Addressing our own ableism and fear when it comes to sex and the people with disabilities we work with

disability poses no limits to sex
(For screenreaders: Black sign that says “disability poses no limits to sex” in colorful letters)

By Maria Scippa, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

As part of my coursework for my social work degree, I was asked to read some first person narratives from people with disabilities regarding sexuality. For example, I read an article entitled “Dating in a wheelchair: Your problem, not mine” as well as “Dating in a wheelchair and representation: Interview with Lolo,” among others.

I was moved by these readings. I am also appreciative for the insights and raw honesty of the people who shared their experiences. It is sad that our society has operated from both the medical and moral models of disability, and as such has fallen victim to assumptions about people with disabilities and their experience with sex, love and intimacy. Even though this is not a topic I have given much thought to before, I am afraid that I, too, may have been very ill-informed regarding the experiences of people with disabilities before engaging with these readings.

The theme that I found throughout these readings was that there are two different sets of challenges that people with disabilities may face when it comes to dating and intimate relationships. First, one set of challenges involves the specifics of people’s disabilities, and finding creative ways to overcome them within a relationship. Second, the other challenges appear to be centered around societal views that create barriers to people with disabilities even forming intimate relationships. These barriers can manifest in different ways, whether that be as a result of a lack of respect for self-determination within a residential setting or assumptions on the part of a potential partner when they find out the person they are talking to has a disability, perhaps ending the relationship before it starts. The latter set of challenges are that which social workers should be paying attention to addressing in our work. The more we educate ourselves and others about the presence of ableism, and work to shift the perception of people with disabilities as not interested in or capable of physical intimacy, the first type of challenge become quite manageable.

A common thread through all of this seems to be fear. In his article on the dignity of risk concept, Craig Parson states, “one of the biggest barriers is fear: fear of the unknown; fear of legal ramifications and fear of failure” (Parson, 2008, p. 28). We see this barrier manifest itself within individuals, institutions and the larger society.  Unfortunately, this may be the driving force behind laws, regulations, policies and policy implementation that end up creating damage to people. When operating from a place of fear, social workers may deny people opportunities to fail and try something all should have access to. Perhaps social workers neglect to honor people’s rights in the hopes of avoiding a negative situation. This approach can prove to be ineffective in so many ways. In this regard, Ann Thomas has a powerful message in sharing her own story, “but all it takes to remove that fear is self awareness and a conversation with the person who is different” (Thomas, 2015, p. 1). Although this statement sounds so simple, there is so much truth to it. If social workers were to take on this attitude of curiosity and openness, some of these barriers could start to fall away for the people with disabilities that we work with.

Parsons, C. (2008). The dignity of risk: Challenges in moving on. Australian Nursing Journal15(9), 28.

Thomas, A. (2015). Dating in a wheelchair: Your problem, not mine. The New York Times. Retrieved from (Links to an external site.)

Maria Scippa is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. She holds a Bachelors in Social Work from Salem State University. She hopes to continue her career in social work, working with children and families. Ms. Scippa chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities because this knowledge will help her in providing well informed, competent services to families that have a person with a disability. Ms. Scippa can be reached at