There’s a huge stigma attached to disability, and even more so when it comes to sex and dating. This can often lead to awkward encounters between disabled and non-disabled people.
To tackle this, Scope have relaunched their End the Awkward campaign, to help show that you don’t have to feel awkward striking up a conversation with a disabled person.
This might seem like common sense to some of you, but apparently it’s not – according to Scope’s research, one fifth (21 per cent) of 18 – 34-year-olds say they have actually avoided talking to a disabled person because they weren’t sure how to communicate with them.
It would appear that the fear and panic of saying the wrong thing and causing offence is leading to non-disabled people avoiding disabled people completely, which is a situation no one wants to be in.
As part of their campaign, Scope have created an A-Z of Sex and Disability, which they describe as: “A raunchy and light-hearted look at the loves and lusts of disabled people in Britain today.
Too often people assume that disabled people don’t have fulfilling sex lives and relationships. Nothing could be further from the truth! It’s time to End the Awkward and get it on.” And it contains some eye-opening stuff. For example K is for Kama Sutra, or more specifically the Kama Sutra for wheelchair users, which Romina Puma, a comedian who has muscular dystrophy, discusses in this blog post.
Of course, we’re now dating in the digital age, so apps like Tinder are one of the main ways we find potential lovers. Disabled people are no different, but their conditions can turn what is already an awkward situation into a potential minefield, with people often actively avoiding them when they find out about their disability.
As well as that, student Holly Bea says the experience of letting people know you’re a wheelchair user can bring up some unwelcome responses, like: “Oh that’s a shame”, “Can you feel everything?”, “What a waste of a pretty girl”, “So you’re a virgin then?” and “Cool, I’ve never had sex with a disabled girl before, can we?”
Non-disabled people will never know first-hand how this feels, so in order to try and gain an insight into it we spoke to some disabled people, in partnership with Scope, to help bust the myths surrounding sex and disability.
We spoke to 19-year-old Joe Land, who uses a wheelchair due to hypotonia, which affects his leg muscles, and he told us that most people seem genuinely surprised that he is even able to have sex.
Joe, who goes by ‘Landie’ online, is an entrepreneur and vlogger who specialises in social media marketing and runs his own business. He says people assume there are logistical issues due to the wheelchair, but he’s quick to point out that he is able to do anything a non-disabled person can do.
He said: “I am someone who likes to get the awkwardness out of the way immediately when meeting someone, I will crack a wheelchair joke, make it obviously I am fully independent and capable of doing everything, and then there is usually no questions left to ask.”
Kelly Perks-Bevington, who has spinal muscular atrophy – a genetic disease that causes muscle weakness and progressive loss of movement – is a successful entrepreneur who runs her own business. She’s married and has some advice for anyone interested in asking questions about her sex life.
According to Kelly the most common misconception is: “people think disabled people don’t have sex full stop! Or have no interest in sex and relationships.” She’s also had really awkward situations with medical professionals who should know better.
Kelly described getting contraception when she was younger: “I always remember the doctors assumed that I was using the pill for problems relating to my periods rather than sex! I always felt quite uncomfortable in appointments because most of the time I had to explain in detail why I was actually there.”
People aren’t shy though when asking sex questions to Kelly’s husband: “People often approach him in clubs to ask him in detail about positions and what exactly we get up to.” However, when they’re not weirding out her husband strangers have some pretty intimate questions for Kelly too, such as: ‘Can you have sex?’ and ‘can you have kids?’ In the past I’ve even had ‘have you kissed anyone before?’
Those questions make Kelly want to smack her head off a brick wall and cry. She definitely doesn’t want to have to answer them.
Her advice is to introduce yourself and if the questions come up naturally as part of a wider conversation then it’s fine to be curious – the rule is, if you wouldn’t ask a non-disabled person or wouldn’t want to be asked the question yourself, then don’t ask it.
We also spoke to Lucy Edwards, who two months into a relationship developed a visual impairment that meant she could no longer see her partner.
Just like the other people we spoke to, Lucy finds that people are often curious, asking questions like, ‘how do you see your other half?’, ‘how do you have sex if you can’t see what you’re doing?’, and ‘how do you even know if you’re attracted to your partner if you can’t see them?’
In answer to this, Lucy stresses that relationships are about more than just looks, and that they should focus on personality and what kind of growth both parties can offer each other.
Lucy adds that once in the bedroom with the lights off, sex while visually impaired is exactly the same as it is for any non-disabled person. And the longevity of her relationship is testament to this, as she’s been dating the same partner now for over four years – a lot of relationships don’t even last four months these days.
The important thing to take away from all of this is that we should always be respectful when it comes to disability and sex. If you wouldn’t want someone asking intrusive questions about your private life, then it goes without saying that a disabled person is going to feel the same.
We spoke to Natasha Coates, a 21-year-old elite disability gymnast who has
Mast Cell Activation Syndrome – which means she’s allergic to a long list of different things, including exercise – and she told us: “Don’t ask something you wouldn’t mind being asked yourself. If being asked would offend you, it will most likely offend the disabled person.”
Obviously an individual’s openness varies, but Natasha says that if you feel it’s okay to say it to a non-disabled person then that’s fine.
One of the worst misconceptions that Natasha has encountered is that people believe: “People aren’t bothered with contraception because if you’re disabled you can’t have kids. Which is a load of rubbish, contraception is just as important as it is for non-disabled people!”
Another awkward situation that people struggle to know whether to help a disabled person undress to have sex. However, Natasha clears this up in a pretty straightforward way: “If the disabled person needs help undressing or moving positions they will say. Communication is key – people just assume that it’s a half-dressed, one position show.”
One of the worst questions Natasha has been asked is: “‘How do I have time for a relationship if I’m busy with my disability?’, like I have no hobbies or aspirations because I’m too busy being disabled – major eye roll moment when I get that one.” Lesson learned, never ask that question.
If you’ve ever experienced an awkward moment with disability and sex, you can share your story using the hashtag #EndTheAwkward on social media.
To find out more about Scope and ending the awkwardness around disability and sex, click here.