Disability & Sexuality in the Media

Written By Sarah Harrington.

This article will present the findings of my undergraduate dissertation on Disability and Sexuality in the Media.

In today’s society, the prevalence of the “body beautiful” imagery is corrosive, particularly in relation to the self-esteem of those with a disability. The research found that people with disabilities share negative perceptions of the way they find they are represented in the media. Our voices are side-lined or ignored when issues that affect us or our sexuality are discussed.

There is currently no policy encouraging positive sexual health practices and sexual education, within the formal education system or aimed at adults with physical disabilities. A strong argument could be made that this needs to change. At present, the Sexual and Reproductive Health (S.R.H) of people with physical disabilities is jeopardised by their invisibility in policy provision and in society. The Irish family Planning Association (I.F.P.A.) plan states that S.R.H is a fundamental human right for every person, and as such, every person has the right to the possibility of having sexual experiences ‘free from coercion, discrimination, and violence’ (I.F.P.A., 2007: 1).

Currently, people with physical disabilities are precluded from the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences by a plethora of discriminatory legal and policy frameworks, all of which are aimed at ‘protecting’ people with physical disabilities because of misconceptions regarding their status as ‘vulnerable’ people. The I.F.P.A. advocates for a human-rights based approach to policy relating to S.R.H for people with disabilities.

Sex Therapy

Finland is an example of international best practice, where the S.R.H rights of people with disabilities are concerned. A S.R.H advocacy group, The Finnish Association for Sexual Policy (SEXPO) initiated a conversation in the 1970s, which drew widespread attention to the sexual rights of a few minorities including those with disabilities (ibid). This was an important advancement and it led to several provisions for people with disabilities that can, and should be, replicated here in Ireland. A significant obstacle that physically disabled people in Ireland face is the lack of accessible, specific, and appropriate information regarding sexual and romantic relationships. This means that many people with disabilities cannot speak the language of love and are confused and overwhelmed by the dating game. For this reason, in Finland the organisation SEXPO has enshrined the right to information and guidance in law.  This was an important advancement for several reasons: Firstly, openly, and honestly discussing sexuality and healthy sex lives with people with disabilities removes the stigma and breaks the taboos that pervade Irish society at present.

Secondly, the provision of accurate, current, and appropriate information by the Finnish government has allowed disabled people to experience pleasurable and safe sexual relationships. For this reason, I recommend that the government implement similar policies as a matter of urgency, and provide sexual counselling to those with a disability as an integral part of their primary health care.

Residential Care and the Deprivation of Liberty

Additionally, those living in residential centres experience frequent violation of their civil liberties and they are prevented from living as autonomous adults. Although these centres ostensibly encourage independent living for those with disabilities, often the opposite is true and issues regarding inappropriate surveillance of one’s activities and personal belongings are often entrenched within these residential centres. Stevens (2011) succinctly summarises the realities of residential-care living thus: “…at these institutions, every aspect of one’s life is monitored and controlled- from the time to eat, to bathe, to sleep- causing countless human rights violations” (16). The multitudinous and multifaceted nature of the issues surrounding residential care has been noted elsewhere in this research, so the focus in this paragraph will be on the implications for the S.R.H of people with disabilities. Stevens states: “Additionally, in most of these settings, sexual activity is denied… In the limited amount of cases where sexual activity is permitted, it is generally only heterosexual marital sex that is allowed” (2011, 16).

Although Stevens was referring to the institutionalisation of people with disabilities in the U.S., the experiences she describes will resonate with people with disabilities in Ireland. Furthermore, there has been progress in the U.S. regarding institutionalisation following the Olmstead vs L.C. at the United States Supreme Court in 1999. Although the case was primarily concerned with the involuntary institutionalisation of people with intellectual disabilities in mental health hospitals, it makes clear that any failure to provide people with disabilities (of any kind) with community-based care is unconstitutional and places them at a further disadvantage. Under the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention for Persons with Disabilities, people with physical disabilities should enjoy the rights to: marry and found a family; physical integrity; respect for private and family life” (United Nations, 2006). At present, these rights are being withheld from people with physical disabilities who are currently housed in residential care centres. I therefore recommend that policies are put in place in all residential centres to prevent staff from inappropriately interfering in, or preventing a romantic relationship between residents.


This research has argued that societal misconceptions of people with disabilities stem from the predominance of the medical model in how disability is understood. In this model, individual responsibility for disability is placed squarely at the feet of the person with an impairment; this model also prescribes medical interventions, therapies, and cures as the sole avenue through which the effects of disability can be overcome; the model also has a tendency to focus on the impairment and the limitations that impairment impose, rather than on the ways and means that impairment can be alleviated. It is unsurprising, in this context, that so many misconceptions prevail around the sexual identities of people with disabilities.

As is evident throughout the research, the disabled community are portrayed as either: objects of pity; a-sexual or hyper-sexual; incapable of living a so-called ‘normal’ life. The research has explored alternative models of disability such as: the social model; and the affirmation model. Whilst, largely, agreeing with much of the research that has stemmed from the social model, particularly as it pertains to how society “disables” individuals due to barriers and access to services and amenities, I argue that the affirmation model is the most appropriate framework with which to explore issues around disability. The affirmation model frames disability as a positive identity of which to be proud. This shifts the focus of research from discourses of tragedy and frames it as a (positive) facet of a multi-faceted personality and life.

Furthermore, the research explored how vastly different portrayals of disability on television shows can have disparate impacts on societal understandings of disability and the sexual identities of those with a disability. The research discussed The Undateables at length and explored the ways in which such depictions of relationships within the disabled community re-inforce rather than dispel misconceptions. This was contrasted with more affirming depictions of people with disabilities in shows such as Defying the Label and We Won’t Drop the Baby.

The research has argued that there should be no representation of us without as and where people with disabilities are more heavily involved in the design of reality television and entertainment shows that the depictions tend to provide a more accurate reflection of life with a disability. Additionally, the research provided a detailed examination of the disablist language found frequently in the print media. This research has attempted to illustrate the contrary throughout and advocated for the media to depict people with disabilities doing typical adult activities and reaching typical adult milestones: going out; travelling; going to university; getting a job; getting married. These types of positive, affirming, and accurate depictions of people with disabilities would be more common if people with disabilities were involved, at all levels, in the production of television programmes about them.

This article has attempted to provide a brief synopsis of my undergraduate research on disability and sexuality in the media which is an under researched topic and one that is rarely discussed amongst the Irish general public.