Welcome to Sexual Health Week! This year’s theme is sex and disability -people living with disabilities are often excluded from sexual health services due to stigma or accessibility, and are often not included in sexual health. In the media and across society, those living with disabilities face stigma and dehumanisation. This can mean their sexual health needs are overlooked.
We know that #STIsDontDiscriminate and believe everybody deserves a healthy and fulfiling sex life. That’s why we’re teaming up with the official host of Sexual Health Week Brook to donate a free kit to Enhance the UK, for each kit sold on Fettle during #SHW19 between 16th and 22nd September. Enhance the UK is a user-led disability awareness charity providing disability awareness training to businesses and organisations in the UK and beyond. Their Undressing Disability Campaign focuses on the sexual rights and responsibilities of disabled people to raise the awareness of the right for disabled people to have fulfilling, safe and satisfactory sex lives.
We sat down with Emily from Enhance the UK to learn more about their work, attitudes to disability and media representation.
What is Enhance the UK and what does it do?
Enhance the UK is a disability awareness charity, providing disability awareness training, British Sign Language workshops and accessibility audits to businesses and organisations all over the UK and further afield. We are also a user-led charity, meaning all of our trainers have impairments themselves.
One of our biggest focuses as a charity is the sexual rights and responsibilities of disabled people. Disabled women, in particular, are three times as likely as their non-disabled peers to be sexually abused, and sex education in schools is still far from inclusive. We set up the 'Undressing Disability' campaign to support disabled people in having romantic lives that are both safe and fulfilling, and we do this by providing free resources, giving talks at relevant conferences and events, and running our Love Lounge, a Q and A forum that encourages disabled people and their loved ones to write in (anonymously, if they wish) with any questions surrounding love, sex, dating and relationships.
What is your role in the organisation?
I am a disability awareness trainer, project manager of the 'Undressing Disability' campaign, and I also co-run the love lounge! We call ourselves the 'non-expert sexperts'. If we don't know the answer, we will find someone that does!!
What would you like people to know about sex and disability?
Firstly, that disabled people have sex, and bloody enjoy it! Society still sadly deems disabled people as undesirable, and almost child-like when it comes to sex, making many non-disabled people think that sex with a disabled person isn't possible, and it's wrong to find someone with an impairment attractive - a mindset that so desperately needs to change.
I'd also like to see a change in what we class as 'sex' in society. We seem so obsessed with penetration being the ultimate definition of what sex is about, which I think is a pretty exclusive way of looking at things. Whilst penetration might not be possible for every disabled person, the ability to be sensual and sexual definitely is (and I know many disabled people who have come up with some very adaptable, exciting and sexy moves!)
Where do you see positive representation of disability (online/TV/films/media)?
I do see positive representations of disabled people in the media now. I've watched a few brilliant series recently with disabled actors in, and follow some great disabled influencers on social media. I'd like to see disabled actors in more strong, sexy roles though - there's still a way to go there!
Where would you like to see changes made? (sex ed/gov policy/reporting)
Sex ed absolutely needs to become more inclusive, in my opinion. Inclusive in the way it is delivered so that it's accessible to all (with subtitled videos, large print worksheets and similar), but also inclusive in the way sex is portrayed. There should be disabled bodies in those resources, so that disability and sex is normalised and this taboo can be removed for future generations.
Do you think attitude towards sex and disability needs to change?
Absolutely. There is still a 'fear factor' that surrounds disabled people in general. In the workplace, in the media, in education, but particularly when it comes to relationships. People aren't fearful because they don't mean well, they're fearful because, often, they have next to no experience with disability, and just don't know what the right things to say and do are. Take that to the bedroom, and there's so many worries around pain, positions, disabled partners being fragile etc - it's understandably a LOT for non-disabled people to think about. And that's why campaigns around the education and awareness of this issue are so, so important. Yes, we want to give disabled people the knowledge, confidence and comfort to safely take control of their sex lives, but we also want to help change the attitudes and outlooks of non-disabled people, at the same time.
How can sexual health services develop to be more accessible to those with disabilities?
Ensuring physical access is an obvious way - I'm not going to be able to get the information and tests I need if there's a flight of stairs to my local clinic, and no accessible parking or bathrooms available. Communication is also a huge factor - do staff have good disability awareness, and feel comfortable talking about sex with disabled customers? Colleagues of ours have been told they don't need to go on the pill, for example, as it's 'impossible that they'd be having sex'...! Yes, really. The same thing applies for Deaf or hard of hearing users of the service - being poked and prodded down there can be a pretty unpleasant experience if the staff member hasn't raised their head to tell you what's going on and you're unable to lip read them! Ensuring access to resources for all is also important - be that subtitled videos, large print or easy read resources, for example.