The conversation surrounding sexuality and the expression of it has changed over recent decades, mostly for the better. Acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities has grown, and discussion of sexuality in general has become less stigmatized. However, there is one group that still struggles to join the discussion: people with disabilities, especially people with developmental disabilities.
Disability and sexuality, in general, are rarely spoken about, but those with developmental disabilities are often seen as outright incapable of sexual attraction and acting on it. Many people still see disabled adults through an infantilizing lens, believing them to have a lower “mental age.”
To support the cause and dispel some myths, we sat down with two of our sex educators: Sherry Nassrin and Darren Frisk. Sherry is a Clinical Supervisor with Laurel Behaviour Support Services, a Board-Certified Behaviour Analyst, and Sexual Educator, and Darren is a Team Leader and Sexual Educator.
Demystifying sexuality with inclusive sex ed
Sherry and Darren helped to create our LINK! sexual health education curriculum. LINK! sessions are all about providing a safe space for individuals with developmental disabilities to ask about and openly discuss sexuality. The program has groups for youth and for adults, and is driven by the belief that sex education should be available to everyone.
Many individuals with developmental disabilities are not given access to the same sexual health education available to their peers. LINK! hopes to close that gap and bring advocacy for disabled sexuality to the forefront.
A key factor when supporting disabled folks exploring and expressing their sexuality—especially queer disabled folks—is specifically acknowledging their wants and needs.
“It’s about supporting everyone’s dreams and wishes,” Darren says. “If somebody’s dream is to be in a relationship with the same sex, we support that. Everybody living in our programs gets to see the dreams they want.”
Caregivers play a key role in creating a supportive foundation for the people they support, and may learn from the experience themselves.
“Part of our LINK! curriculum is demystifying sexuality,” Sherry says. “That’s something we present to caregivers. There are lots of tips on how to support a person through their journey of sexuality and understand sexual health education.”
The curriculum also supports caregivers to approach these topics openly.
“On a program level, it’s about staff understanding everyone has the right to express their sexuality,” Darren says. “Just because someone might live in a group home or need support doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the same experiences we have.”
Those experiences can be anything, even mistakes—which can be learning opportunities in disguise.
“Maybe we’re in a relationship that isn’t the healthiest, or make a decision that isn’t the safest,” Darren says. “All of us have had the opportunity to learn from that.”
The term both Sherry and Darren agree on is “the dignity of risk.” In relationships, people make mistakes, and things don’t work out. That’s an integral part of personal growth.
“People have the right to make decisions in their lives,” Darren says. “Our role isn’t to shelter people, it’s to allow everyone to know the consequences of decisions that we make.”
LINK!’s role fits into this model perfectly as a space for conversation, rather than a rigid path.
“We provide resources, and a safe space to come and talk to,” Sherry says. “We’ll equip [persons served] with the resources needed . . . As long as it’s not self-harming or against the law, [we] allow room for the person to explore.”
Open conversations and educated answers
In recent years, there’s been an effort to destigmatize having these kinds of conversations with persons served. Sexual health educators are available to help answer any questions, and if they don’t know the answer, there are other places to go.
One useful resource is Sex Sense, which can be accessed by phone or email through a written form.
Sex Sense self-describes as “a free, pro-choice, sex-positive, and confidential service” available to those in BC and the Yukon. More information can be accessed on its website here.
Another useful platform is Real Talk, which hosts virtual drop-in groups for those with diverse abilities to talk about sexuality in a safe space. Real Talk also has a selection of videos, which feature people with disabilities talking about their lived experiences with everything from online dating to safe sex to sexual identities.
With Pride Month in full swing, it’s important to remember that queerness and disability can overlap, and it’s not as rare as you’d think. For example, transgender and other gender variant individuals are three to six times more likely to be autistic than cisgender individuals.
While more research needs to be done, queer disabled individuals can benefit from much of the same support as their peers. Sherry and Darren hope for people to learn more about and normalize disabled queer identities. Sherry described a “proactive strategy” of “putting more education out there and really encouraging people to be more sex-positive and embrace gender identity and expression and sexual orientation.”
“Society needs to be educated,” she presses.
Disability & sexuality in the media
One emerging education form is media representation. Disabled sexuality is being spotlighted in books, TV, and film like never before, and often by disabled people themselves. This has a two-fold effect: those who see themselves in the media are bound to feel less alone, and that representation can be a mark of a larger cultural shift, one towards seeing people with disabilities as a part of the community at large.
Special, for example, is a Netflix original series about a gay man with cerebral palsy, and how he tries to get by at work and in his love life. Another show brought up was Love on the Spectrum, which follows various autistic individuals in the pursuit of romantic relationships. Everything’s Gonna be Okay is notable for featuring an autistic teenage girl dating another autistic teenage girl, and was created by an autistic gay man.
In the end, acceptance of disabled sexuality is a group effort: we must do our part to make space for those with disabilities to safely explore their feelings and relationships.
“Be supportive and open,” Sherry says, “and if you’re supporting someone, put your own personal values aside. Helping them be in a comfortable space requires us to check our own personal values and put our beliefs aside.”
“We all have a right to our sexuality,” Darren agrees. “We need to support everyone with that.”
Sherry, Darren, and another sexual health educator, Becky Molly, discussed more on this topic and our LINK! curriculum on our podcast, Good for All. Listen to it here.