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Seeking intimacy By Lorna Collier

Seeking intimacy

People with physical disabilities fight hurtful stereotypes when looking for relationship partners

By Lorna Collier

December 2017, Vol 48, No. 11

Print version: page 48


As a teenager, Danielle Sheypuk, PhD, was stung when relatives would ask her younger sister, “So, are you dating anyone? Who’s your boyfriend?” Nobody asked Sheypuk those questions. She was in a wheelchair because of spinal muscular atrophy type 2. The implicit message was clear: “Dating and relationships weren’t going to be in the cards for someone like me,” she recalls.

Today, Sheypuk is a psychologist in private practice in New York who specializes in dating and intimacy issues. About half of her clients have disabilities. They talk with her about their relationship and sexuality concerns, including how tough it is to meet people and to deal with such invasive comments as “Can you have sex?” or “When you are out of your wheelchair, are you helpless?” They also seek her guidance on the practical hurdles. Perhaps most of all, they seek to learn how to still the inner voices that have internalized messages about their unsuitability as sex partners. “The misconceptions and stigmas are numerous, and they are profound and they are hurtful,” Sheypuk says. People with disabilities get the message that “because your body is so different, it’s going to be hard to find someone to ‘look past those issues’ and see you for who you really are.” As a result, Sheypuk says, many of her clients—who are confident in other areas of their lives—have self-esteem that’s “in the gutter” when it comes to sexuality and relationships.

Facing stereotypes

The greatest challenge that people with disabilities experience when it comes to sex is society’s beliefs about sexuality and sexual relationships, notions such as, “Why would anybody choose to be with somebody with a disability when they could have a nondisabled person?” says Linda Mona, PhD, a psychologist with a disability who practices at the VA Long Beach Healthcare System.

Research documents such ­stereotypes. A study by Michelle R. Nario-Redmond, PhD, professor of psychology at Hiram College in Ohio, surveyed 50 people with disabilities and 47 people without disabilities about stereotypes related to disability. Both groups of participants reported that the common view was that people with disabilities are asexual and unattractive (British Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 49, No. 3, 2010). Another study led by University of Alberta researcher Shaniff Esmail, PhD, surveyed 32 people, including service providers, people with visible and invisible disabilities and the general public about their attitudes toward sexuality and disability. Again, the predominant view was that people with disabilities were asexual (Disability and Rehabilitation, Vol. 32, No. 14, 2010).

Sometimes stigma toward people with disabilities for being sexual can be subtly expressed, says Erin Andrews, PsyD, a supervisory psychologist at Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, who is an amputee and mother of two whose husband is nondisabled. She finds it frustrating when people shower him with praise for marrying her. “People will say to him, ‘You’re such a good man, you’re so amazing,'” she says. The implication is that “he’s a hero or some sort of inspiration because he’s willing to put the traditional standards of beauty and sexuality aside to be with me. It’s almost taboo to admit that people with disabilities can be sexually attractive.”

These attitudes can undermine the lives of people with disabilities in many ways, resulting not only in lower sexual self-esteem and satisfaction, but less access to medical information and sexual health care, as well as more difficulty finding partners and starting families.

And contrary to the stereotypes, research shows that people with disabilities have the same levels of sexual desire as people without disabilities, and many have positive sexual relationships. However, depending on when the disability occurred and how severe it is, some have less sex and more sexual dissatisfaction. A study by Marita McCabe, PhD, and George Taleporos, PhD, of the School of Psychology at Deakin University in Australia, for example, found that people with disabilities who had experienced their disability longer had significantly more positive feelings about their sexuality. The study also found that people with more severe disabilities had less sex and were less satisfied than people with milder or no impairments (Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2003).

Finding partners

Of course, for some people with a disability, finding a partner is the first challenge. “What most people want is a relationship,” says Sigmund Hough, PhD, a certified sex therapist in private practice and a clinical rehabilitation neuropsychologist at the Spinal Cord Injury Service, VA Boston Healthcare System. When people first come to him for counseling, they don’t usually ask about sex right off the bat, he says. What they are looking for is a meaningful connection with another person.

Nowadays, many people look for those connections online. Technology has “vastly improved the lives of people with disabilities in many ways,” says Sheypuk. Not only can they get counseling online (she and other therapists do sessions via Skype), but online dating helps people connect more easily than in the past.


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