Being on a Real Talk set is really refreshing. You’ve got all of these confident people being really, well, real. Especially in front of a camera, that doesn’t happen often. Their video series features two people having a candid conversation about sex and relationships to demystify the birds and the bees, especially for the target audience of teens and adults with cognitive disabilities. This group has a history of being overlooked when it comes to relationships. But John Woods and the Real Talk team are giving this a giant middle finger and taking it upon themselves to get this information out there. And, it’s not all basic. I can always count on learning something new from the conversations. We caught up with John about his insights into the project.
There are a lot of different mediums you could have chosen for the Real Talk project, but you chose to mainly use video. Why was that important to you?
Conversations between people with cognitive disabilities and their families or staff about dating, love, relationships and sex are often uncomfortable, taboo, or wholly absent. We’re trying to model for people that having these conversations is possible. It doesn’t have to be a forbidden topic. The conversations in these videos are unscripted, so you’re watching people share genuinely from their real life context. Watching videos of people having these conversations makes it concrete rather than hypothetical, and it gives people a model to follow.
The conversations in these videos are unscripted, so you’re watching people share genuinely from their real life context.
We’re also very aware that there’s very little media representation in pop culture of people with cognitive disabilities as being people who are in marriages, relationships etc. If you’re a person with a cognitive disability and you don’t see anyone like you on TV or in movies being someone’s husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend, it’s easy to conclude that this is not a role that is possible for you. And if no-one wants to talk to you about this stuff, it can reinforce that conclusion.
Real Talk videos feature many people with cognitive disabilities who are dating and / or in relationships talking about how they navigate these things. If you’re a person with a cognitive disability, seeing someone like yourself who is actually dating or in a relationship can maybe help you change your story about what is possible for you in your own life. Again, using unscripted video of real people makes this very concrete, as opposed to hypothetical.
If you’re a person with a cognitive disability, seeing someone like yourself [on video] who is actually dating or in a relationship can maybe help you change your story about what is possible for you in your own life
Lastly, our initiative is only funded to serve the Lower Mainland. But these videos are up on Youtube and freely accessible from our website. They can be used as resources by individuals or organizations far and wide. We’re already seeing other sexual health nonprofits like Opt BC using them when training sexual health educators in how to better engage with this population.
You’re using video in a pretty unique way with live viewing parties. Where did the idea come from?
Several years ago, I was a part of a mentorship program run by In With Forward. We were learning about bringing design principles to human services. Our team started out with the germ of an idea of making an episodic video series featuring men having open, honest conversations about sex and love. The intended audience was men with cognitive disabilities living in environments staffed by other men. We had noticed that conversations about relationships, love, sexuality etc. were noticeably absent in these spaces. This was leading to a lot of shame, frustration and disappointment, so we wanted to get some impact on this. We thought people might watch some of this video content, and then spontaneously have a conversation about what they’d seen.
One of our mentors said that the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign had used the model of viewing parties in order to build support. A motivated Hillary supporter would receive some video content (I think this was back during the 2008 Clinton vs. Obama nomination battle, so the format was probably a snail-mailed DVD.) She would then invite friends over to watch the candidate’s video pitch, and then have a casual meal and a conversation about it. So later, when we broadened our scope to being a sexual health initiative for people of all genders with cognitive disabilities, we borrowed a bit from that ‘videos / casual meal / conversation’ format for our Real Talk Pizza Parties. Hopefully it’s working out better for our participants than it did for Hillary…
In your opinion, how do the live viewing parties change the way the videos are viewed?
Well, these videos can be watched by an individual outside of the Pizza Party context. They’re freely available on Youtube. Let’s say someone with a cognitive disability watches them by themselves. When they do, they’ll likely pick up some useful factual information about dating, safer sex, consent etc.. They may even start to think differently about whether it’s ok to talk about these subjects with someone they trust like a staff person or family member. Some may even take a chance on trying to initiate this sort of conversation with someone they trust. So even someone watching alone can get some benefit.
Let’s say they watch them at home or at their day program together with a family member or staff member. Now these videos can act as an icebreaker. A way of bringing up a subject that might feel awkward for both people. That’s another outcome we’d love to see.
But we think we can get the greatest impact from these videos when they’re watched at a Pizza Party. Thinking back to the Hillary viewing parties, the idea was to motivate the base, and potentially sway the undecided. But it was to prompt a specific behaviour: voting for Hillary.
At our Pizza Parties, we’re also trying to prompt a specific behaviour: an open, unashamed conversation about dating, or love, or sexuality. A participant watches that behaviour modelled on screen. Then the facilitator invites participants to reflect and discuss what they’ve seen in the video. So immediately, they’re being given the opportunity to try out that same behaviour they’ve just watched. And it’s in a safe, encouraging environment.
At our Pizza Parties, we’re also trying to prompt a specific behaviour: an open, unashamed conversation about dating, or love, or sexuality.
One other aspect of the Pizza Parties that I really enjoy is that participants have an opportunity to make a video of their own after the party wraps up. (It’s totally voluntary – no-one has to do this.) They can talk back to the camera about what they thought about the content they watched, and offer any advice they may have on dating, love, sexuality etc.. We do an edit of these videos and email them back to the participant. If they like the way it turned out, they may decide to give us permission to post the video on our website and youtube channel. It’s amazing peer-to-peer education using the video medium to get wider reach.
If a participant is super enthusiastic about this video aspect of the Pizza Party, we often keep in touch with them and invite them to come out and be a part of one of our video shoots with See Together Media. In these video shoots, people have longer conversations on many subjects to do with dating, relationships, sexuality etc.. These shoots provide us with the bulk of our Real Talk video content.
What are your future plans/goals for Real Talks?
We’ve been delivering these Pizza Parties for about half a year now, and our facilitators are learning so much about the nuances of what makes for a meaningful event. Over the next months we want to follow up with our participants and get a sense of how things have changed for them since being involved, or how things have stayed the same. This will help us continue to iterate the Pizza Party model, and the video content.
The value of peer – to – peer education (especially when it comes to relationships, love, sexuality etc.) is becoming ever clearer to us as we dive deeper into the work. There are a number of couples we’ve been introduced to where one or both of them lives with a cognitive disability. They are keen to share their stories of how they met, what’s wonderful about their partnership or marriage, what’s hard about it, how they work through their challenges, and so on. I would love to capture these couples’ stories on video. This content is a bit different than our current topic-by-topic video conversation format, but I think this sort of deep dive with couples can play a crucial role: it can provide evidence to other people with cognitive disabilities (and their families and their staff) that this can happen. That it is possible.
…it can provide evidence to other people with cognitive disabilities (and their families and their staff) that this can happen. That it is possible.
Just the other day I was interviewing someone who had come to one of our Pizza Parties. He was talking about how he has a girlfriend now, and how they are lucky enough to have a place where they can get private time together. When they are alone together, they like to cuddle and talk about a video game that they both enjoy playing. This is how they choose to be intimate together. As he was telling this story, his body language changed. His shoulders un-tensed, and his eyes got a far-away look, and his whole demeanour just softened. It couldn’t have been more obvious that this meant something to him. That this was significant. I feel really lucky that my job is helping to design something that can support people to find this sort of intimacy – either with another person, or with themselves as they feel more comfortable with who they are.
We get to run Real Talk in the Lower Mainland until at least September 2020. Beyond that, I’d love to see this scale into a national initiative.
Want to get involved? Check out Real Talk here.