News Article

Disability and Sexual Relationships


Sexual Health and Guidance (SHAG) Week is about embracing conversations that are often shied away from, and one crucial topic that deserves our attention is disability and sex relationships. Discussions about disability and sexuality are often overlooked or given lesser importance than issues such as employment rights and housing issues. 

A long history of discrimination 

The history of sexual discrimination towards disabled people is deeply rooted, with shocking examples like the eugenics movement. Dating back to Victorian times in the UK and spreading to the US, this movement led to a number of atrocious laws being passed, including making it illegal for disabled people to marry little over 100 years ago. In Britain, the Mental Deficiency Act of 1919 condemned the “feeble-minded” to institutions. By the 1930s, nearly 50,000 people were in such institutions, facing abuse and rigid sex segregation to prevent pregnancies. 

Untold Desires and Changing Attitudes 

Whilst these institutions were eventually closed, much of the stigma surrounding disabled relationships and sexuality remained. In the later 20th century, a growing movement sought to change attitudes. Initiatives like the ‘Untold Desires’ study interviewed disabled activists with a hope to highlight that whilst oppression and stigma were still common, it was possible for disabled people to have fulfilling relationships and sexual lives, as many did. By showing this, they concluded that barriers to fulfilling relationships were more social, political and economic, rather than physical. 

Pioneering Efforts 

In 1989, journalist Milk Scarlet presented the documentary “Sex Talk – Willing and Able” on Channel 4, challenging misconceptions about disabled sexuality. This marked a step towards bringing discussions about disabled relationships to a wider audience. The documentary discusses many issues which are relevant today and challenges common misconceptions about disabled sexuality. 

Challenges in the 21st Century 

Despite these positive shifts, old prejudices persist. A 2010 report from the University of Huddersfield revealed concerns among parents and teachers about the prevailing view that disabled people should not have sex or relationships, even expressed by some professionals working with young people with learning difficulties.  

Communication is Key 

This SHAG Week is an opportunity to challenge these stereotypes and break down the remaining taboos. Disability should not be a barrier to fulfilling relationships and a satisfying sex life. It’s essential to recognise that everyone, regardless of ability, has the right to experience love, intimacy and healthy relationships. 

Understanding Unique Challenges 

Open and honest communication is the foundation of any healthy relationship, and this holds true for couples where one or both partners have a disability. Discussing desires, boundaries and concerns allows both individuals to feel heard and understood. It’s essential to create a safe space where discussing intimacy is normalised. Individuals with disabilities may face unique challenges when it comes to physical or sensory aspects of intimacy. It’s crucial for partners to be understanding and adaptable, finding creative solutions that accommodate each other’s needs and preferences. Seeking guidance from healthcare professionals or sex educators experienced in working with people with disabilities can also be beneficial. They can advise on how you can approach these conversations, as well as navigating through advancements in technology and adaptive devices that have significantly contributed to enhancing the intimate experiences of individuals with disabilities. 

Addressing Mental Health 

The intersection of disability and mental health should not be overlooked in discussions about intimate relationships. Both partners may have particular emotional needs as well as physical, and it is crucial to prioritise both. You may want to seek support from counselling or support groups also. 

Resources and support: 

Explore resources from Scope, a disability equality charity that provides information and support, including advice on relationships and sex. 

Brook offers sexual health and wellbeing support, with inclusive information for people with disabilities. 

Leonard Cheshire provides a guide on relationships and sex for disabled people, offering practical advice and dispelling myths. 


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