What having a sexual relationship means for people with disabilities

Ryan Haddad sits on a couch center stage in a New York theater. His pants are around his ankles, and he’s masturbating. Well, not really. It’s five minutes into his one-man show, Hi, Are You Single?. While the audience may be shocked by his display, the Cleveland native uses the scene to explain that, even though he has Cerebral palsy, he is a sexual being.

“The reason that’s the beginning of the show, and not the middle or the end, is because I need to communicate quickly that I am highly sexual in order for the rest of the show to make any sense,” Haddad says.

Haddad isn’t the only person who is trying to create a discussion about people with disabilities and their sexuality.

Alyson Patsavas, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, notes this idea of asexuality stems from a time when people still believed in eugenics and the idea that people with disabilities would “taint the gene pool” if they were to reproduce. Even though the idea of eugenics has lost popularity, the stigma still remains.

To reverse that stigma, Patsavas says people with disabilities need to be seen as people first.

“Supporting disabled people’s efforts to find sexual pleasure starts with first recognizing a right to sexuality, and a focus on sexual education as a means of fostering pleasure,” Patsavas says.

The Media’s Role

People with disabilities are rarely shown as sexual beings. There are only a few examples in popular media where a person with a disability gets a romantic storyline. Me Before You follows the story of a quadriplegic man falling in love with an able-bodied woman. Glee gave a paraplegic wheelchair user a couple of romantic interests. But because Glee was on primetime, they couldn’t really explore the sexual nature of those relationships. Beyond that, it’s slim pickings.

This limited list is why Jessy Yates, an actress with cerebral palsy, wants to see more people with disabilities portrayed in media. “We need to place people with disabilities in roles with sexual power, or even just make them a romantic lead or a person with a romantic storyline,” Yates says.

Haddad agrees. We need to see a story where a disabled person is sexy. We need to see a story where disability is not part of the problem or the conflict. It’s just a fact of life. We need as much representation in the media as our non-disabled counterparts and we need to make sure our stories are sexy and full-throttle and not striving to be inspirational.”

The World’s Role

In high school, a boy in a wheelchair asked Yates on a date. She said no. She wasn’t attracted to him. But at that age, she also didn’t see herself as a sexual being. “There was about a year or so where I took on the identity of asexual,” Yates says. “I was like, ‘If the world is going to write me off in terms of dating, I’ll define that for myself and just take agency over that.’”

After moving to New York, Yates began interacting with and learning from more people who had disabilities. She began to realize that she wasn’t aesexual. By becoming more ingrained in the disabled community, she finally came to terms with herself.

“I did not identify as disabled. I didn’t really know what it meant for me,” Yates says. “I started exploring that. And then, two months later, I started dating and dating ferociously.”

This happened when she was 21. Two years later, she now identifies as polyamorous. She says that she’s “making up for lost time.”

But her confidence was not instantaneous. First, Yates had to come to terms with her disability. “I always say I came out as disabled,” Yates says. “When I walk down the street you know I’m disabled, but I had to make it an active choice for myself.”

Haddad also had to come to terms with dating with a disability. At the age of 16, he came out as gay. His mother cried when he came out; not because he was gay, but because now he was “different” in two ways. He didn’t start dating until after high school, though. He used dating apps like Tinder and Grindr. But he only posted a headshot of himself. He didn’t openly show that he has a disability.

“In the beginning the headshot approach was met very rarely with enthusiasm,” says Haddad. “It was usually met with confusion or people thinking I was keeping some information from them and I was being mistrustful and dishonest. It took me a while to really embrace myself and be able to say, ‘I’m gay and disabled. And I’m sexy.’”

Now Haddad’s profiles read, “I have cerebral palsy and a walker and I have a higher sex drive than you.” It’s a line right from his show.

Getting Down to Business

Part of becoming aware of one’s sexuality as a person with a disability is learning about one’s body and the limits it may have. Illinois State University Associate Professor Tom Gerschick researches the intersections of gender, disability and sexuality. He strives to get his students to understand those constraints.

I want my students to understand that, just like anybody, there are limitations,” Gerschick says. “For those of us who are temporarily able bodied, our bodies have limitations too.”

But limitations don’t have to be seen as restrictions. They can provide a person with a disability the chance to get creative with their sex life and with their partner. Many people with disabilities use toys such as vibrators, dildos and even, on occasion, sex assistants.

“Only you know your body. You can still be sexy and naughty and desirable and clear about your wants and needs.”

A 2015 mini-documentary, #gettingsome: Disabled and Sexually Active, explores the relationship of Katja and Tim, a German couple who both have a disability — Katja has Muscular atrophy and Tim has Muscular dystrophy. Both Katja and Tim have assistants who help them with their daily lives as well as their sex life. The assistants help the couple get into the position they want and then leave them alone until they’re called upon again.

Katja and Tim are resourceful. They use a swing that’s normally used to lift them in and out of their wheelchairs and into bed to help them perform oral sex. They use toys, make sex tapes and vary their positions with the help of their assistants. At one point, the narrator of the documentary says, “If they could just reach out and touch each other they wouldn’t be able to keep their hands off each other.”

Like in any relationship, trust and communication are an important factor when getting it on. Whether it’s a long-term relationship or a one-night stand, you have to be the one to say this is what I want, this is what I need, this is how you can help me in terms of balance, flexibility, stimuli,” says Haddad. “Only you know your body. You can still be sexy and naughty and desirable and clear about your wants and needs. If it’s the right partner, they should be totally on board.”

Confidence is also key. For people who are just exploring their sexuality as a person with a disability, Gerschick has some advice. “Be patient and work diligently on your sense of self,” Gerschick says. “I think there’s nothing more sexy than confidence in a person.”

Real Sexy

One of the most harmful narratives perpetuating celibate stereotypes is that people with disabilities need to be cared for. This idea often puts any sort of sexual ideas out of the picture.

“People have only really seen disability through a care sphere. And so they don’t see that, when you’re caring for someone, you’re inherently infantilizing them and inherently placing them in this benefactor role,” Yates says.

“The quicker you can say ‘This is who I am,’ the better.”

This idea of infantilizing and taking care of people with disabilities is not helping them express their sexuality. In order to do that, according to Haddad, people with disabilities need to learn to accept themselves.

“Embrace [your disability] and be honest about it,” Haddad says. “For me, it took a while to embrace myself, especially online. But now that I have, I have a lot less turmoil, a lot less disappointment, a lot less heartache. The quicker you can say ‘This is who I am,’ the better.”