News flash: people with disabilities have sex lives

Who could resist an invite to a panel discussion called “Disability and Sexuality: Everything you wanted to know about disability and sex but were afraid to ask…?”

That's Bethany Stevens.

That’s Bethany Stevens.

I sure couldn’t.

The panel took place at Access Living (a non-profit organization in Chicago for people with disabilities) and was promoted like this:

A panel of “sexperts” will join our guest speaker, Bethany Stevens, J.D., M.A. (blogger of Crip Confessions) for a juicy, frank and sexy conversation about CripSex!

The promotional material also teased, ahem, that before the panel started, “disability-sex-friendly businesses will join us for a CripSex fair, providing free goodies and important information.”

I made sure to get there before the panel.

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney led me into the “Crip Sex Fair,” pulled me forward about ten or twelve feet, and then suddenly stopped. I figured we were at a table, but I was reluctant to reach out and discover what “goodies” were laying there. I finally mustered up the courage, stretched my arm out to grope the goodies, and felt…the push handles of a wheelchair! We weren’t at a table at all. We were in line to talk to a saleswoman from one of the “sex-disability-friendly” businesses there.

I eavesdropped on the woman in that wheelchair, of course. When she reached the front of the line, I heard her using halting speech to compliment the saleswoman. “I love your store,” she said. I paid close attention to understand every word, and I’m quite sure I heard her say she’d celebrated her 18th birthday by going to that shop with a friend.

I won’t disclose what she was looking for there, but I can tell you that staff members helped her find what she wanted. “They actually wanted me to take my time and look around — they said I could stay as long as I wanted,” she marveled. “You all were nicer to me than the people at Wal-Mart.”

The saleswoman sounded pleased. “I’m really happy to hear that,” she said. “We train our staff to be open to people with all sorts of needs.” I didn’t hear any of the people from the sex-disability-friendly businesses mention devices or toys made especially for people with disabilities, just a lot of talk on things they sold that might be easier to use than others or could be adjusted to fit a person’s particular needs.

The CripSex Fair was only open one hour. I picked up a free goodie before they closed, and just like the old classic movies used to do, I’m going to leave the intimate details about that to your imagination.

Time for the panel discussion. Only two panelists: Sergio Tundo from Chicago House (a social service agency serving individuals and families disenfranchised by HIV/AIDS) and Bethany Stevens, a faculty member at Georgia State University who studies, teaches and writes about disability and sexuality. Bethany has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair. Sergio never said anything about having a disability himself, and without being able to see him, I couldn’t tell.

The panel discussion was promoted to people with disabilities of any sort, but the focus was really on people with physical disabilities. They gathered cards with questions from the audience, and Bethany announced that the questions fell into three categories. “Raise your hands or make noise for the category you’re most interested in learning about,” she said, listing the three as:

  • Relationships
  • Nuts & bolts, or
  • Miscellaneous

The panelists sounded as surprised as I was when the audience chose “Miscellaneous,” but they just shrugged and took it from there.

“Since we have people here with expertise in things like sex workers and other ways of doing things, this first question is an important one,” Bethany said. “What is the best way to start a conversation with your personal care assistant or personal assistant agency about sex facilitation?”

In the end, most of the questions in the “miscellaneous” pile had to do with personal care assistants:

  • If you’ve been using the same personal care assistant for a long time, and you like them, and you know they will probably not be open or comfortable with helping you with this, should you even bring it up?
  • How does it affect interaction if there is a need for another person to assist in the sexual experience, but that third party is not sexually involved with the other two?
  • If two people with physical disabilities would need an able-bodied person to help them move, how does that third person behave in the relationship?
  • What are some of the best practices for facilitating the experience if you are the personal care assistant?

I didn’t hear one lewd comment after these questions were asked, and not one titter, either. I did hear some answers, and learned about some new ideas, too. Example: San Francisco is working on a program similar to e-harmony to match people with disabilities and personal care assistants. The person who needs the P.C.A. spells out what they need, the personal care assistant fills out a form describing the services they are willing to offer, and you match up that way. Others shared things that have worked for them –- and things that haven’t. I was really glad I went that night and thought the whole thing was pretty cool: people together, talking frankly, sharing stories and offering suggestions.


 

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