By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
This may not come as a surprise to some, but I have a disability AND my physical needs and carnal urges have not been disabled at all! Dare I admit it? My brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings in the disability community—those who use wheelchairs, have missing limbs, can’t see or hear, have some other physical disability, and those with intellectual disabilities have them too. We like sex, we think about sex, and we want sex. Some of us want it more than others…CHECK PLEASE!
On a loftier plane high above our animal urges, even the most misanthropic among us have the desire to love and be loved, to care for and be cared for, or to have companionship in a nurturing relationship. Some are happy with a trusted confidant or companion to go to the movies with, but I have always needed a little more than that, to be honest.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, yet just as with many things in our society, countless aspects of intimacy and companionship are denied to some people who happen to have a disability. Ask someone with a print disability how they fair on the dating sites, adult video sites, or any site that is remotely tied to dating or looking for intimate connections or hookups. The rituals of dating, courting, or just getting laid are harder to come by…I mean “more difficult to achieve”. (Wink, wink)
Prior to losing my eyesight, meeting people was easy. A little eye contact, a flirtatious wink or word, and “Wham bam, thank you, ma’am”, I had a “date”, and all too often a relationship that I was trying to get out of in short order. However, since losing my eyesight opportunities for meeting anyone that “caught my eye” all but evaporated from the horizons. That said, there are other aspects of love and sex that are challenging for people who have disabilities to manage or navigate. I am currently in a trusting, loving, caring, and fantastic partnership/relationship the likes of which I have never known before.
I was lucky enough to have been friends with the man I am deeply in love with, and when the idea of starting an intimate relationship was before us, we did not go lightly into that good night. Seriously. We actually courted and waited months to consummate the relationship. But when it comes to dating as a person with a disability there are challenges that need to be considered and worked through just as it is for all of you people who are temporarily able.
First, there are societal stigmas that have been around for thousands of years. For generations, we were told, sometimes from our friends, or our families, or even our places of worship, that sex was taboo. Toss in the concept or realities of having a disability and well, you should not be talking about or thinking about sex because your soul is damned to hell and your “affliction” was a punishment. Hell, it wasn’t until the late 70s that people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community were no longer considered candidates for institutionalization or electroshock therapy to try and make us “normal”. Dating? How the hell could we consider dating with that kind of mental anguish and weight of societal and religious segregation from all things “normal”. Who wants to spend time with someone with a disability a.k.a. a corrupt soul?
For thousands of years, people with disabilities were and still are marginalized and disenfranchised from the whole of society. I am not talking about people with leprosy who were banished from villages or shipped to barren islands. Nor do I refer to Typhoid Mary where she was forced into seclusion, safely tucked away from people to avoid transmitting the disease. We are talking about Mary who happens to be deaf, or Josef who happens to be blind, or Andrew who happens to use a wheelchair being institutionalized for their differences even though they are not at all contagious or able to pass on their “disease” or disability. It’s challenging to meet someone when you’re behind a brick wall and only get visitors in the dayroom on Sunday afternoons.
Even without being socially separated, people with disabilities face judgments and a lot of disapproval in this area. I think back on the TV movie that aired back when I was a kid called “Like Normal People” starring Shaun Cassidy and Linda Purl. Based on a true story, they portrayed a couple, both of whom had intellectual disabilities. They wanted to be together yet faced objections and hostility from family and friends, those very same people who should have cared the most for their happiness. I also remember a real couple I met growing up who were in the same exact boat as the characters in this movie, and I honestly thought nothing different about them nor the love they so capably expressed for one another.
I am sad to say, that this TV movie could be re-done, and little about it would be different.
Instead of being treated as a normal thing, amorous relationships among one or more people who have a disability are treated as something “other”. Take, for example, the Netflix show “Love is Blind”. If the people on the program had their sight, there wouldn’t be a show! The whole conceit of the show is voyeuristic: making us ponder “Let’s see how the blind people date, eat, walk, talk…” Some people think the show is empowering because it highlights characters, attempting to portray people who are blind are just like “normal” people. To me, it has the air of a sideshow attraction replete with a commercialized spin to promote and entice viewership.
Let’s say PWD don’t face any societal stigma and they want to go out on a traditional date: dinner and a movie. Great! While many restaurants are physically accessible to people who have wheelchairs, there are far too many that are not. Or once you are in the restaurant or public forum of your choosing, you are challenged with accessing and using the bathrooms, menus, kiosks, etc. ADA be damned! While many restaurants like TGI Friday’s and Ruby Tuesdays have menus in Braille, and with the advent of QR codes that literally put the menu into your hands and your smartphone, there are still barriers before my community that inhibit our ability to date and court. Try looking independent, capable, and attractive to the person you are on a date with and require the server to read the menu for you and your date or add your tip and assist you in finding the signature line for the credit card slip. I think you get what I am talking about.
