You probably see someone with a physical disability almost every day: the blind man tapping his way across the street, the deaf woman signing to her boyfriend, the wheelchair-bound woman shopping at the grocery store, people on crutches, using walkers or leaning on canes. You may have thought of how hard it would be to live with the disability, getting around, doing errands and working at a fulfilling job.
Can you imagine what it is like for that person to date, negotiating restaurants, movie theaters and transportation? How about meeting a potential partner -- where, exactly, do disabled people find romantic love? Did you ever think of what it would be like for a disabled person to have sex?
Just Like Us, Only Different
Disabled people are not lesser versions of able-bodied people, unable to engage in or enjoy sexual behavior. In fact, disabled people are members of a community with its own unique culture, filled with societal norms and behavioral expectations that are different, but no less rich or meaningful, than that of able-bodied individuals.
While it is true that living with a disability is difficult, the disability itself isn't usually a negative or positive factor in that person's life. The paralyzed legs aren't bad or good ; they just are, just as people are male or female, Asian, Caucasian or African American. In turn, a disability, while physically limiting, is no more limiting to that person's sexuality than one's ethnicity or gender.
Media, television and movies have represented the sexual lives of persons with disabilities in one of two ways:
A master of the tongue, who, limited by his or her lower body's inability to function, has compensated by learning to perform outstanding oral sex, foregoing any sexual needs of his or her own.
A bitter, asexual person, who is half the man (or woman) they used to be, unable to sexually perform and thus no longer completely human.
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In reality, issues of sexual expression and attractiveness are no more or less important for the disabled than for the able-bodied -- one's desire to be found sexually desirable and have one's sexual desires fulfilled does not simply go away because one has a prosthetic limb or paralyzed legs.
The disabled person must learn to negotiate his or her own mental, emotional and sexual terrain, just as do the able-bodied, coming to terms with their sexuality and finding the best way to express it.
Do You Have Sex?
Historically, people with disabilities have been regarded by much of society as freaks, sub-humans or cripples. Now that we, as a society, have begun to put aside those negative labels and are, instead, exploring the emotional lives of the disabled, we have found new ways to dehumanize them, asking such personal and ridiculous questions as, Can you have sex? Do you still even want to?
Human beings are born with sex drives regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability status. While other minority groups, especially gay men and lesbian women, may be mocked or questioned about their specific sexual practices, it goes one step further for the disabled, who are not asked how they have sex, but if they are able to do it at all.
Perhaps the best way to address this question is to examine normal sexual behaviors, that is, heterosexual sexual practices. While penile-vaginal intercourse is certainly a common method of sexual expression, it is by no means the only way straight people have sex. What about oral or anal sex, kissing, fondling or cuddling?
Similarly, lesbian women express themselves sexually in other ways than by performing cunnilingus, and gay men don't just have anal sex. Disabled people find a variety of ways to express themselves sexually, limited only by their physical bodies and their imaginations.
Meeting Mr. Right
If you think it's hard to meet someone special, think of what it must be like for people with disabilities. Not only do they have to deal with the usual issues of personality, attraction and emotional behavior, but they must do so in a world not designed for visual, hearing and mobility-impaired people.
For example, think about the behaviors associated with flirting. You walk into a bar, spot a cute guy or girl, make eye contact and smile. A visually impaired person would get as far as the door, and then what? Wait for a seeing person to make the first move? Start talking to someone and hope he or she is nice? Whatever the method, the visually impaired person's chances of meeting Mr. or Ms. Right are greatly reduced from those of the able-bodied.
Likewise, a hearing-impaired person can't readily engage in flirtatious banter, unless he or she is lucky enough to have found a bar teeming with people who know sign language. If the hearing-impaired person finds someone not fluent in sign language who is willing to learn, it will probably take a great deal of time to establish a rapport and move things to a more intimate level.
People with mobility issues can find it harder still to make contact. As a society, we don't much know what to make of people with a visible physical disability. We've made some effort over the last few decades to become unbiased, but given the choice between and able-bodied and disabled partner, most people would chose the person who wasn't in the wheelchair. It's unfortunate for the disabled person, but it's a simple, human fact.