Disability, sexuality and people’s rights

Amanda Lyons

9/04/2019 1:51:19 PM

Associate Professor Patsie Frawley asks the question: Why should sexuality be different for people with disability?

Patsie Frawley
Associate Professor Patsie Frawley wants to ensure that people with disability have the same rights to their own sexuality as everyone else.

Patsie Frawley, Course Director of the Masters of Disability and Inclusion at Deakin University, wants to change the perception of sexuality and people with disability.
‘We’ve created this extraordinary idea about sexuality and disability that is not extraordinary in the usual sense of the world, but in the sense of being “different to and lesser than”,’ she told newsGP.
‘Essentially, that excludes people with disabilities from having the same kinds of opportunities and experiences – good, bad and indifferent.’
Associate Professor Frawley believes this view of ‘extraordinary’ sexuality has permeated the accepted cultural framework in a way that has impacted negatively on that sexuality, and the wider lived experience of people with disability – particularly intellectual disability.
‘We’ve had policies, laws and practices that have restricted the sexuality and reproductive rights of people with an intellectual disability, particularly around sterilisation, consent to contraception, restrictive practices around privacy and opportunities to conduct a sexual life,’ she said. 
‘In doing that, we’ve restricted people’s opportunities so much that many people with intellectual disabilities have to conduct their sexual lives in a hidden, rushed way – and in a risky way – because they haven’t got the same opportunities for privacy and choice that other people have.’
While much of this stems from a desire to protect, Associate Professor Frawley has found the resulting disempowerment of people with disability can also lead to unintended consequences, ultimately creating space and potential for abuse.
‘The experiences of abuse are more commonly created by a society that has negative views about intellectual disability and uses power over people,’ she said. ‘So it’s not about [people with] intellectual disability, it’s about what happens around them.’
Professor Frawley believes approaching sexuality in a positive, rights-based fashion is vital to countering these unintended harms.
‘It’s important to give people opportunities; it affirms some of their own positions and enables them to make their own decisions and to develop a sense of sexuality in their own lives,’ she said.
‘Also thinking about what other people experience is very helpful. [People without disability] might have formal sexual education, most of us would say it wasn’t very good, and then we go and hang out with other people and talk and try things out. So why should it be any different for people with an intellectual disability?’
As an example of how such an approach could be put into practice by practitioners, Associate Professor Frawley highlighted the issue of ensuring the option of privacy in consultations for patients with disability.
‘It’s important that every practitioner recognises that people with an intellectual disability are people first and have the right to present themselves and have their own consultation,’ she said.
‘If people need support, that’s okay, but it shouldn’t be the first port of call: “They’ve got an intellectual disability, they should have someone with them”.’
With these concepts in mind, Associate Professor Frawley worked with colleagues to create a long-running peer education program, Sexual lives and respectful relationships, which is designed to empower people with intellectual disability.
‘Our program has been running for 10 years, with people with an intellectual disability as educators,’ Associate Professor Frawley said. ‘It provides us with a safe space and an opportunity for people just to talk to each other like anybody else would.
‘We also layer over that access to community support services like sexual assault services and women’s health, and they present the programs in partnership with our peer educators.’
Associate Professor Frawley hopes the work being done in this program, coupled with relevant research, will be helpful in advocating for greater sexual autonomy for people with disability – especially as issues within this section of the community are soon to come more closely under the microscope.
‘With the royal commission [into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability] coming on, it’s going to be really important that we open up the conversations and not close them down, so that people can make sense of their own sexual lives and be linked up with supports and services that can help them,’ she said.
Associate Professor Frawley’s ultimate goal is to give people with disability the same rights enjoyed by other people across our society.
‘[We are] trying to position sexuality and intellectual disability in a way that aligns much more with general sexuality; in a way that focuses on rights and challenges ideas of vulnerability; in a way that is inclusive of LGBTQI, of older people, of younger people, of gender,’ she said.
‘We’re trying to embrace all of these ideas in our work so we can start to change those attitudes that are more restrictive, and really throw open discriminatory practices and where they lead.’

disability intellectual disability sexuality

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