Sex and relationships for people with disabilities

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Navigating romantic and sexual relationships has its difficulties, especially for a person living with disability.

Key points:

  • Your own and other people’s boundaries should be established and respected before engaging in a romantic or sexual engagement
  • Someone can withdraw their consent before or during any sexual activity, even if you are in a relationship with someone or are married to them
  • Communicating clearly with someone you are interacting with is a skill to practice and you can receive professional help to strengthen your abilities

Ebony Swan, Operations Manager of First Step Solutions and The Date-Ability Project, says there is a lack of understanding in the community around boundaries, body language and consent in inter-able interactions and relationships.

“This has meant that people have been in the position where legal action has had to be taken as a repercussion, however, if there were adequate guidance, role models and education, this could have potentially been avoided,” explains Ms Swan.

Navigating relationships can be complex regardless of one’s ability, and people with disability should rely on good communication, empathy, trust, respect, honesty, open-mindedness, and a good sense of humour.

So, what should you keep in mind when navigating a romantic or sexual relationship?

Boundaries are essential

Psychology organisation The Resilience Centre says personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.

The boundaries you put in place will be a mix of beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning, and can help to define your likes and dislikes.

Boundaries are essential to healthy relationships and are necessary to take care of yourself while dating or in a relationship.

Without boundaries, people can feel depleted, taken advantage of, taken for granted, or intruded upon.

Ms Swan adds self-care and boundaries go hand-in-hand, and that it is important to normalise talking about relationships and sex with a safe support network.

“Prioritise your self-worth, values and beliefs as this shapes your boundaries,” she says.

“[Try] to maintain a safe network of people you trust to seek guidance from when you feel uncomfortable or unsure.

“Self care is super important. Relationships of all types can sometimes make us a little sad, and that’s okay, take some time to do something you enjoy.”

Consent is vital

When it comes to consent in any situation, intimate or not, it is important to note consent is not a once-off permission.

1800RESPECT says giving your consent means you knowingly and freely agree to take part in sex or sexual activity.

Consent must be voluntary and informed, meaning you understand what you are giving consent to.

You cantell the other person if you agree, decline or change your mind to take part in sex or sexual activity.

Someone can withdraw their consent before or during any sexual activity, and Ms Swan says it is important to keep the line of communication open to ensure everyone is having fun and enjoying themselves.

Even if you are in a relationship with someone or are married to them, they still need your consent to have sex or engage in sexual activity with you.


Good communication is an important part of all interactions and allows you to explain to someone else what you are experiencing and what your needs are.

Ms Swan said communication is “key for fun, safe and healthy sex”.

“Sex and pleasure aren’t a one-size-fits-all,” she says.

“Everyone has different preferences and it’s important to have an open discussion around this.”

The Better Health Channel recommends always talking to each other, no matter how well you may know and love each other, in order to communicate clearly and avoid misunderstandings that may cause hurt, anger, resentment or confusion.

But not everyone can engage in a verbal conversation so easily, as there are people living with a communication disability or communication disorder.

A wide range of conditions can ultimately impact a person’s ability to communicate with others, this includes people with a disability who communicate with the use of a communication aid or those who cannot understand or be understood by others at all.

In some instances, texting, typing or sign language may be the only tool someone needs to effectively communicate, or they may work with a speech pathologist to develop communication strategies.

For some people with a communication disability, they may not have control over their vocal chords or they may be non-verbal, so a speech pathologist provides the appropriate support and tools for confident communication, such as communication books and speech generating devices.

Everyone has their own communication styles and it may take some time to figure out the best way that works for you and the partner you are engaging with, which often takes practice.

Some people may find it difficult expressing themselves or talking about difficult topics, including emotions, so you may find relationship or personal counselling can help strengthen your communication.

Counsellors are trained to recognise problematic communication that may cause problems and help to change those patterns, as well as providing strategies, tips and a safe place to explore issues.

How have you navigated sex or relationships as a person living with a disability? Let us know in the comments below.

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