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Disability And Sexuality: Breaking The Stigma In Relationships And Society

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27 Oct 2021

An unfortunate reality for those with disabilities is that it’s unlikely that others ask them how a relationship is going or how their love life is. There is a stigma that people who are disabled are not interested in sex, intimacy, or relationships. Especially for people born with a disability, loved ones who have cared for them throughout their life often have trouble seeing them as mature and interested in sex and relationships. While it is common for doctors, friends, and family members to completely avoid this topic thinking they are doing what disabled people want, it’s important to break this stigma.

Two people holding hands, one is in a wheelchair

Changing the narrative and creating space for sex and relationships in disabled peoples’ lives begins with having a conversation with a partner and other important people in their life. Additionally, by continually working with a significant other, recognizing challenges and emotions, and seeking outside resources, people with disabilities can reclaim intimacy in their lives. 

In a relationship, one of the most important things to do is not hide a disability from a new partner, and, if the disability diagnosis was recent, to not hide the grief of old abilities. Instead, take time to acknowledge that there may be feelings of frustration or hopelessness surrounding the disability and the fact there may be challenges around the same things that used to be easy. This process will help in understanding new abilities in a more meaningful way and aid in articulating values and desires to others later on. 

Any sort of difficult conversation presents its challenges. Yet, whether in marriage or dating, this step is vital. Dr. Shaniff Esmail, who has conducted extensive research into sexuality and disabilities, notes that the reason having a conversation is so important is because the first step to re-establishing an enjoyable sex life is to regain trust and confidence in a partner and let them know that intimacy is okay. Perhaps, all that’s needed is to redefine what intimacy is. This conversation can provide the disabled person with the opportunity to also tell their partner what they need from them. The key to this conversation is going in with values in mind and being prepared to listen instead of arguing with a partner.

Two older adults, embracing half naked

One important note is that women with a disability often feel they have to overcompensate in the relationship to make up for the fact that they are not fully able bodied. Sadly, thousands of women feel this way. Whether they feel that they can’t ask for help, pretend that everything is fine while having sex, or overcompensate for their disability by trying to initiate sex more often, a conversation can dispel these feelings and actions by providing an opportunity to voice concerns and desires in an honest and understanding way to a partner.

While the focus of a conversation may be on the needs of the disabled party, it is also the perfect opportunity for a partner to voice their concerns and what they feel they need out of the relationship. Their needs and perspective are also important to re-establishing a successful balance in the relationship as all relationships are two-sided. 

Even with attaining a deeper understanding of each other's needs and values in a relationship, people should not be afraid to seek out outside help as well. This can manifest itself in seeking out a relationship or sex therapist who can help those in the relationship articulate individual desires and develop creative ways to have sex if there are mobility limitations. In addition, perhaps even considering using new toys or other aids to make up for the mobility that was lost. 

Two people holding hands while sitting on a couch

Those who are not disabled play an equally important role in ensuring that those with disabilities feel confident in reclaiming their sex life. Sue Newsome, a sex and relationship therapist, recommends that one way to truly eliminate the taboo nature of sex and disability is to include people with disabilities in conversations about sex that pop up in day-to-day life. She highlights that it is important to not assume that they are uninterested in sex and encourage doctors and physical and occupational therapists to include it in medical assessments treatment plans. By building a culture of normalcy, it will be easier for those with disabilities to feel comfortable speaking up with sexual challenges and re-engage in that part of their life. 

Relationships, sex and disability is nothing to whisper about. Most people are interested in sex, relationships, and intimacy regardless of their ability. Therefore, it’s important to not be afraid to re-introduce this back into life despite a new partner or diagnosis with a disability. There are so many resources out there to help and all that’s needed is to start by having a conversation with their partner. 

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