'It’s time to make accessibility sexy': disability advocate

We need to be more inclusive when thinking about sexuality and disability says SA politician (Photo by Uriel Sinai) Source: Getty Images

South Australian politician Kelly Vincent, who knows first-hand the challenges of disability, writes that we need to start recognising it on the spectrum of sexuality.

When I was at high school here in Adelaide, I received no sex education. Due to my physical disability, I did not participate in physical education class, meaning I missed out on health and sex education lessons too. I’m 27 years old, so this was only a decade ago – yet the curriculum has still not adapted to realise students with a disability need education on sex and sexual relations in the same way people without disability do.

Thankfully, my mum is a nurse so she had no qualms about discussing puberty, sex and relationships with me, and my siblings; an older and younger brother. The human body and human relationships were never a taboo topic around our dinner table (well, okay, maybe at the dinner table). So, I had a good understanding of the changes my body went through as an adolescent, knew what my rights were around my sexually maturing body and I felt comfortable navigating the adult world of relationships as a wheelchair user. But some of my friends with disability did not grow up in such a household and so were shocked and distressed when they experienced natural and even largely inevitable events such as their first menstrual cycle.

Unfortunately, even with the best intentions and much love, the community and even family carers of people with disability have a habit of viewing disabled people one of two ways: either as infantilised asexual beings or hypersexual and incapable of understanding social norms around sex and relationships. But people with disability have the same experience of sexuality as the rest of the population: we can be asexual, interested in open relationships, gay, straight, fascinated by sexual fetishism, or just wanting companionship.

Even with the best intentions ... [there is] a habit of viewing disabled people one of two ways: either as infantilised asexual beings or hypersexual and incapable of understanding social norms around sex and relationships.

I do understand where this unwillingness to tackle the nuanced topics of love, relationships, and sex is coming from. Generally, we Australians have inherited a fairly prudish attitude, and this can be exacerbated when ideas of potential vulnerability due to disability come into play. But I would also argue that this perceived vulnerability is, along with other things, exactly why we need to take this on. 

Internationally, comprehensive literature reviews of studies demonstrate people with disabilities are two to seven times more likely to experience abuse of any kind.  And sadly, here in Australia, 90 per cent of women with intellectual disability are likely to be sexually abused in their lifetime. These statistics alone demonstrate the essential need for well trained staff providing detailed and relevant, accessible sex education to people with disabilities in our schools and community, so that we can have the dignity of risk, but also demand respect, and recognise and stand up against abuse.  All people have a right to safe self-expression, and know what their rights and responsibilities are with sex, relationships and the human body – theirs and others. For those of us people with disabilities who desire relationships, including sex, not being educated about this will probably not stop us – but it might stop us doing it safely.

Here in Australia, 90 per cent of women with intellectual disability are likely to be sexually abused in their lifetime. 

There is no one size fits all solution because everyone is different – in their needs and their desires. Some might need just a bit of education, while others might need physical assistance, or something else entirely. But if you can answer “yes” to the question “should every person be able to live the life of their choosing with respect and safety?”, then you believe in the need to change perceptions, respect and support autonomy and let disability take its rightful place in society, including on the spectrum of sexuality.

It’s time to make accessibility sexy.

 

Kelly Vincent is a guest on Insight's look at sex and disability | Catch up online now:  

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