Disability sex and relationships is one of the themes of Disability History Month 2021. Discussions about disability and sexuality are often avoided or given lesser importance than issues such as employment rights and housing issues. This year, the organisers of Disability History Month are giving focus to this topic to bring attention to a key part of disabled people’s experience which is often downplayed.
There is a long history of sexual discrimination towards disabled people, with some particularly shocking examples. The eugenics movement is one of the perhaps better-known examples. Beginning here in the UK during Victorian times, it also spread to other countries, particularly the USA. The movement resulted in a number of chilling laws. A majority of American states had made it illegal for disabled people to marry in 1914, a little more than a century ago. Back in Britain, the government created the Mental Deficiency Act in 1919. A number of leading politicians had called for forced sterilisations, however they eventually settled on condemning the “feeble-minded” to institutions. By the 1930s, nearly 50,000 people were in such institutions. In addition to the shocking abuse many experienced, sex segregation was rigidly imposed in order to ensure that the people sent to these institutions could not get pregnant.
While such institutions were eventually closed, much of the stigma surrounding disability relationships and sexuality remained. In the later decades of the 20th century, a small but growing movement began to try and change the attitudes about such topics. A number of academics worked to speak to disabled people directly to try understand their experience of relationships and sexuality. The first UK example was a study called ‘Untold Desires’, where a number of activists were interviewed. The authors hoped to highlight that while oppression and stigma were still common, it was possible for disabled people to have fulfilling relationships and sexual lives and that many of them did. By showing this, they concluded that there was no physical barrier to fulfilling relationships for disabled people but rather social, political and economic barriers.
The end of the century also brought discussion of disability relationships to a wider audience. In 1989, pioneering journalist Mik Scarlet presented the documentary on Sex Talk – Willing and Able on Channel 4. The documentary discusses many issues which are relevant today and challenges common misconceptions about disabled sexuality.
While these are certainly moves in the right direction, old prejudices still stubbornly remain. A 2010 report produced by the University of Huddersfield looking at how sexual relationships are discussed with young people with learning difficulties highlighted this. Many of the parents and teachers who took part in the study raised concerns that views that disabled people should not have sex or relationships are still expressed by some (including by some professionals working with young people with learning difficulties).