Sex and the disabled student

April 24, 1998

More and more disabled people are entering higher education, so many, in fact, that some universities have introduced "personal assistant" schemes to provide disabled students with up to 24 hours of help with their personal, social and academic needs while living on campus.

Such assistants help with toileting, feeding, writing up lecture notes, photocopying and going out to pubs and clubs. What they rarely do, according to research we have recently carried out, is help students express their sexuality. The priority within personal assistant schemes is given to helping disabled students get "a leg up", rather than "a leg over". Our research indicates that personal assistants can make moral judgements about the type of support they are prepared to vouchsafe.

It is true that without assistants, many disabled people would be unable to participate in higher education. But higher education is not just about studying; for many students, it is also about having a good time and, in particular, exploring sexuality.

What needs to be remembered is that a personal assistant is used by a disabled student to provide personal, social and academic support. In some cases, the student may be unable to explore and express their sexuality without the support of their personal assistant.

A personal assistant could help a student have sex in several ways. They could, for instance, take him or her to pubs and clubs. If the student is gay, this might mean going to gay clubs. In such cases some personal assistants make moral judgements and refuse to go. A personal assistant might also be asked to facilitate sex in other ways, for example by masturbating the student, getting the student undressed for sex or putting on a condom.

Many students are perfectly satisfied with their personal assistants; sometimes help is given without prejudice. However, our research has highlighted that universities need to consider the selection and training of personal assistants to ensure that disabled students are able to participate fully in student life.

Jane's story

Jane, 22, is a gay disabled student in her first year at university. She has muscular dystrophy and is severely physically disabled. At the beginning of the year she had two personal assistants working for her but one had to be dismissed; she was not prepared to facilitate sex. Jane likes drinking in pubs and clubs. When she has sex with her partner she needs to be undressed and left naked on her bed. Since she is severely disabled she needs help with all these activities.

One of Jane's personal assistants provides her with all the personal, social and academic support she needs without making moral judgements. The other personal assistant refused to undress her for sex or to take her to gay clubs, because she believed that it was wrong to be a lesbian. She said: "What she does sexually is her personal business. I was not prepared to go to gay clubs, you're just there for getting off (with someone). It's quite repulsive, I don't want to do that."

Sarah Earle The centre for research and policy in disability, Coventry University.

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