Disabled Teens Can Be Sexually Able
Originally Published: April 13, 2004
Revised: November 13, 2012
“What kind of condoms can I use?”
I posed this question to my doctor a couple months ago. The reason for the question: I was born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spine.
Because of this, the bones in my spine didn’t fully develop and sections of my spinal cord were exposed. I haven’t had full control of my bowel or my bladder, and I have never walked straight. Also, like most people born with spina bifida, I am allergic to latex.
Living with a disability has greatly impacted my life and influenced the way I deal with my sexuality. Unlike many 17-year-old guys I know, I’ve never had a girlfriend. In fact, until recently, I was unable to ask any girl out.
There were many female friends I was attracted to, but my biggest fear was rejection. I kept remembering being the laughing stock in school and among “friends” just a few years earlier. I couldn’t see why any girl would want to go out with me.
Along with fear of rejection, I was also afraid of what I would do if the relationship turned sexual. I wondered how I would react in different situations, what I would do with her, and when and how I would tell her about my medical condition.
There were many female friends I was attracted to, but my biggest fear was rejection.
“Many disabled teens are unable to fully explore their sexuality,” explains Mitchell Tepper, Ph.D., founder and president of the Sexual Health Network in Shelton, CT, who became “disabled” when he suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident at age 20.
“In some cases, disabled teens have physical impairments, such as paralysis, loss of sensation, or problems with genital functioning, which interfere with sexual activity. In others, sexual problems happen because of psychological or social issues,” says Tepper.
These issues include poor body image, low sexual self-esteem, fear of rejection, and the attitudes of society.
“Even when teens with disabilities can function without any sexual difficulties, some think that because they’re disabled, they won’t find someone to love them. They may give up on trying or put themselves at risk for a chance at a sexual relationship,” explains Tepper.
Teens with disabilities need to learn to communicate when there is someone they want to be more than friends with, especially because there’s a chance that the person they’re attracted to may assume they’re not interested in dating. The best way for disabled teens to ease their fears is to become more knowledgeable and confident about themselves and their sexuality, advises Tepper.
“Educate yourself—learn about your specific disability and how it might impact your sexual functions,” he says.
As it turns out, becoming more knowledgeable wasn’t that hard for me. Asking my doctor what kind of condom I can use actually paved the way for a longer chat about my health. We had a conversation about what kind of limitations I may or may not have. He told me that since I can get a full erection, I probably shouldn’t worry about whether I can perform sexually.
We also talked about an inflammation I once had in my right testicle; I was concerned this might cause me to be sterile, but he told me it was unlikely. And like Tepper advised, my doctor told me I needed to be comfortable with me, before getting close to someone else.
In order to get to where I am today, I had to stop thinking of myself as the guy who was always being laughed at for peeing on himself and start seeing myself as a person who—through the miracle of surgeries—has finally been able to overcome his condition and become his own special being.
Even though I have chosen to abstain from sexual activity because I haven’t found the right person, I’m now confident that when the time comes I’ll be ready and equipped to face any challenge.
By the way, the answer to my question was polyurethane condoms. If used properly, they’re just as safe and effective as latex condoms.
Editors’ Note: For more on disability and sexuality, check out the Sexual Health Network’s section on “Disability or Illness.”
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