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  • Writer's picturePhilip J Connolly

Sexual Rights and Disability

I met Philip at the Disability Expo in 2023 where I was representing The Outsiders

Trust (charity number: 283350). Philip is very curious in sex and disability and so

we chatted as this topic is the specialism of the Trust.


Philip asked me are disabled adults infantilised when it comes to sex? Whilst the

very basic answer may be 'yes' in order to fully understand this, a deeper

discussion is required. As an able bodied person I feel that I can’t write about this

alone. I have asked my friends and colleagues Emma and Steve for their opinions.

They are both physically disabled activists when it comes to sex and disability.

They are adults who I find inspiring. Our experience is with physical disability so

our discussion focuses on this.


Steve and I discussed Philips question and what he basically told me is that from

his perspective you often find that able bodied adults do not see you as a potential

date and therefore a future sexual partner. If you reveal to someone that you fancy

them then quite often they are surprised as they find you appealing as a friend but

not as a lover. Of course this could be true of anybody’s encounter. However if you

have a visible disability, or reveal an invisible disability, there is always part of you

that is more or less sure that this is what put off the person you approached and

your disability is something you can’t change. We wondered if this was

infantilisation and decided it could be but that it could also be due to do with fear of

the unknown. Steve said any partner to someone with a disability needs to be

empathetic (not sympathetic or pitying). You have to see a relationship from the

perspective of the disabled person because there will be more limiting aspects

compared to an able bodied relationship. Then both use your imagination to find

ingenious ways around the challenges.


As an older man Steve finds rejection less upsetting now. When he was younger

rejection would dent his self perception. Self confidence is often lower when a

person has a disability as you might not be able to imagine why someone might like

you. Low self confidence or self esteem is linked to feelings of inadequacy, shame

or vulnerability which might hinder your recognition of being treated like an infant

and make you more vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. On the other hand

there are physically disabled adults who are successful in relationships and sex.

Often they are successful in life; having a talent and charisma that inspires

admiration and makes them attractive and sexy. Prowess, with or without a

disability, is often intoxicating. This doesn’t mean that they have not had to battle

the misguided views of others, or negative feelings.


Emma points out that disability is very medicalised and this contributes to the

viewpoint of a disabled person being an infant. Having a physical disability means

that you are dependent on medical professionals and carers. Not being

independent promotes the viewpoint that you are infantile. A lot of the time, no

matter what gender or sexuality a person is, when they join Outsiders the only

intimate physical contact they have had with others is through medical care. Every

other part of life has been overlooked.


Professor Claire de Than, a human rights lawyer and also Chair of the Outsiders,

argues in the book Supporting Disabled People with their Sexual Lives that

disabled people (and here she is recognising both learning and disabled people)

should not bubble wrapped. While acknowledging that the disabled shouldn’t be

“abandoned to the risks off life”, they should be “supported and enabled” to have a

life that includes sexual expression if that is their choice. She argues that the

government has “shifted the focus of public services towards safeguarding of adults

and this has lead to a heightened concentration on the prevention of risk rather

than the enabling of rights.”


This is especially around sex work. Sex workers can legally have sex with an adult

with a disability who struggles to have any other form of sexual expression. Also

sex workers can facilitate sex between two adults. Yet because the law seems

unclear, health and care professionals often ignore the sexual needs of their clients

and perhaps their own views of sex worker can impact negatively on the whether

they are prepared to support their client. The media adds fuel to the fire by

publishing negative stories about disabled adults using sex workers.


I am hearing more and more through the Outsiders that the main reason that adults

with disabilities can find it hard to go out is due to the funding crisis. How can you

establish friendships or a relationship if you can’t afford to go out, unless you are

lucky enough to be self funded? How can you establish friendships or a

relationship if the carers aren’t funded enough to go out in the evening with you or

have only time in the daytime to provide your essential care? Where is the funding

that is earmarked for relationships and sex?


Despite greater efforts in social discourse and training it can be hard still to find a

health or care professional who understands that a disabled person has the same

sexual desires as anyone else. Sometimes there can be cultural taboos which hold

back professionals from giving the support necessary. It can feel like a wilful

ignorance from those in charge; an attitude that beggars can’t be choosers or that a

sex life is not essential compared to other areas of personal care. Parents can be

afraid to let their adult children pursue a sexual life as well; worried about the

vulnerability of their children (even when adult) in the “risky” world of dating and

having nowhere they feel they can turn in order to find the help and support they

need.


The Outsiders Trust charity, for which we have all volunteered, was set up by Dr

Tuppy Owens nearly 50 years ago. She wanted to tackle the presumption in

society and amongst health and care professionals that disabled adults would

never have sex. Therefore why make any provision for sex and relationships in

their education and care.


Within the Trust the Outsiders Club is an online peer support club which aims to

help adults meet each other. We have seen diminished numbers of adults meeting

each other in real life. The Sexual Health and Disability Alliance (SHADA), which is

part of the Outsiders Trust, links professionals via twice yearly online meetings and

has a growing membership in an online forum. The TLC-Trust is a website where

responsible sex worker can be found who work with the disabled.


Things have improved. There are even ingenious inventions in the sex toy industry

led by disabled adults themselves. However there is always a concern that

disabled adults could become invisible again and this will regress a lot that has

progressed in the last 50 years, including them being taken seriously as sexual

beings. There is a role for disabled adults to assert themselves whenever they can;

take responsibility for their lives by grabbing even small opportunities where they

exist to get out and meet others and demand that their sexual needs are met.

Easier said than done but not impossible and made easier by their sexual needs

being acknowledged and given a priority by those whose care and financial support

they rely upon. As ever there is a lot to unpick in a complex situation that is not

helped by relationships and sex being an easy target for financial cuts in our a

political environment that has the propensity to ignore sex as a basic human right

for disabled adults. Sex is as natural as eating drinking and going to the toilet.

Ignoring this when it comes to the lives of disabled adults is infantilising them.


Els Payne

Stever Major

Emma Buckett BSc

The Outsiders Trust


Dr Tuppy Owens with Claire de Than: Chapter 4, Sex Disability and Human Rights.

Current Legal and Practical Problems. Page 86.

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