For those people lucky enough to get some form of sex ed in school — rather than the disaster that is abstinence-only education — it most likely was limited to penetrative sex between an able-bodied man and woman.
This leaves most people with disabilities without any sort of formal sexual health instruction — let alone the fact that large parts of society refuse to even acknowledge that they’re capable of having sex at all.
Kaleigh Trace — a writer and sex educator who identifies as queer, disabled and femme — is trying to change that. She answered a few questions on making sex ed more inclusive and accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.
SheKnows: Are there any books, websites or other materials that you find helpful regarding sex ed & disability? In the disability sex ed that does exist, are there any inclusive materials/resources for LGBTQ individuals?
Kaleigh Trace: The great thing about a lot of sex education that takes into account disability is that if someone has made that step, they've also probably made the step to consider things like other genders and orientations rather than just perpetrating the same old boring story that white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender people are the only ones who get to have sex.
Some disability-inclusive sex education resources worth checking out are Scarleteen (don't be fooled by the name — this website has great sex ed for people of all ages and includes some good articles about disability), The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability by Kauffman, Odette and Silverberg and Andrew Gurza's podcast Disability After Dark.
I also really appreciate reading work about disability identity more generally as a way of feeling more comfortable with my own sexuality as a disabled woman. Some awesome disabled writers/activists to check out are Carrie Wade (who's work can be found on Autostraddle), Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Lyric Seal, aka Neve Be (who's writing is at Harlot), Eli Clare and Mia Mingus.
SK: Do you work exclusively with physically disabled individuals or also those with intellectual disabilities? Is there specific sex ed for people with intellectual disabilities?
KT: This is such an important issue to raise.
I intentionally focus my work on folks who experience physical disabilities and not cognitive/intellectual disabilities. It is crucial that all of us who fall somewhere on the disability spectrum have access to inclusive and accessible sex education, but I don't have the experience/knowledge yet to work with people who are intellectually disabled and I do not want to lump all disabilities together.
The barriers that physically disabled people and folks with intellectual disabilities encounter to accessing our sexuality do sometimes intersect, but there are some very different experiences of structural oppression at play here that must be acknowledged.
For instance, people who are intellectually disabled are often taught to consent to all sorts of physical touching (clothes changing, bathroom duties, etc.) without necessarily being taught when touching is appropriate and who is appropriate to touch/be touched by. The sexuality of intellectually disabled people is so often completely ignored because individuals are being characterized as perpetually childlike.
This is a huge problem, and it means that smart sex education for folks with intellectual disabilities needs to begin with more nuanced conversations of consent and bodily autonomy. And yes, sometimes folks with physical disabilities need access to this information too, but not always.
I don't know of much in terms of sex education work being done specifically for people with intellectual disabilities. I believe some workshops are being led by the Alberta Society for the Promotion of Sexual Health on Canada's West Coast, but the world definitely needs more of this work!
SK: Do you have any advice for a nondisabled person in a relationship with someone with a disability? Any suggestions on how to approach the subject of sex or any special needs or aids that might be required?
KT: This is a great question. All people are different, and I certainly can't speak for all of us who have disabilities. But in my experience, I really appreciate it when my nondisabled partners have asked me if there are any parts of my body that don't like to be touched/do like to be touched or just asking the more general question "Is there anything I should know about your body?"
When it comes to broaching these sorts of sex-related questions, there are a few different viable strategies. I find it easier to have such intimate conversations when you're already in an intimate moment — talking about sex mid-steamy make-out or when you're all cuddled up together. But others find it easier to bring it outside of the bedroom where the ego is less on the table.
For instance, talking about sex over a messy dinner can feel lighter or less vulnerable. Ultimately, no matter what situation feels best for you, I do think that it is a generous and important thing for the nondisabled partner to raise the issue. It can be so nerve-wracking and scary to be disabled person and be hooking up with someone with a more normative body than yours.
You can spend a lot of time worrying [about] what the other person is thinking or trying to figure out how to tell them your needs. When the nondisabled person mitigates this anxiety by acknowledging your body/disability, it can be a huge relief.
Kaleigh Trace is the author of Hot, Wet & Shaking: How I Learned to Talk About Sex.