It isn’t easy for many people to talk about sex. For those with a disability, it can be even harder.
Authors of The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability say one barrier to developing sexual relationships is fear of what a potential partner will think if you reveal too much information about yourself or your disability. Another common problem for single people with disabilities — and all single people — is meeting other singles to date.
But experts say relationship challenges for people with disabilities might be rooted in a deeper problem: lack of sexual health education, particularly for those with a developmental or intellectual disability.
According to a recent article in the journal Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, individuals with intellectual disabilities rarely receive sex education. Researchers from Boston College and University of Oregon found this lack of knowledge hindered people’s understanding of their own sexuality, which reduced their feelings of self-worth and their ability to comfortably address sexuality with others.
“When it comes to talking about sexuality, people with disabilities are often excluded, almost as if they’re incapable of having sexual thoughts, feelings and needs,” said Katherine McLaughlin, a sexuality educator who is planning to offer a training program in Denver this fall.
“In reality,” she added, “they too are sexual beings who need the information and skills for making healthy decisions about sexuality.”
There are two key issues to consider in a relationship when discussing any type of disability: What do you want to say and when do you want to say it? Although timing is important, a sexual relationship won’t work well unless both people are willing to talk about their needs.
In a short documentary called Sex(abled): Disability Uncensored, students with physical disabilities talk about aspects of their own sexual lives and the challenges they face in developing relationships. One student who has cerebral palsy says in the documentary he came to realize “that yeah, I had all those needs that everyone else had, and that it was OK to feel that way.”
The 14-minute film, available on YouTube, features a panel of students from the Disabled Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley.
One student explains why she wouldn’t wear her hearing aids in public: “I would try to hide my disability, even though it would make me more disabled,” she says. “I was afraid that no one would want to have a relationship with me sexually.”
For those who struggle to meet people to date, online dating sites — including some that are exclusively for people with disabilities — can help and offer a level of security. Most online dating services have mailboxes that allow the user to carefully consider potential matches without revealing a personal email address or other contact information.
Such sites are becoming increasingly popular. According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of adults surveyed said they believe dating websites and mobile apps are a good way to meet people, and 15 percent of adults had used a site or an app, an increase of four percentage points from a similar survey in 2013.
Use of dating sites and apps surged in the two-year period for people ages 18 to 24, according to the survey; 27 percent of those surveyed in this age group said they had used a dating site or app in 2015, while just 10 percent reported using a site in 2013.
For those in the next age group, 25-34, 22 percent reported using a dating site in 2015, and 21 percent of those age 35-44 said they had used such a site.
Two thirds of online daters said they have gone on a date with someone they met through a dating site or dating app, the survey said.
In a New York Times opinion piece, Emily Ladau, who uses a wheelchair and online dating services, said she has seen some success.
“There have been plenty of matches that haven’t worked out,” she said, “and whether that’s actually because of my disability, I’ll never know. But I had a nearly yearlong relationship with a man I met through OKCupid, so I know it’s possible for lightning to strike again.”
Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What: A three-day certification training by Katherine McLaughlin, a sexuality educator, for anyone who works with people with developmental disabilities and wants to lead sexuality education classes and staff or parent trainings
When: Nov. 28-30
Where: Homewood Suites by Hilton & Hampton Inn & Suites, 550 15th St. in Denver
More info: Learn about McLaughlin and find out how to register at www.elevatustraining.com