We recently sat down with disability rights advocate and attorney, Stephanie Woodward, to learn more about her experiences and advice for both nondisabled and disabled persons. A graduate of Syracuse University College of Law, Stephanie works at the Center for Disability Rights as the Director of Advocacy. She writes and has her own YouTube channel, which we highly recommend. In recognition of Stephanie's advocacy and her support, we are offering a discount code to benefit ADAPT. Use code ADAPT and we will take 7% off your purchase and then make an in-kind contribution to ADAPT worth 8% of your purchase.
The Center for Disability Rights is an independent living center focused on empowering disabled persons to be independent. The CDR believes that independence and living in the community correlates to quality of life for all persons, particularly the disabled. As Ms. Woodward puts it "No one should be in a nursing facility if they don't want to be." The Center advocates for the full integration, independence, and civil rights of all people with disabilities. CDR does this by working for national, state, and local systemic change to advance the rights of people with disabilities by supporting direct action, coalition building, community organizing, policy analysis, litigation, training for advocates, and community education.
Stephanie is also a member of ADAPT, a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom.
Hospitalization and institutionalization inhibit a person's ability to be fully independent in all aspects of his/her life including sexuality. After all, it is hard for a guy to have phone sex with nurses and caretakers walking in at any time. It is even more difficult to be intimate with a partner in that kind of environment.
According to government research, women with disabilities are more likely to be victims of physical abuse. Stephanie has written about her own experience with an abusive partner in a touching piece available online here. Abuse is not isolated to personal relationships however and occurs frequently in nursing facilities which present their own unique set of challenges. Stephanie's organization serves as an advocate for people in these situations.
Access to basic services is still a challenge which is exacerbated by the belief, even among disabled persons, that accessible public transportation is a kindness, not a right. Planners and store-owners still often overlook simple things like the height of paper towel dispensers and the design of door handles. According to Stephanie too many businesses regard ADA compliance as an option. There is a greater awareness of the challenges which disabled persons face since passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act almost thirty years ago. Much work remains however in changing the perception of disabled persons and their basic rights. Many businesses and even government buildings to this day remain off-limits to wheelchair users and others with mobility disabilities.
These misconceptions permeate into sexual wellness, perhaps to an even greater extent and even with healthcare professionals. Surprisingly, doctors have questioned Stephanie on why she might need birth control. "How can you have sex if you don't walk?" is just one of the questions she has fielded to which she replied "Do able-bodied people walk when they have sex? Have I been doing it wrong all of these years?"
One of her more disturbing experiences involved a check-up after some time studying overseas. After the examination the physician informed her that it appeared that she had herpes. Distraught, she phoned her fiance and accused him of cheating while she had been gone. During a follow-up visit with her regular primary care physician he informed her that she in fact did not have herpes. He explained that the clinic misinterpreted redness in her genital area as herpes instead of arising from her sitting all day in a wheelchair.
There are two groups of disabled persons - those who were born with a disability and those who aquire one. In her work Stephanie notices that there is a difference in how these groups approach their sexual wellness. People who acquired disabilities are very insecure about sexuality at first, but a lot of people have reported increased satisfaction because communication is more important. After a spinal cord injury, for example, a person must communicate more about what they want and need in the bedroom, and this increased communication results in increased satisfaction.
Education is another difference. People who acquire their disabilities have already had their sex ed whereas educators and parents tend to ignore those born with their disability because it is assumed that they are asexual, including those with intellectual disabilities. In regards to sex, Woodward explains that "A lot of girls who have grown up with disabilities have either grown up as total prudes because they were told it would never happen for them or they grew up as hyper-sexualized because they believed that it would never happen for them, but they wanted it to."
When it comes to products, she says that design is normally not a problem but materials used can be, especially in disclosing the components used (latex-free, etc.). Product advertisements should be as descriptive as possible to make sure that the product does not contain a potential irritant. She also advised that because disabled persons are often not flush with cash and transportation is difficult, the internet has been great for people with disabilities because they can peruse for themselves and not feel intimidated.
Regarding design of sex toys Stephanie provided some valuable insight on a couple of areas.
- Sex swings are helpful to switch up positions. Key things to consider are:
- Leg movement
- The ones where you have to step into the loops are not workable
- Velcro fasteners are even better
- The more independent you can feel during sex the more confident you feel.
- If buckles, then if too tight it may cut into you.
- Hand holds or grip
- The holes found in the end of some personal vibrators (found in toys like the Lady Bi from Fun Factory for example) are very popular because they accommodate those with limited hand motility.
Regarding sex, Stephanie's advice is simple. "People who have just acquired injuries or who have always had a disability but never thought of having sex, should go for it on their terms or else you will end up doing it on someone else's terms. Anyone you are going to be with is insecure, so it’s okay to feel insecure too. That shouldn't stop you from you having sex on your own terms."
In recognition of Stephanie's advocacy and her support, we are offering a discount code to benefit ADAPT. Use code ADAPT and we will take 7% off your purchase and then make an in-kind contribution to ADAPT worth 8% of your purchase.
We encourage you to check out her YouTube channel, a clip of which is below.