Then we face challenges when seeking entertainment venues for dates. Imagine heading off to the movies for a date! If it’s a popular film, pray that parking spaces reserved for drivers who have a disability were not blocked or taken by some “temporarily able” person. Or that there happens to be accessible seating, not in the furthest recesses of the theatre or up-front against the screen or the presidium for a play or musical, so you can sit comfortably with your date who happens to be in a wheelchair. With the new stadium seating, pray that there are multiple ways to get to your seat and that accessible seating is available on all levels and not just the lowest one closest to the screen or the point of entry. Then we need to hope and pray that any and all listening or hearing devices or captioning are working and in good order. I cannot tell you how many times I got to my seat, the movie started, I am comfortably into a box of popcorn and the damned listening device I use for audio description is not working. Who the hell wants to excuse themselves and work their way back to the front desk to replace the device, running the risk of missing a bit of the movie needlessly? Forget thinking about traveling either because options for accessible and inclusive travel options or destinations are very few and far between.
For many of us in the disability community, the harrowing adventure that might make Indiana Jones hesitant is not as sexy as it is on the big screen when it comes to dating as a person with a disability. Thank God for Netflix with audio description and to chilling at home. All of this is based upon the presumption that you have a special someone with whom you can share time or body parts with though. Many of the dating sites have been sued for ignoring the disability community and their needs. What are people with disabilities to do when we are trying to find love? In the 21st century, people who have disabilities and the people who love them or want to be with them, are finding it easier to harness the power of the internet to find someone to be with. I would argue that the “mainstream” venues for these activities should be as welcoming and inclusive of Ability as they are of Race, Gender, Orientation, and Religion. As with all other digital platforms, the accessibility and usability of these resources vary greatly. Depending on the platform and the searcher’s specific disability, the experience can be very good or very bad.
What if someone who is uncoupled and just happens to have a disability left to do? And why do “temporarily able” people always assuming that blind people only date blind people or deaf people only date deaf people? Many able-bodied people find love and intimacy with those of us who happen to have a disability and find us lovable, sexy, valued, and important. Shouldn’t society see us that way too?
And then there are adult websites or porn. Do you really think that people with disabilities have never seen porn or surfed for porn on the internet? Come on people! Don’t act like you’re shocked! You and I both know that the internet was not built on photos of cute puppies and kittens or your Aunt Tilly’s apple pie recipe. It was built on “adult content”! But here too, there are barriers that shackle us from accessing and enjoying such things, and the shackles don’t even come close to the types of bondage you might get into– if you know what I mean. Occasionally, you will see a news story about someone who can’t see or hear suing these companies because of lack of access, and rightly so! Shouldn’t sites such as Pornhub or Only Fans be just as digitally accessible and usable to people of all abilities just as we expect from the digital platforms for retail outlets or schools? The only correct answer is, “Of course they should.”
As open-minded as we all hope to be, our society is downright prejudiced when it comes to anything that deals with pleasure “below the waist”. Layer in the concepts of disability and well we have walls up that are damned near impenetrable. Maybe it’s our puritanical roots that make those folks want to prevent that sort of fun for everyone. Maybe it’s also because it makes people uncomfortable thinking about those with disabilities “doing it”. Maybe, like so many things, the needs of people who have a disability are largely ignored by those who are temporarily able. After all, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes that “Health program managers, policy-makers and care providers need to understand and promote the potentially positive role sexuality can play in people’s lives and to build health services that can promote sexually healthy societies.”
One person who is not ignoring this is Andrew Gurza. He found a void in the market and filled it, so to speak. He’s the Co-Founder and Chief Disability Officer for Handi. Handi is a company that creates sex toys for people in the disability community. For many who have mobility issues, satisfying themselves (or others) is challenging at best, and sometimes impossible. The phrase, “If you build it, they will come…” seems appropriate in this instance. If you are in the market for such a device, click here for Handi’s website.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew for the AccessAbility Works podcast. Andrew discussed Handi but also his advocacy for healthy sexuality and erotic doings within the disability community. If you’re curious about Andrew’s thoughts on sex and disabilities, I encourage you to go to visit him at Disability After Dark.
Love is love, regardless of if it’s physical or emotional, no matter how your body parts work or don’t work or how you process or consume the world around you. We are all deserving of love, and we should work toward ensuring people of all abilities are able to find love, even if it is looking for love in all the wrong places.