People from disabilities community help reveal misconceptions and break down the us versus them barrier
Falling in love has long held its point on life’s trajectory. One meets another for a movie and quivers at the thought of a goodnight kiss. Heck, it’s one of life’s great excitements: the possibility of finding the perfect mate.
However, for people with disabilities, various levels of stigma and a lack of sexual education have historically made this special time a near impossibility.
Maria Barile, an advocate for women with disabilities, lives with what she calls “three impairments”, and knows about the many misconceptions involving people with disabilities and their romantic/sexual relationships.
Barile speaks of what was formally known as “special school” – a segregated system for children with various levels and types of disability. The complete absence of sexual education was the start of Barile’s activism.
In the years to come she would notice that sexuality and disability seemed to be concepts that had no linkage in the eyes of the mainstream population.
“When I got to university, the reverse was happening,” she remembers. “There were courses taught at school about sexuality, but there was nothing about people with disabilities.”
She says she became an activist because of the fact that her own experience was never reflected back in her studies. While academics focused on women’s issues, sexuality issues, or disability issues, the three were never linked together.
“Everyone was talking about the majority, and not the minority,” she says.
Barile says that DisAbled Women’s Network Canada – a feminist organization led by women with disabilities – has helped the community to break down barriers regarding sex and relationships.
“Sexuality was one of the issues that always came up for us, and therefore we dealt with it in a very open and equitable way,” she says. “We were the first group that talked about diversity of sexuality among women with disabilities.”
Barile notes that the landscape of dating has changed for younger generations of people with disabilities.
“It’s much easier for today’s youth than it was in my time,” she says. “We depended on transport exclusively to take us to the special school to home, and from home to the special school. So, the kind of relationships one could develop were very limited.
“Today people have been integrated into regular schools, if not included, and there is greater potential (to meet people).”
Still, Barile says there are many hurdles to overcome for true equality for people with disabilities in terms of sexuality and relationships.
One of the important things for everyone to know is “that people with disabilities have feelings just like everyone else in the area of sexuality,” she says.
Dale and Leanne Froese have been married for 14 years. They met at one of Kelowna’s recreation centres in the mid-90s and have been attached ever since.
“I, myself have Down syndrome,” Dale Froese says. “But my wife has a whole different spectrum of disability. She has brain damage.”
The marriage, however, seems to be like any other.
“It’s like a rollercoaster, but everyone has that (experience) in relationships, in dating, and in marriage,” he says of their life together.
“I love coming home to my wife,” he adds. “And the reason for that is because at least I have someone to come home to, and to cherish the love that we have.”
Dale says that exploring romantic relationships was never an issue for him, mainly because, he was raised to be “very sociable and unsheltered.” For Leanne, however, relationships of any kind were more of a struggle.
“I actually didn’t have much of a life when I was growing up. I was sheltered, and I didn’t have much of a sociable life,” she says. “I didn’t get to know anybody, because the kids where I went to school used to call me names.
“It hurt me really bad, so I didn’t trust anybody.”
Today, though, both Leanne and Dale are active in advocacy work within the disabilities community – and both seem, by all accounts, very much in love.
Unpacking the myths
Ashlee Stone, advocacy research coordinator with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, emphasizes that one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the misconception in culture and medicine that people who live with a disability don’t have the same sexual experiences and desires for relationships as the mainstream population.
She says that sexual education is crucial for children and teens with disabilities.
“Formal and informal education about sex and disabilities is lacking,” she says. “All humans are sexual, regardless of their abilities. Like anyone else, people with developmental disabilities need to be taught about their bodies, boundaries, sexuality and safety.”
Thoughts on the future
Maria Barile says that for her, there are two things she wishes to see in the future in regard to people with disabilities and sexuality.
“One for the younger generations, that they have the same types of choices in sexuality as everybody else – that the choices in the area of sexuality be more freely acceptable, regardless of what they are,” she says.
“And I want to see freedom (of sexual expression) for those of us in middle age.”
Correction: DisAbled Women’s Network Canada was incorrectly identifed as The Network of Disabled Women. We apologize for the error.