picture of couple from shoulders up looking away

As a sexuality educator, I have been honored to meet individuals with developmental disabilities, their families and paid caregivers in a variety of circumstances. Many understand and embrace the idea of people with disabilities as sexual beings. Some struggle with the topic, and are not quite sure if they are ready to pursue additional information.

Regardless of their comfort level, the people I meet are seeking assistance to help their client, loved one or themselves understand and express their sexuality in safe, healthy and fun ways.

Defining Sexuality

In my experience, I have learned that having a broader understanding of what sexuality is provides everyone involved with information and tools to overcome hesitation and begin to proactively build supports for the person. This is the definition I use:

Sexuality is the integration of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of an individual’s personality that express maleness and femaleness. It begins at birth and affects all the senses; it is not limited to genitals. Sexuality involves identity, reproduction, sensuality and intimacy.

From: Who Cares? A Handbook on Sex Education and Counseling Services for Disabled People. (Cornelius, D., Chipouras, S., Makas, E., Daniels, S. 1979. University Park Press, Baltimore.)

A definition that make sense

I like this definition for several reasons.

First, by saying that sexuality is both part of our personality and a lifelong part of who we are as human beings, it emphasizes the inherent nature of sexuality for all people.

Second, it lists four aspects of our personality that are integral to our sexuality: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual – clarifying that the physical aspect is only one area of sexuality, not the entire deal.

Finally, it identifies four avenues through which we both develop and express sexuality: identity, reproduction, sensuality and intimacy.

Sexuality is a part of us all

It is important to have a good idea of what sexuality entails so that the thought of it doesn’t scare us away from providing education, support and opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) to fully develop this important aspect of their personality.

Sexuality is always a part of who we are and we, as family members and paid caregivers, must create healthy and safe ways for children and adults with I/DD to build their own ways of understanding and expressing sexuality.

Patricia Carney
Patricia Carney


2 Comments on Sexuality and People with Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities

  1. Pat is an excellent resource when searching for information and ideas to help individuals with disabilities express this very important aspect of what makes us who we are. However, many people will not seek out this information. We must try harder to change the overall attitude of our society in order to fully support individuals and give them the opportunities they need.

    • I think an addition to the changing of the attidue of our society is the focus to change the attitude of those people who are directly caring for people with disabilities. Families, caregivers, staff; all very influential people who with the right tools could provide a solid education to people with disabilities. With the solid education stronger advocates are able to further educate society. I think a barrier to this concept is that sometimes families and staff are stuck with the views and opinions that are present in society. I have come across this in my program with families not wanting their (adult)child to participate in activities because it goes against the “societal norm.”

      If we are able to educate more families and staff then the outcome could be contageous and one day spread to society.

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