival circuit (where I first encountered and fell in love with the film), another question of accessibility arose: “Who gets to hear and see these stories?” Deaf and blind people were being excluded, so they decided to caption and transcribe the film.
Captioning for the deaf and audio narration for the blind are becoming more common in mainstream media. Doing this in porn, however, presents its own set of challenges. Tobi Hill-Meyer, director of Doing it Ourselves: The Trans Women Porn Project, says that in porn, there are a lot of verbalizations that are more than just words. She says, “Sure you could just write ‘[moans continue]’ but it becomes an art in itself to caption the distinctions between all of the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ and things like ‘oh god, OH GOD, OH G—Aaaawd.’”
Erin DeWard, a voice actor and audiobook narrator, wrote and performed the audio narration for Krutch. “Audio narration is an interesting art form for an actor," says DeWard. "You need to match your vocal quality and your pacing to the media so that you become part of it.”
This is never truer than when working with erotic content. She says, “This was [Matthews and Gimp’s] movie, I wanted to match their rhythm and tone. The movie is clearly an orgasm. It has to have that urgency as the sexual tension builds. It has to have the resolving at the end.”
While tricky, providing captioning and narration for porn is of profound political importance.
“Our puritanical American society tends to desexualize, infantilize, and otherize folks with disabilities," says DeWard.
Making porn accessible is a way of taking the sexuality of disabled folks seriously.
"If we know how to make things accessible to most people, that should be the default,” says Matthews. While there are no laws stating that films, particularly porn, need to be accessible, Matthews points out, “Being ADA compliant only sets the legal minimum where you aren’t technically violating someone’s civil liberties. As artists, we should aim higher.”