In the months before the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was launched on July 1, discussions about disability featured widely in the media. One issue however was ignored - the sex lives of the disabled.
Sex and disability tends to be a taboo topic for many. People with physical or intellectual disabilities in today's society are often regarded as non-sexual adults since sex is very much associated with youth and physical attractiveness.
Opportunities for sexual exploration among disabled people, particularly the young, are extremely limited. There is often a lack of privacy with carers around and they are much more likely than other young people to receive a negative reaction from an adult if discovered. Often they are completely denied sex education and sometimes they are punished for exhibiting behaviour others consider socially inappropriate simply because they are disabled.
There are many myths and assumptions around sex and disability. For example, the belief that disabled people are asexual (not interested in sex) or incapable of sex. It's easy for disabled people to be influenced by these myths and begin to believe they don't have a right to sex. But that just isn't true.
When we have a disability or consider ourselves disfigured, it is sometimes hard to believe we are attractive. But most people struggle with feeling unattractive anyway, no matter what the state of their health or the condition of their bodies.
Sex can be a wonderful reason to keep going when everything else seems bleak and it can be a beautiful way of connecting with someone we love. There's really no disability that makes sex impossible, if we define sex not as intercourse but as physical contact for the purpose of sharing intimacy and pleasure.
People with a chronic illness or disability often forget about sex or give up on it because they may lack energy and want to save their strength for other things. They may have discomfort, loss of sensation or unpleasant feelings in their genitals or other parts of their body.
Psychological factors can also block their sexuality. They may believe that they are unattractive or undeserving of pleasure. Depression, worries and anxiety can often limit their interest in sex while feeling low or struggling with body image can make sex and intimacy difficult.
Sex does require some effort, but sexual desire is also nature's most powerful source of energy. Pleasure derived from sex can raise a person's quality of life and slow down the course of their illness. Sex can strengthen the connection with partners and give them a chance to forget about illness for a while. Their bodies can be a source of pleasure, not only of frustration.
For many couples, whether they are disabled or not, sex isn't the most important part of their relationship. Many find kissing or caressing each other and mutual masturbation just as rewarding, and this may be particularly important if penetrative sex is impossible. Sex while having a condition may be different but it can still be good.
Another difficulty for the disabled is where to meet partners. They often have limited opportunities to meet people and find it difficult to negotiate relationships. There are many online dating websites and lately some that specialise in dating for the disabled have appeared. I really like this website.
I am a great admirer of New Zealander Claire Ryan who has worked in the disability sector for about 30 years. Check out her YouTube video where she talks about the support people who look after the disabled.
Helpful information can also be found in the book, The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability co-written by sex educator Cory Silverberg.
The international website MyHandicap is also a highly informative source for the disabled, their partners and their families.