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Who said disability wasn’t sexy?

  • 4 August 2021
  • By Tom Shakespeare

This blog was kindly contributed by Tom Shakespeare, Professor of Disability Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Tom is writing on the back of two recent HEPI reports on students’ experiences of sex, sexual health and relationships in higher education. Tom’s Twitter is @TommyShakes.

I first started researching disability and sexuality twenty-five years ago, interviewing disabled people with two colleagues, leading to the book The Sexual Politics of Disability. The main things I have learned are that first, disabled people are accessing and enjoying sex and relationships almost as much as non-disabled people and, second, one of the main barriers they face is the erroneous assumption that disability equals asexuality.

The disability rights movement has argued for nearly fifty years that people are as much disabled by barriers – social, cultural, attitudinal – as by any problems of illness and impairment. Barriers might be lack of access to bars, restaurants, nightclubs and all the other places people gather to meet each other. Barriers might be bouncers or bar staff who announce ‘You don’t belong here’, or barriers may be the lack of positive images – or maybe any images – of people in all their diversity. 

Approximately 15 per cent of all humans have an impairment. Of course, the chance of being disabled increases with age, but still at least 5 per cent of children and 10 per cent of working age adults come into this category. Young adults – who are often also students – might be newly diagnosed with a neurodivergent condition such as autism, or schizophrenia, or may have developed spinal cord injury or acquired brain injury through trauma. Or they may have been born with visual or hearing impairment or cerebral palsy and overcome many barriers to get to college or university.

What should be done to remove barriers and enable people to function fully? Providing access to sex education is one priority. This may not have been done well in schools, especially special schools. Images and ideas around disability may have been missing. The data from HEPI’s report in July suggests this to be the case: 84 per cent of disabled students who received education at school felt it was not relevant to their disabilities. For other people, teaching and discussion around making friends or understanding consent might be helpful. Remember, disabled people experience a higher rate of sexual violence and abuse than others.

Talking about sex and relationships is good for everyone, especially as many young people may wrongly think that online porn depictions accurately portray what to do and how to go about it. Providing self-organised spaces for disabled people may enable them to throw off internalised oppression, build confidence and talk about personal things in an atmosphere of equality. Supporting this in students’ unions might be a place to start.

Another is to make sure that all spaces are fully accessible – which means ensuring staff have disability equality training, as well as the usual level access, accessible loos, signage, lighting among other things. Safe and accessible transport to town is very important for campus universities and colleges.

All these things are vital because for many of those who leave home and go away for tertiary education, that is where they have their first sexual experiences. Others come out as LGBT for the first time and some meet the partners they will stay with for life. I had my first girlfriend in my second term at university, thirty-five years ago. Like many young disabled people, I felt excluded from the world of sex and relationships when I was an adolescent, had minimal confidence and less experience. I found out that I was wrong. Despite being a different body shape, people could love me and I could have a life like any other student. For too long, these experiences have been denied disabled people – not directly, but because facilities have excluded them.

That’s why it’s so important to ensure that we remove barriers and provide what is required so that people can enjoy this aspect of their education as well.

1 comment

  1. Such a positive and insightful blog. Thank you.

    Of course, matters of sex – right across the range of orientations, gender identities, sexual and reproductive health, pleasure, well-being and safety, and in all sorts of relationships – are important for everyone. But, due to ways in which societies construct traditional approaches to all of the above, especially in formal education, sadly, certain people get left out; their needs hidden, their rights eroded and respect trivialised.

    In Higher Education, we have got such wonderful impetus at the moment, to improve on all of the above; to be inclusive of everyone, celebrating difference and diversity, and overturning discrimination – even that which manifests through hiddenness and invisibilisation of certain people and their needs. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, especially for past hurts and ongoing inequalities, such as through lack of access to services and venues, which you rightly mention!

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