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Man in a wheelchair with a woman on his lap.

Sex Education & Sexual Health for Adults with Disabilities: Why It Matters

Sexuality of people with disabilities is still a taboo topic. Adults with a physical or intellectual disability deserve education about their bodies, relationships, and intimacy. Sex education helps reduce the scale of abuse and allows people with disabilities to lead more fulfilling lives.

Imagine… you’re in the mood for an erotic film. You choose something with a promising title from the on-demand library and start watching. The action begins… A sexy woman is sitting on a leather sofa, wearing nothing more but a red negligee. The door opens and in enters her lover. Tanned, muscular man, ready to make love. But wait, he’s in a wheelchair! 

How on earth, you might think. Is this even possible? Can people with disabilities actually have sex? Those of us who have never had to deal with any form of physical and mental disability may have no clue. They don’t teach you about that stuff in school, do they?

Sexuality and disability – still a taboo

People with disabilities are sexual beings. They feel desire and need to connect with another person. Unfortunately, to realize this basic human need they need to overcome lots of obstacles such as prejudice and lack of education.

Why are we so afraid to talk about sex and disability? First of all, it’s uncomfortable. As a society, we don’t know much about it. There are many misconceptions about people with permanent health impairment. Those with mental disabilities are treated like big children. Those with physical limitations are seen as sexless.

Unfortunately, our ignorance has a dark side. According to studies, 69% of those with an intellectual disability have experienced sexual abuse. Another report indicated that adults with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to experience violence.

This shocking statistic may have a lot to do with insufficient sexuality education of children and teens with disabilities. For example, in the United Kingdom, 50% of people with disabilities had no such education in school. These people entered adulthood without the knowledge necessary to lead happy and safe sex lives.

sex education and intellectual disability

Many people with disabilities receive no sex education

Adults with all kinds of disabilities deserve accurate information and skills about their bodies, relationships, and intimacy. They need them not only to react when someone is trying to abuse them. To have a fulfilling life as a human being, they must know how to enjoy eroticism, taking into account their particular needs.

Sexuality and disability – the complex topic

The problem with disability and sex is that it’s impossible to put it all into one basket. A person who is hearing impaired will need different resources than someone who is on the autism spectrum.

The causes of potential bedroom problems will vary from person to person. A man with a spinal cord injury may have ED as a result of physical damage. A woman with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have difficulty to orgasm. This poses a challenge for educators, physicians, and caregivers.  To support people with disabilities, they need to be trained in the complexities of those issues.

The need to rely on others for care

Apart from physical or intellectual limitations that negatively affect sexual expression, many people with disabilities are not able to be sexual without relying on the help of others. For example, a person with tetraplegia – the paralysis of all limbs – will not even be able to position themselves for sexual activity without someone assisting them.

sexuality of people with disabilities in care institutions

People living in care institutions need to rely on the help of others in daily activities

In some contexts people with intellectual disabilities are not fully independent as adults, for example, they may live in a care center or with their parents who take the role of their guardians. Whether they have a chance to express themselves sexually, especially with other people, may depend on external rules and attitudes of personnel.

With that in mind, sexuality education programs for adults with disabilities should also address their guardians, doctors, and caregivers. There are still a lot of taboos around that topic.

Effects of medication on sexual functioning 

People with disabilities, whether physical or intellectual, will often take different types of medication. These medicines may have a negative impact on desire levels or even cause erectile dysfunction in men.

The problem is that physicians often fail to mention these side effects to patients with disabilities. It’s not uncommon for them to think these patients have no sexual needs and are not active in that sphere.

Resources on sex and disability

In recent years erotic lives of people with disabilities have become a subject of public interest and discussion. Oscar-winning film “The Sessions” showed a story of a male survivor of childhood polio learning about intimacy with the help of a sex surrogate.

Viral campaigns such as the one started by podcaster and activist Andrew Gurza and his hashtag #DisabledPeopleAreHot have brought real-life stories of people living with permanent health conditions into the spotlight.

If you’re a person living with a disability, check out this page where you can ask the expert your intimate questions. There’s also an excellent book on the subject. But first of all, talk to your primary care physician. He or she will be able to provide referrals to specialists and write prescriptions as needed (for example if you’re dealing with ED). To learn more about available treatments for erectile dysfunction, visit our website.

 

Anka Grzywacz is a sexologist, reproductive health expert and Certified Sex Coach™. In her online practice she helps busy parents solve their intimate problems.