Voices

How can we recognise people with disabilities as sexual citizens?

An image of nine symbols stating people with disabilities have the right to nine sexual rights.

I am a person with a disability. I am also an advocate for disability rights. This comes with its fair share of controversy – especially when I talk about the need to recognise people with disabilities as sexual citizens.

I am a person with a disability. I am also an advocate for disability rights. This comes with its fair share of controversy – especially when I talk about the need to recognise people with disabilities as sexual citizens.

Non-disabled people seem to be completely taken aback by the idea that people with disabilities might be sexual or might experience sexual attraction. They practically jump out of their skin when they see that some of us have sex, and that we even enjoy it.

Why is this so? What is so threatening about disabled sexuality? Why do people with disabilities find it so difficult to express intimate needs?  Why do others feel anxious at the thought of a disabled person having sex and even enjoying it?

All this is because people with disabilities are not seen as sexual citizens.

Sexual citizenship is a broad concept that includes many rights, visualised above. But the sexual citizenship of people with disabilities is rarely recognised – and this is a problem. For instance, persons with spina bifida are prone to having urinary infections and sometimes sex can make it worse. But their doctors never tell them about this because they assume they are not having sex.

There is a gap in information, services and support for people with disabilities. Until a few years back, many young people with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions like Duchene muscular dystrophy or spinal muscular atrophy or genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, were not expected to live into adulthood. They were not expected to indulge in sexual activities and rarely informed about these. Now with improvements in medicine and technology, their life expectancy has increased remarkably. But they are still not given information related to their sexual needs.

Non-disabled people seem to be completely taken aback by the idea that people with disabilities might be sexual or might experience sexual attraction. They practically jump out of their skin when they see that some of us have sex, and that we even enjoy it.

Lonely. Worthless. Undeserving. These are some of the feelings that arise on being excluded from sexual citizenship. Exclusion strikes at one’s identity, undermining one’s sense of self, agency and self-confidence, and leaving behind a sense of unbelonging. Negative messages about one’s sexuality, specially from authority figures, is taken as the truth, adding to this sense of exclusion.

This picture needs to change. Persons with disabilities need to know that there are endless opportunities out there that are open to us. And that no one has the right to restrict us.

So how can people with disabilities be recognised as sexual citizens?

  • Place our individual needs at the centre of care and support
  • Enable us to deal with love, sex and relationships without fear, guilt, or shame
  • Treat us in an age-appropriate way, regardless of physical and mental capacity
  • Ensure we are not vulnerable to risk or harm
  • Uphold our privacy, dignity and confidentiality
  • Provide information not just to us, but also to our caregivers and parents
  • Help us talk to professionals without being judged
  • Encourage us to discuss sexuality

After all, as someone once said, ‘Sexuality is not rocket science, it is a part of everyday life.’ Why should it be any different just because I have a disability?

Featured image credit: Anushka Bhansali

About the author

Abha Khetarpal Maurya

Abha Khetarpal, President, Cross the Hurdles, is a counselor for persons with disabilities and a disability rights activist. She has authored handbooks, namely, ‘Tax Concessions and Exemptions for the People with Disabilities in India’, Keeping You Abreast’ and ‘Going With The Flow’ in accessible formats both in English and Hindi. Abha also runs an accessible e-magazine by the name of Cross the Hurdles E-Magazine.

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