Let's talk about sex: Calgary research lab providing information for disabled

CALGARY — Online dating can be a challenge for anyone, but Andrew Gurza has more hurdles than most.

Gurza, who identifies as queer, has cerebral palsy, a developmental disability that affects movement, posture, and co-ordination.

"That's a whole other layer of stuff there," says a laughing Gurza, who gets around with a powered wheelchair.

Gurza, 38, hosts a podcast called Disability After Dark in Toronto and devotes much of his show to talking about sex and disability.

He has tried various dating apps and met potential partners who are disabled and non-disabled. Dating those without a disability was "a trash fire," he says.

"People online say things like, 'Oh no. What happened to you? It must be so hard to be disabled.'

"The average person who lives in the world doesn't have a lot of experience with disabled people. So when it comes to seeing them as sexual beings or partners, that's just not in their wheelhouse," Gurza says. "They're afraid they're going to hurt their disabled partner. They're afraid that their disabled partner is going to need care ... and that scares them."

Gurza says he's given up on dating for now and if he wants a sexual encounter, will go to a sex worker as he has before for what he calls a safe, fun and relaxed experience.

A new research lab at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine is working to answer questions that many people with developmental and intellectual disabilities have about sex.

Gurza says he hopes it will shine a light on the myths of disabled sexuality and start a new conversation.

The Disability and Sexuality Research Lab is the brainchild of Alan Martino, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences.

Martino has a brother with a disability and has seen some of his struggles in forming intimate relationships. He says the virtual lab conducts research and offers advice on everything from discussion topics for dates to the sexual meaning of the eggplant emoji.

"The eggplant — it's fascinating. In my communications with members of the (disabled) community, they start receiving these emojis and they don't know what they mean," he says.

"(The research) is very sex-positive."

Martino says many people with disabilities are excluded from sex education in school and their parents are often uncomfortable in having "the talk."

They are also four times more likely to be abused, he says.

"Research shows it’s because we’re not talking about (sex). Silence has real consequences," Martino says.

"Talking about sexuality empowers people. People deserve to have a romantic life, deserve to be loved."

The lab has two studies underway looking at how family members support disabled relationships and the attitudes of health professional students when it comes to disabled sexuality.

The Centre for Sexuality in Calgary has been providing advice and support in areas of sexuality, relationships, human rights, gender identity, sexual orientations and consent for the past 50 years.

Roseline Carter, the centre's director of programs, says the group has discussed the University of Calgary lab with Martino and agrees there's a great need for it.

"There's a ton of shame and stigma around disabilities and sexuality. We often think about people with disabilities as not being sexual beings and in fact, we know that they are," she says.

"I think, more than anything, we just see that people with disabilities want to talk about it, want to have relationships and are desperate for information."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2023.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press