Mel* has it all, including cerebral palsy.
She has a clean apartment kitted out with modern technologies to help her get by. Her support workers are second to none.
There’s just one thing missing in her life. She can’t get off.
This is why she will be one of Dr Judith Glover’s case studies as she strives to make inclusive, accessible sex toys a reality.
Dr Glover, of RMIT’s Industrial Design Cluster, recalls visiting Mel and marvelling at her “amazing” flat.
“All her basic needs are being highly met except this one need of being able to get off. She wants to, by herself in the privacy of her own home,” she said.
“You’re talking about somebody in the prime of their life, just because she has cerebral palsy doesn’t mean her hormones don’t work and that she doesn’t find other people attractive, she’s going to have the same raging hormones as the rest of us.”
Dr Glover is currently in the early stages of planning and meeting with case studies.
Her goal is to modify existing devices, for example, through handstraps or an attachment that works with a wheelchair, so that people like Mel can use sex toys privately and independently.
Dr Glover said there is little knowledge in the area of sexuality and disability because it is often “the last priority on the list.”
“The ability to use a sex toy and look after yourself is a basic human right,” she said.
“There’s this whole infantalising of people who have a disability. Society just doesn’t think they’re sexual beings and it’s just not true,” she said.
This claim has been backed up by peak body People with Disability Australia (PWDA), who said that some schools are not offering any form of sex education to students in support units.
“One of the biggest issues is a generalised standard of thinking that anyone with a disability does not have sex, therefore they don’t need that sex education,” said Polly Seymour, PWDA Project Officer.
Dr Glover has been consulting with Northcott, one of NSW’s largest disability service providers who provide a Sexuality and Relationship Education service.
Northcott assists disabled clients with accessing sex workers, online dating, sexual health awareness and relationship advice. They also run a convention called “Feel the Vibe” which Samantha Frain, Executive Director of Northcott Innovation, describes as “Sexpo for the disabled.”
Ms Frain believes another key problem with disabled people accessing sex toys is the lack of inclusive instructional resources available.
“There isn’t a sex toy in the world that has instructions in easy English while instructional videos on YouTube are often just soft porn,” she said.
Northcott hopes to work with manufacturers to educate them on accessibility, but a significant challenge is that manufacturers don’t see disability as a “valued market.”
“There’s billions of dollars to be made in their normal markets, and we’re trying to convince them that people with disability are a significant portion of that market,” Ms Frain said.
On top of technical issues, disabled people wanting to explore their sexuality must overcome a myriad of societal issues.
Disability is a social taboo in Australian society that has impeded disabled people from living the same full adult lives as their non-disabled peers, according to Ms Frain.
“We sat and listened for hours to [disabled] people telling their stories and expressing what they felt the barriers were to them living a full adult life,” she said.
Amongst the key problems presented were a lack of “opportunities and exposure” to the dating world.
“At age 27, your peers have had a decade of first dates, pashes at a nightclub, one-night stands and now are settling down, but if you have a disability and didn’t receive the right supports during that time, how does that make you feel?” Ms Frain said.
In addition, disability hinders an ability to “be spontaneous.”
“People without disability can make decisions to leave a house party, get an Uber and go to a club, maybe you meet someone you fancy,” Ms Frain said.
“When you have a disability, all you can think is, ‘Is the nightclub accessible?’ or ‘Can I afford to pay my support worker all night?’ Even if you get to the club, the people around you need to see you as an adult and not a wheelchair. To see you as a sexy man, not a person with intellectual disability.”
Women with disabilities must also navigate increased vulnerability to relationship violence.
A recent report by Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) found that women with disabilities are 40 per cent more likely than women without disabilities to be victims of domestic violence.
Similarly, 70 per cent of women with disabilities have been victims of violent sexual encounters at some time in their lives.
This imbalance has led to PWDA starting Australia’s first sex and relationship education program run by women with intellectual disabilities, for women with disabilities.
The ‘Healthy and Respectful Relationships’ program is currently being rolled out to women across NSW.
Eight women with intellectual disabilities have been trained over the past year to be “peer educators” for other women with intellectual disabilities.
The topics covered include consent, sexuality, sexual orientations and different types of abuse.
“We want these women to understand that they are allowed to have sex as long as it’s safe, consensual sex,” said Ms Seymour.
“One of our peer educators who is just finishing her HSC is in a support unit and she has never received sex education ever,” she said.
As Healthy and Respectful Relationships is a two-year funded project that comes to an end next June, Ms Seymour is hoping for success so PWDA can reapply for funding and expand their reach.
“I’d love to take this training to anyone with any disability, and maybe one day take it to schools so we can educate people from the very beginning.”