Sexual barriers: Regina student explores erotic lives of people with disabilities

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A University of Regina student says it is “really important to tell these stories” about sex and sexuality for people with disabilities.

Michelle Apps was so intrigued by the infrequently discussed topic that she made it the subject of her master’s thesis in social work.

It all started two years ago when she was working as a research assistant. Apps was going through old archives when she came across some articles and a “sort of a how-to guide” outlining ways to have sex in a wheelchair.

“It was really awful to hear. But I think it’s really important to tell these stories because obviously they’re people too.” – Michelle Apps

“It just piqued my interest,” Apps told CBC Radio’s The Morning Edition. “It was something I had never thought about before in terms of sexuality or in terms of disability.”

After doing some more research, Apps decided she had found the subject was “not researched very often” and decided to make it the focus of her research. She used the term “erotic life” because it covered a far more appropriate range of discussion.

“Sex can include — without getting into too much detail — many different experiences. It can also include things like cuddling or hugging or kissing for some people, especially for folks with disabilities who may not even be able to engage in what we think of as normal sex. So I just really wanted to open up my research’s definition of sex and sexuality.”

Different barriers for different disabilities

For her thesis, Apps interviewed people with intellectual disabilities and people with physical disabilities.

She said the people she talked to with intellectual disabilities “often aren’t given adequate, if any, sexual education growing up”. Apps said that is very problematic.

“People without disabilities kind of shutting them down or not even thinking that it was possible for them to have sex or engage in different sexual acts.” – Michelle Apps

“It’s often done under the guise of protection, but that often really backfires resulting in them not understanding the concept of consent, not understanding that they have the right to say, ‘No’.”

Apps said one woman she interviewed had not been given sex education growing up and was subjected to a number of sexual assaults.

For people with physical disabilities, Apps said they faced a lot of “societal barriers” when wanting to do things like date or go out with people.

“People without disabilities kind of shutting them down or not even thinking that it was possible for them to have sex or engage in different sexual acts,” Apps said.

She also heard a lot of stories documenting cruel treatment and language directed towards people with disabilities.

“It was really awful to hear. But I think it’s really important to tell these stories because obviously they’re people too,” Apps said.

Physical barriers to finding a date

One story Apps shared was based on an interview she did with a man she called John to protect his privacy.

She said John, who used a wheelchair, told her something as simple as going out to a bar was anything but simple.

“Whether with friends or with the intent to maybe meet someone, like a romantic partner … most bars, pubs, and clubs in town aren’t even accessible. There’s stairs, or the washrooms aren’t accessible, things like that.”

John told Apps he felt like he can’t even try to meet people because there are many places he can’t get into.

“It would be exceedingly difficult to even just go somewhere for a drink,” App said. “For me, that really stood out because I don’t have a disability.”

On Wednesday, Apps presented at the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary, which is Canada’s largest academic conference.

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Sexual barriers: Regina student explores erotic lives of people with disabilities

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