Sexual health for people with disabilities focus of new training program

Michelle Bissell had heard it before, even from complete strangers.

"People with disabilities should not have sex."

The Edmonton woman, who has cerebral palsy, is hoping a new University of Alberta training program for medical professionals will help empower people with disabilities to learn more about their sexual health, and ease some of the stigma that persists in society. 

"It's just awful, because obviously they don't see me as a whole person. They just see the disability, and that's not who I am. I'm a whole woman. I'm a whole person," said Bissell, a longtime advocate for disability awareness.

"In a lot of respects, the medical field glazes over that part, because people with disabilities aren't thought of in society as a sexual beings." 

'It is a taboo subject' 

The Online Certificate in Sexual Health program was recently launched by the U of A's faculty of rehabilitation medicine. The course, led by sexual health expert Shaniff Esmail, is intended to train more health-care professionals about the relationship between sexual health and disability, and how to approach it with respect.

Sexual health is a topic everyone struggles with, said Esmail, adding that most doctors feel ill-prepared for these sensitive conversations with their patients.

"The biggest barrier is that sex isn't talked about. There are very few programs and unfortunately it is a taboo subject," said Esmail, a professor and associate chair in the U of A's department of occupational therapy. "I was surprised when I started doing some research that there is very little to no programming for people with disabilities."

The post-graduate certificate program is the only one of its kind currently in Canada.

The demand for the program was so high that a second round of students was admitted in January 2017, the university said in a statement. Currently, 20 students are making their way through the program.

'It can be scary'

Statistics Canada reported in 2012 that almost 14 per cent of the Canadian population aged 15 or older reported having a disability that limited their everyday activities.

Up to 3.8 million Canadians, if not more, are experiencing sexual health issues, and the demand for better training in the medical community only continues to grow, said Esmail.

However, the sexual health of patients with physical and cognitive limitations is often ignored by those charged with their care and recovery.

"People with disabilities tend to be systematically asexualized," Esmail said. "They don't get the opportunities or resources to actually learn about sexuality.

"Whether it's their parents, teachers, or significant others, sexuality is something that people with disabilities have been isolated from."

Bissell, who will be lecturing regularly in the new program, wants to ensure others don't feel the isolation and fear she has experienced.

"I was born with CP so I've always been like this, but someone who has been injured who can no longer make love, that can be a lot," Bissell said.

"People are released from the hospital and they don't know how to handle things. It can be scary, especially if someone was in an accident mid-life. They need to have those conversations."