This brother and sister duo are breaking down taboos and smashing myths in their quest to make the world's first sex toy for those living with a disability.
Two years ago, Heather Morrison, a marketing strategist, and her brother, Andrew Gurza, were talking about Andrew’s dating experiences as a gay man with a disbility when Heather made a startling discovery. Up until that point, she said she hadn’t realised people living with similar disabilities to her brother couldn’t self-pleasure.
Andrew, who is two years older than Heather, has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that results in stiffness and difficulty controlling his arms and legs. “I can’t walk and I need help with pretty much every aspect of daily living: going to the toilet, dressing myself, eating, showering,” Andrew said. “I can move everything and I can feel everything but I just can’t walk.”
With age, the stiffness in Andrew’s hands has increased and he can no longer masturbate without pain. There are no sex toys on the market for people with hand limitations.
“I had this lightbulb moment and I said to him, ‘Do you want to change that? Should we make something?’,” Heather said.
The result is ‘Handi’, the world’s first line of sex toys designed specifically for, and by people, who live with physical disabilties. The toys are about to go into the prototype phase and, in the process, they’re shattering many of the myths and taboos surrounding disability and sexuality.
“It’s not common in our society for people to openly discuss issues surrounding sexuality and disability,” Patsie Frawley said, Associate Professor of Disability and Inclusion Studies at the University of Waikato.
“Unless you have a disability yourself, or you have someone in your life with a disability, the question of how people with disabilities live their lives is not on people’s radar, despite the fact that almost 20 per cent of Australians have lived experience of disability.”
She said when society does consider the needs of people with disabilities, it is either from a “pity perspective” or as an inspirational story.
“There’s also this idea that people with disabilities can’t have sex or don’t want to. Nobody’s really tackled this properly by listening to the disabled community,” Andrew said.
Patsie said privacy is also often a significant issue for people living with disabilities. “If you have to engage someone else to assist in any sexual activity, autonomy and privacy is gone or at best compromised. I think assistive technologies to enable people to independently do daily activities are important and I see sexual expression as a daily activity.”
But while it may be a daily activity, Heather said it’s one society is not comfortable talking about. “Then you layer on top of that masturbation or self-pleasure and people get a bit squeamish. And then you layer disability on top of that and people are really squeamish, so there’s just this massive taboo.”
Changing the conversation around sex and disability
In order to work together, Andrew and Heather had to overcome geographical distance – Heather is based in Australia and Andrew in Canada – as well as some discomfort of their own. Heather said at the beginning of the project, Andrew was their case study.
“At first I said to him, ‘You can just send your findings straight through to the research team; I don’t need to see all the nitty gritty.’ But what you realise, being a leader of a company, is that you actually do need to see all the nitty gritty. I needed to understand his lived experience. So now I’m pretty comfortable hearing about his sexual exploits. It’s taken a bit of time to get there but it’s definitely brought us closer.”
Even Andrew, a disability awareness consultant who has been talking and writing about being gay and living with a disability for 10 years, and is used to “having raw and real conversations about disability”, was uncomfortable at first.
“Initially I was like, ‘Do I want to make a sex toy with my sister?’ It was uncomfortable in the beginning but when we started putting out the question to the disabled community, we realised very quickly it wasn’t just about me; this could change the world for everybody.”
While researching this community’s needs, the siblings began hearing people’s stories around sex and disability and they realised there was no forum for them to be heard.
“Usually if we talk about sex and disability on public forums, if we do at all, it starts and stops with, ‘So how do you have sex?’ or, ‘Do your genitals work?’” Andrew said.
Patsie said these conversations often question the capacity for people living with physical disabilities to be a “fully equal sexual citizen”. “We need to hear more of the everyday experiences of sexuality and relationships.”
Andrew and Heather decided to provide a platform for the kinds of stories they felt weren’t being covered. The Handi Book of Love, Lust & Disability, released at the end of the month, is a collection of quotes, illustrations and photography from 50 contributors with disabilities from around the world, answering questions around sex and disability such as: what was your best sex experience? What was your worst? Tell us about a time when you dealt with chronic pain during sex. What does it feel like to fall in love for the first time when you have a disability?
The answers run the whole gamut of sexual experience and are surprising, funny, sad, revealing and raw.
“We curated the book but the disabled community wrote the book,” Heather said. “Without them being brave enough to bare it all, and many of them have, and many of them for the first time, there wouldn’t be a book. It’s incredibly powerful and beautiful. It’s heart-wrenching but it’s also strong and empowering.”
“The book shows that disability is not one experience,” Andrew said. “And also, at the same time, that no matter where you live, there are very similar experiences. There’s a common thread.”
The book has brought people together from all over the world, just as the sex toys’ design process has involved people living with disabilities from around the world, as well as people from several different backgrounds and disciplines. The team has worked with engineers, industrial designers from RMIT University and occupational therapists to bring the products to life. They expect the toys will be available early next year.
“I love that some of our team are disabled and some aren’t,” Andrew said. “I love that it’s a conversation and a bridge builder between the disabled and non-disabled communities and we can build something together.”
“It’s been incredibly humbling,” Heather said. “Every time you think, ‘This is a lot of work. Is it really worth it?’, you get an email or a message from somebody that reminds you of the bigger reason you’re doing this. Knowing that everything we do is helping people, not just in the future, but also today by helping to break down that taboo, by giving people space to have their voices heard – it’s an incredible feeling.”
The book is available on the Handi website.