Society does not usually view people with disabilities as people with sexual lives, let alone as people. But, people with disabilities are usually sexually active, just like almost everyone else.
SIUE Alum Wendy Settles works at the IMPACT Center for Independent Living, which helps people with disabilities find the most independent ways to live possible. Settles has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. She said the general public has very harmful views of herself and other people with disabilities, which she has seen many times before.
“I am currently in a relationship, although we don’t go out much nowadays due to COVID. But, in past relationships, people would assume my partner is my relative or caregiver, instead of just my partner,” Settles said. “It’s annoying, but it comes out of ignorance, and it’s usually not actually targeted judgement. It’s always something that can be taught away.”
Associate Professor of Special Education Susanne James has done extensive research on people with disabilities. She said the media consumed by the public promotes an incorrect and harmful image of people with disabilities that creates this societal view.
“There’s a pervasive societal devaluation of people with disabilities, and you see it in films, and in TV and sitcoms,” James said. “They are never displayed sexually, or as candidates for sex. Predominatly, they are seen as asexual, or even as sexual deviants, so it’s seen as non-normative that they would engage in a sex life.”
Settles said these harmful media portrayals can lead to real-world belittlement from able-bodied people.
“[People without disabilities] sometimes see people with disabilities as children who are big. Not only are we not always asexual, but we also have our own feelings on bigger issues,” Settles said. “Most of the time, we are seen as big children. It is hard for people to understand that we live like everyone else. They kind of [infantilize] us.”
Assistant Clinical Professor in the School of Nursing Bernadette Sobczak recently published a research project directly related to this issue. Sobczak looked at transitioning patients with autism from adolescence into adulthood. A big part of this research, according to Sobczak, was making sure patients received sufficient sexual education.
“One of the topics we looked at was sexuality and I did a case study, which was with an adolescent 17 year-old girl taking birth control, and we addressed those issues that people with autism have with sexuality,” Sobczak said. “They’ve been neglected in that field. Only 50 percent of people with autism have gotten any sexual education at all, and that can become very problematic.”
According to Sobczak, this lack of sexual education sets people with disabilities up for many terrible possible outcomes later in life.
“People with autism sometimes have problems with social relationships and socialization, and that combined with a lack of sexual education can leave them open to victimization,” Sobczak said. “Studies show that they have a threefold increased chance of being victims of sexual violence. If you don’t address it with them, they become more open [to] victimization.”
Despite all of this, Settles said she is still hopeful for a societal change soon.
“I hope change is coming. We’ve come a long way since even the ‘90s, but we still have huge hurdles to overcome,” Settles said. “People think that if it doesn‘t apply to them, it doesn’t matter. But this is the only minority you can join at almost any point in your life. If you live long enough, you will most likely develop a disability of some form. And even then, some disabilities may just develop on their own. So there’s really no need to judge people.”
For more information, visit IMPACT CIL’S website.