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Sex, Dating and Disability: How to Help Youth Make Healthy Choices

By Rebecca Hare

Sex. Sexuality. Sexual identity. These are words that can make people squirm. When you add “and individuals with disabilities,” people are often perplexed. Why? Society doesn’t think of people with disabilities as sexual.

Growing up with two parents, both of whom had disabilities, I never thought that there was anything weird about sex and disability, or disability and dating. As I met people outside the family and engaged in conversations with other youth and young adults with disabilities, I quickly learned that sex was a taboo subject. Having sessions about sex and relationships at a conference for youth leaders with disabilities caused a stir among everyone but the youth. “We don’t really need to talk about that” was the response of some support personnel, and parents said things like, “My son/daughter doesn’t need to be exposed to that!”

Generations X and Y have grown up with the cliché, “Knowledge is power!” When looking at the five identified areas of youth development/youth leadership in which all youth need information, thriving is one of them (Pittman & Cahill, 1991). It’s especially critical to youth with disabilities. Thriving includes mental and physical health, preventing secondary conditions, and maintaining overall well-being. Unfortunately, most people do not think about thriving as including dating, healthy relationships, sex, and forming healthy sexual identities.

Myths About Disability and Sex

Some common myths about people with disabilities and sex (Kaufmann, Silverberg & Odette, 2003) say that people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses:

These myths are why students with disabilities are kept out of sex education classes and why they are not taught self-defense, and these myths perpetuate the idea that youth with disabilities are less than or different than other youth.

What Can Parents and Families Do?

Parents and family members can support healthy sexual development of youth with disabilities by taking the POWER Approach, developed by the National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth. Its components are Preparation, Open Attitudes, Where Are You?, Exposure, and Reality Check:


Kaufmann, M., Silverberg, C., & Odette, F,. (2003). The ultimate guide to sex and disability. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Pittman, K. & Cahill, M (1991). A new vision: Promoting youth development. Testimony of Karen J. Pittman before the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. Washington, DC: Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, Academy for Educational Development

Rebecca Hare is Project Coordinatorwith the National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth, Washington, DC. She may be reached at or 202/822-8405.


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Gaylord, V., Agosta, J., Barclay, J., Melda, K. & Stenhjem, P. (Eds.). (2006). Impact: Feature Issue on Parenting Teens and Young Adults with Disabilities 19(2). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration.]

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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