People with a disability experience the same sexual needs, feelings and desires as any other individual. Disability does not prevent sexual maturity or remove sexual feelings, desires or curiosity.
Body image has a strong impact on an individual’s and societies perceptions of sexual relationships. Talking about sex/sexuality and people with a physical disability is often seen as inappropriate. When sexuality and physical disability is discussed, it is often in purely functional terms, like fertility and capacity to physically perform sexual activities. It commonly leaves out all the wider aspects of sexuality: feelings, affection, emotional and physical needs and desires and same-sex relationships. Sexuality brings with it a multitude of complex issues with its highs and lows, pitfalls and pleasures. These affect everyone, with or without a disability.
This is not to say, however, that the individual impact of a disability should be ignored. Whether it is lifelong or acquired, disability or illness can potentially affect any aspect of sexuality. Questions about having children, sustaining relationships or being able to enjoy sex can be raised. Some disabilities may cause a loss of fertility, but this does not mean a loss of sexual function. If the sexual function is reduced, it may be possible to increase it again. A loss of sensation in the genitals does not mean that sexual pleasure is no longer possible.
Keeping the discussion open about sexuality and acknowledging sexual needs and preferences allows disabled people to adapt to their own unique circumstances and both explore and enjoy their own sexual identity. Each disability affects each individual differently and responding to this in a sexual way will involve a high degree of personal consideration. This may involve experimentation with a variety of sexual activities or a variety of positions to achieve pleasure and comfort. Some people use sex-toys (vibrators etc.), additional lubricants or concentrate more on non-penetrative activities.
An essential part of fulfilling sexuality is communication. Openness between sexual partners can create the right environment to develop particular ways of giving and receiving sexual pleasure. Telling each other what you like and don’t like, and not criticising, builds a greater understanding of needs and desires. Guide your partner(s) and be guided by them. Safer sex is equally important for disabled and non-disabled people. Please refer to this website for more info: Disability Now
It is essential to recognise and acknowledge that learning-disabled people also experience the same needs, feelings and desires associated with sexuality. It is also essential that this sexuality is given the freedom to express itself, and not be shut away for mistakenly being deemed inappropriate. A learning disability should not prevent any person from channelling their needs and feelings into means of expression that allows them to enjoy their sexuality and get pleasure and enjoyment from intimate relationships.
Education about sex and sexuality has often been completely denied to learning-disabled people. This not only denies the basic right of expression but creates a number of unnecessary difficulties. Sexual development and the management of feelings that come along with it can be stressful for anyone. If no help is given to understand what is happening, physically and emotionally, then this stress is greatly increased. In addition to this, if the only messages that are given consist of phrases like “don’t do that, it’s bad” or “don’t touch yourself there”, then further confusion and frustration can build up. We should all be given the opportunity to learn about our own bodies and what we like or dislike.
Appropriate sexual behaviour and the difference between private and public behaviour are important areas that need to be fully supported with positive messages and learning. There is a misconception that learning-disabled people can have an uncontrollable sexual drive, and present some kind of danger as a result. If no proper education is available then there is no opportunity to develop the kind of behaviour that is considered publicly acceptable. It is important for educators, particularly those involved in education programmes with disability workers or disabled people, to understand community attitudes towards disability and sexuality, and the impact of these views upon disabled people themselves.
Without good education and support, learning-disabled people can be very vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, or negative consequences of their actions. This education needs to be consistent in the various settings someone might be, and consistent between different people who might carry out a support role – family and carers, care workers, supported education or employment workers, and counsellors. NHS Lanarkshire’s Adult Learning Disability Service has created a website for people with a learning disability and health professionals.