The Current

'I have sex. Get over it': Disability activists call for sex education

For young people with cognitive and physical disabilities "sex ed" is virtually non-existent. Disability activists are fighting to change that, to make sure their needs are included too.

'People don't know how to understand disabled bodies as desirable,' says Kaleigh Trace

Andrew Gurza has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He says the world sees people with disabilities as asexual and as a result is excluded from proper sex education. (Paul Jamnicky, 2017)

Originally published Oct 30, 2017.

Read Story Transcript

When Andrew Gurza went to the hospital for an STI (sexually transmitted infection) test last year, he says the nurse was surprised he needed one.

"She looked me up and down and said, 'Oh! Why are you here for that?'" the 33-year-old Toronto man tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 
Andrew Gurza says people would rather just avoid the topic of disability and sex because for many, it's too much to handle. (Alice Xue, 2017)

"I kind of just said 'because I'm sexually active.'" 

Gurza says this experience at the hospital is not uncommon when he talks about sex.

"I have sex. Get over it, " says Gurza who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

He's one of many people with disabilities who are calling for better sex information at school and at the doctor's office.

Even Canada's own sex-ed guide says there's often a lack of good material for people whose bodies and minds aren't typical. In Gurza's case, he says he giggled through a sex-ed curriculum that included nothing about what his own sexual experiences would be like. 

He wants people to get past the taboo of talking about sex and disability so the disabled experience is reflected in the current sex-ed curriculum — in a way that "values the disabled body."

Now more than two decades later,  Gurza's podcast, Disability After Dark is devoted entirely to the topic. One of the issues he's covered is how to talk about sex with a new care attendant, an awkward conversation he's personally had to face because he sometimes needs an attendant to help him prepare for sex.

"Bodies don't all work the same," says disability activist Kaleigh Trace, who joined Gurza on the show.

"People don't know how to understand disabled bodies as desirable."   

Kaleigh Trace is a sex educator who has a spinal cord injury. She tours high schools and universities speaking about sex and disabilities.

For 24-year-old Jessica Coole of New Minas, N.S., sex ed in middle school was traumatizing.

"I'm like how do they do all this?" says Coole who has a cognitive disability. The information she was given in class left her so confused that years later, after fooling around with her boyfriend but not having sex, she was concerned she got pregnant. 

Jessica's mother, Michelle Morgan-Coole, says she struggled to get sex information her daughter could understand. The topic remains a tough one for them today. 

"I do want to protect her," says Morgan-Coole. 
For Jessica Coole and her mother Michelle Morgan-Coole in New Minas, N.S., sex is a difficult topic. 'I do want to protect her,' says Morgan-Coole. (Michelle Morgan-Coole)

"It's not easy and it's not fun. It's hard to talk about." 

Shaniff Esmail has helped many people make the conversation easier. Earlier this year, through his work as a professor and the associate chair in rehabilitation at the University of Alberta, he helped develop an online program for health-care workers on how to respectfully talk about sex with disabled patients. 

Doctors are often relieved when disabled patients don't bring up sex because the topic's still taboo, Esmail says. He suggests one of the main reasons for that is the issue of consent, which can be complicated for people who have cognitive impairments. 

"A lot of times these individuals have the capacity but they are not offered the choice," he explains, pointing to how doctors often fail to offer birth control to patients with cognitive disabilities.

Esmail has also helped parents not only get their children good sex information, he's guided them on how to support healthy sex lives.

He tells Tremonti, how he once helped a cognitively-challenged teenager who had been acting sexually aggressive at school by putting him on a schedule where he was encouraged to masturbate before and after school. 

"In terms of his inappropriate sexual behaviours, they stopped once we started him on this schedule," says Esmail.

"It was amazing the difference in his behaviours."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by Halfiax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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