Strategies for Change

Independent Living Movement Ireland

Sexuality and Disability

Selina Bonnie took centre stage at our Strategies for Change session on the 30th March last, kicking with a quote, “To boldly go where everyone has gone before because if we didn’t, none of us would be here today.” Sex, sexuality, and sexual expression are part of our lives, and disabled people must be part of this normality.

The common myth that disabled people are asexual is just ridiculous – disabled people are having sex or wanting to have sex and are having relationships or wanting to have relationships.

However, for some disabled people do experience barriers, particularly those with intellectual impairments. It is noteworthy here to say that the barriers usually have to do with other people’s attitudes and a belief that this group of people should not have sex and that supporting this to happen is a taboo subject.

Other groups that may experience barriers include those that acquire impairments, those with complex impairments, those with communication difficulties, and those that are aging.  For many people who acquire their impairments, the first question they may think about is, “Oh my God, am I ever going to have sex again. So, supporting people while in rehabilitation and beyond to understand yes, they can is vitally important; it may be different, but it can still be good – see: Disability and Sexuality (SUB ITA) – Tom Shakespeare for more information.

Historically, attitudes towards disabled people have also compounded the issue. Essential services were provided by religious orders. Suppose you link all this with the medical model approach of fixing disabled people, then everything gets overcomplicated, and rights get lost, including disabled people’s rights to have intimate relationships and have a family.

Selina also spoke to us about other compounding issues, including the lack of appropriate representation in mainstream media and advertising, negative attitudes towards disabled people as parents, inaccessible maternity and sexual health services, and the lack of access for disabled parents in all public areas, including shops, restaurants, etc.

Any place’s that provides parenting facilities, such as baby-changing stations, should ensure that they are accessible to disabled caregivers, and stores that sell nursery equipment should either stock or find accessible nursery equipment if required.

There are also few opportunities for sexual expression. Many service providers never consider that disabled people need access to services related to sexual expression. Examples of these include assessing adult shops, family planning clinics; access to adult websites; access to pubs and clubs, and other places where social relationships are formed.

Another essential concept that Selina encouraged us to think about was what Tom Shakespeare calls “alienation and the body”. This is about disabled people distancing themselves from their own bodies and it can happen for many reasons. Firstly, many disabled people’s bodies can be very public; for example, when a disabled person goes outside for example, people may think or say, why does that person walk like that or why does that person have a big head or have no arms. It is also very public when the “medical gaze” is turned on you, when you are stripped for examination, or poked, or prodded by the medical profession. And finally, many disabled people are made public when they are sexually abused and sterilized – see: Tom’s video for additional conversation to this topic – Don’t touch? People with disabilities getting to grips with bodies and inhibitions.

We were then invited by Selina to look at what sexual citizenship was and what reproductive justice was, feedback from participants included:
  • that it was about having the freedom to let disabled people express their sexuality like everyone else
  • that it was about having the freedom to explore their sexuality in whatever ways they wanted/needed
  • that it was about having the resources to the support that everybody else has access to, i.e., magazines, internet, particularly people with intellectual impairments who are sometimes treated like eternal children and society thinking that they cannot be sexual.

And lastly, there was a powerful consensus by all that there needs to be more sex education in schools, especially around sex and disabled people – see a very cool video about disability and sexuality that could be used in schools to start the conversation – Disability And Sexuality – YouTube.

Reproductive justice feedback from participants included:
  • stop the sterilisation of disabled women, especially those with intellectual impairments; they should have rights and autonomy over their own bodies
  • disabled people should have support around having babies or having access to surrogacy, and I.V.F treatment
  • having the right to have a sexual partner
  • attitudes in society – women’s capabilities around having children needs to be seriously challenged
  • issues around supporting consent, especially for those with intellectual impairments – see an article about the decriminalisation of people with intellectual disabilities having sex – Decriminalisation of people with intellectual disabilities having sex welcomed – journal.ie
  • some disabled people may need support because of their impairment, i.e., facilitated sexual expression – see: Selina’s paper on the topic – Facilitated Sexual Expression in the Independent Living Movement in Ireland

On a more positive note, Selina told us that legislation won’t change hearts and minds, but it will change laws. Ireland is now obliged under the UNCRPD to fulfil its duties to ensure that all disabled people have the same rights as everyone else, including the right to have control over, choices about, and access to their own sexuality and sexual expression throughout their lives, this includes having intimate relationships. See: Disabled People Are Sexual Citizens Too – Full Article for more information.

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