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May 2017
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Everyone has the right to play with their intimate emotions, arousal and love. However, even today, when we talk about intimate and sexual relationships, we rarely have a serene and clear definition of sexuality between and for disabled people. Whatever the handicap is, whether physical or mental and diagnosed at birth or caused by a sudden or accidental mishap during the developmental stage of growth, disabled people always experience some difficulty when dealing with this subject.

Generally speaking, it is thought that disabled people cannot masturbate or have erotic and sexual relationships with a partner, causing them to experience less and less pleasure, but what does sexuality mean for people who have always been afflicted with certain difficulties and problems? We assume they are probably like eternal children and are far from being able to experience erotic and sexual emotions.

In this article we will try and clarify this subject, clear up any false beliefs and cultural stereotypes and give a more humane meaning to it that makes it worthy of a society that is evolved, respectful, proud and part of the 21st century.

Handicaps and disabilities
In 1987 Baldaro Verde et al. tried to highlight the important meaning of sexuality for disabled people encouraging a certain right in society for them to be considered as individuals, overcoming taboos and social conditioning in order to renew people’s ideas based on strong human solidarity. Of course though, we must differentiate between the emotional and sexual characteristics in people with motor and physical disabilities and people with mental disabilities.

Those who suffer from motor disabilities and difficulties inevitably have some problems with their sexual identity on a bodily level because it is not possible for them to carry out their erotic desires, fantasies and sexual drives due to their physical impairment. In psychological terms, this can seriously damage the individuals and cause them to become closed off, sad and isolated. The image we have in our minds, which is often reinforced by a scornful and judgmental society, does not allow motor disabled people to start or maintain intimate, emotional relationships in a calm way, and this is why we need to categorise people with motor disabilities into at least 3 groups:
1) physical disability present since birth;
2) physical disability caused by illness or an accident before sexual experience and finding a partner;
3) motor disability caused by illness or an accident when the individual is already in a relationship.

This differentiation allows us to identify important characteristics that not only concern the psycho-physical and emotional experiences of the disabled individual, but, above all, the resources needed to overcome dysfunctional relationship and psycho-emotional type states.

As Baldaro Verde et al. suggests, people who are born with physical handicaps have different experiences of erotic, sexual and bodily knowledge both in terms of gender (males and females experience things differently) and during evolutionary development. In fact, right from birth, these children have dysfunctional relationships with their parental figures and, during puberty and adolescence, with their fellow peers. With a female child, for example, parents will avoid making her feel like an ‘object of desire’ and also avoid reinforcing stereotypes, such as having to be a wife and mother as an adult, because the girl will not be able to have her own household and raise children like fully abled females. As far as baby boys are concerned, difficult acceptance and identification with the father figure normally leads them to become closed and isolated and, during adolescence, they only experience sexuality through activities such as masturbating.
Often, no matter what their sexual gender, these individuals experience serious feelings of inferiority and, consequently, a fear of not being accepted socially, and, in this case, the parental role is very important, especially during the emotional and psycho-physical development phase; it is of fundamental importance that parents teach their child about sexuality.

Disabled individuals who became handicapped after an illness or accident during puberty or adolescence experience discomfort that is related to anger and delusion. In fact, not being free to move and experience things in such a critical phase between childhood and adulthood can cause these individuals to become isolated and closed and not want to address potentials signals that only concern ‘healthy’ people. Once again, the family has an important role in teaching their child about health and affection, however ignorance and fear of being judged by society reinforce isolation, preventing growth and the ability to overcome this moment of crisis. During this delicate phase in life, disabled adolescents are monitored very closely when they go to rehabilitation and community centres so as to avoid relationships between patients happening which could lead on to embarrassing situations related to sexuality. If the parents perceive any kind of ‘danger’, instead of helping their child to understand the functional role of relationships, they remove him/her from the situation or recommend that the staff are more attentive and rigid when watching and carrying out their work. Just like the parents, these staff members must also be well educated and prepared in terms of the sexuality and disabilities.

Disabled people who became handicapped after an illness or accident on the other hand, and who are already in a stable relationship, are the first to experience a moment of frustration and awkwardness but then, with their partner, they redefine affection and sexuality. Depending on the characteristics of the two partners, some differences can be seen in the person who has become disabled and this can cause ups and downs in the relationship. Naturally, the person who tended to have a passive role in the relationship will still be looked after and supported by his/her partner, and even more so after the accident/illness. Contrarily, the partner that has become disabled and who has always been active in the relationship will have to redefine and put in place some changes within the relationship.

A mental handicap is altogether different though since the psycho-physical development of these disabled individuals is different. On a cognitive level, their mental age may be younger than their biological age, whilst, on a physical and sexual level, puberty, adolescence and erotic, sexual experiences may develop at a normal pace.
Sexuality is ‘relationships, contact, desire, pleasure and suffering’ and all of this inevitably goes through the body and is experimented with the body.
The development of these individuals is constantly monitored for the risks posed by social and cultural factors and for the perception and social imagination associated with them. Needless to say, individuals with mental handicaps experience more restrictions and difficulties in terms of sexuality and are more limited and deny their own sexuality more than physically handicapped people.
As suggested by Loperifdo (1987) however, it is possible not to be anchored to judgements and prejudices related to sexuality in mentally handicapped people.
In fact, in terms of trying things out, sexual education has a fundamental role. Here are some important and useful guidelines concerning this subject:
1) never take the place of the disabled person: deciding for him/her is not only dysfunctional, it will not teach him/her anything;
2) try and understand the true need that he/she has through verbal or behavioural signs;
3) ascertain a correlation between the specific need on a cognitive and emotional level and comprehension of the possible consequences in terms of sexuality (that is, the risks, such as sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and so on).

These criteria can target the particular sexual and emotional education needed to avoid disabled individuals becoming isolated and totally denying sexual and orgasmic experiences.

On the following page: Sexual assistants


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