Having “The Talk” with your child can be overwhelming, scary and sometimes a little awkward. It’s often a topic parents try to avoid engaging in with their children and teens, but it’s crucial to ensuring your child can have healthy and safe relationships. People with disabilities have not traditionally been invited to participate in these conversations and can be taken advantage of if not armed with the information needed to make healthy decisions about their bodies and romantic relationships. Read on to find some tips and resources to help you have these conversations with your child or to learn more yourself about how to engage in healthy romantic relationships.
Assume nothing. People with disabilities can experience sexuality on the same spectrum as people without disabilities. We should never assume that just because someone has a disability that they are asexual or heterosexual. Sexuality is a spectrum, regardless of your cognitive or physical abilities. Always approach conversations with an open mind, ready to listen.
Start with Respect. Every person deserves to feel safe and respected in a relationship, so it’s important to start by defining what respect looks like and feels like. For example, every person has control over their own body. What they say goes. If they are uncomfortable in a situation, they have the right to say no and have the other person respect their decision. Similarly, it’s important to recognize that if the other person in the situation expresses discomfort or says no, it is their right and we must respect their decision without trying to persuade them to change their mind. This is important to practice even in the safest situations. Encourage family members to respect the word NO, even in seemingly harmless situations like asking for a hug or a kiss hello.
Understanding an Imbalance of Power. A real issue within the disability community is the issue of sexual abuse, domestic abuse and trafficking. Most instances of abuse start with an imbalance of power, whether that is in a caretaking situation, a friendship, a position of authority or a romantic relationships. Both parties have equal power and should respect the other person. Learning about how to identify an unsafe situation and then practicing the steps needed to leave that situation can help prevent dangerous situations from occurring or escalating.
Understanding Touch and Consent. Many people with disabilities have people touching them in order to get their daily needs met. For example, if you are blind, people might take your hand to lead you across the street or help you find something. If you require assistance with toileting, people are touching your body. It’s important to require caretakers to ask for consent before touching a person’s body. Think about when you are at the doctor’s office. The doctor tells you what they are going to do before they do it and tell you to tell them to stop if anything makes you uncomfortable. This is an important right to have and should be given to every person, regardless of their ability level. Practicing giving consent and discussing what types of touch are ok is important to ensuring healthy boundaries are in place.
Have an Open Dialogue. Dating and relationships, especially in the adolescent years, is confusing, heart breaking and full of emotion. It’s important to encourage an open dialogue where questions and scenarios can be talked about safely. Some people may have a hard time understanding why someone doesn’t want to be their friend or doesn’t want to date them and it’s important for them to have a safe space where they can air their frustration or hurt feelings and then talk about safe ways they can move on.
Get resources. Theses are some amazing resources written by people with disabilities about sexual and relationship health.
Our Sexuality, Our Health: A Disabled Advocate's Guide to Relationships, Romance, Sexuality and Sexual Health
What You Should Know About Birth Control When You Have a Disability
The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For all of us who live with disabilities, chronic pain & illness
Talking to Children with Cognitive Disability About Sex
Sexuality Education for Students with Disabilities