Sex is considered to be an integral part of our human existence, yet when it comes to those who suffer from a physical or mental impairment we assume that they don’t want to, or can’t, participate in sex. I spoke to Paddy Smyth – a young, positive, disability advocate from Dublin – who aims to transform societies’ perception of disability. Paddy suffers from Cerebral Palsy in his legs which means that he needs to use an aid for moving. As an outgoing young person, Paddy doesn’t let his disability impair his relationships; and rightly so. It’s time to disable the sex stigma.
Our perception is long-standing, and rather presumptuous, that those who we see to have a disability are unable to perform intimately or are unable to conceive. I’m shamefully responsible for it and I’m trying to think of valid reasons for my thought-process. Currently, these are some common myths surrounding disability as reported by The Irish Family Planning Association:
Ultimately it boils down to how we have created stereotypes within our communities; which is something that Paddy feels strongly against:
“It’s the way society automatically feels ‘sorry’ for anyone with a disability which then snowballs into “I couldn’t be attracted to someone with a disability because in some weird way it feels wrong”. Now I’m not saying everyone is like this because they’re not, But a lot of people are. Whether they will admit that or not is a different story”, he says. Paddy also puts it down to what he calls “innocent ignorance”, and explains that it’s natural for people to react differently to a disabled person, but says that social media has helped him to reach out to wider audiences to initiate change, and allow people to get used to the idea that people with disabilities live normal and happy lives:
“People don’t mean to treat us differently, it’s just human nature because they’ve never been in contact with a disabled person before so it’s the ‘unknown’ for many. This is one of the main reasons I started my Snapchat to try and shed light on the topic and try to change people’s preconception of what a disabled person’s life is like. Since I started my Snapchat #Mydisabledlife I’ve been asked on numerous dates and have been intimate with more people now than ever before. Which is mad because sometimes I honestly think I’m being punked!!” he joked.
He continued: “when people understand your condition they end up not seeing it anymore because the initial shock has passed, and probably from my Snapchat people have gotten to know me and gotten used to my condition from watching me. The biggest thing in this is being open and honest and just keep slowly changing peoples perception. But ideally, try your best to own what you are and not hide what you are. This is something I’m always working on because insecurity creeps in every day and it’s my job and no one else’s to fight that feeling of insecurity”.
Social media has given Paddy an innate power to educate people all over the country on the challenges that he and thousand others like him face every day as a disabled person, and he has since become an ambassador for Disable Inequality, which is an organisation that aims to end discrimination for people living with disabilities in Ireland. I asked him straightforwardly: how can we change our attitudes towards those with physical or mental impairment when it comes to intimacy? Naturally his response was not straightforward:
“This is going to be a slow movement but it’s one that I’m very passionate about. When I get chatted up by guys they ask me can I have sex: I’ve come to realise that this is not their fault, but they’re just curious because they’ve never had to socialise or be intimate with a disabled person before. The first thing they see is the disability. I think the biggest thing is for people with disabilities – both physical and mental – is to be open about it and talk about your condition with honesty and clarity; which from experience is very hard to do because you feel very vulnerable”.
While Paddy promotes disability in a positive light and with a brave face, the harsh reality of if is that he does experience discrimination; like many others. He shared some of his negative experiences dating with me:
“I’ve been told before online that the person didn’t want to even go on date with me after I told them I was disabled. One person even said “whats the point of going on date? You can’t have sex”. This can have a really negative effect on your confidence and you can end up not telling people about your disability because you can’t take any more rejection. I try my best to be honest and just put it out there because they’re gonna find out eventually. I’ve never had anyone who I’ve been with ask me to do anything too weird, but hey, I’m still young, ha!”
So yes: people with disabilities are very capable of having sex. Sexual orientation, intimacy, pleasure, reproduction, experimentation, desire, love, and fantasy are part-and-parcel of a healthy existence and we would be wrong to think otherwise. Sexualityanddisability.org is a wonderful and informative website that answers common misconceptions and myths surrounding disability and covers a wide and diverse range of topics – definitely worth a read. As someone with a disability I’ve had brief stints after major surgeries – usually 6-8 months at a time – where sex was not permitted; which was tough on my partner at the time. What I will say is: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Keep up to date with Paddy and his #DisabledLife on his Snapchat at @Paddyysmyth.