Feb. 24, 2023

UCalgary launches new lab to draw attention to what some consider a taboo topic

Researchers at the Disability and Sexuality Lab are creating resources and starting discussions
The Disability & Sexuality Lab aims to promote social change to address needs related to disability and sexuality.
Disability and Sexuality Lab aims to promote social change and address needs related disability and sexuality. Colourbox

When you are of a certain age there is a certain discussion that many parents have with their children about reproduction. The dreaded sex talk. Dr. Alan Martino, PhD, says parents of children and young adults with disabilities are often looking for more information and support to discuss sexuality with their kids.

“People with developmental and intellectual disabilities are four times more likely to be sexually abused. Research shows it’s partly because we’re not talking about sexuality. Silence has real consequences,” says Martino, head of the Disability and Sexuality Lab at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.

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

Alan Martino excited to launch Disability & Sexuality Lab at UCalgary.

Alan Martino says it is time to make space for conversations about more positive aspects of sexuality with people with disability.

Courtesy Alan Martino

Martino and members of the lab are working with several community partners to co-create research projects to answer questions and concerns that are applicable now.

“We recently completed a study to understand how adults with intellectual disabilities navigate online dating in their pursuit of romance and partnership,” says Martino. “That work has informed a series of information graphics with advice to help people with disabilities be safe online and tips to help people start conversations when they decide to meet with someone.”

Naomi Eastman is excited about the positive feedback on the information graphics the lab is sharing on Twitter.

Naomi Eastman is excited about the positive feedback on the information graphics the lab is sharing on Twitter.

Courtesy Naomi Eastman

Naomi Eastman, a Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation student, helped launch the lab and the Twitter account.

“People really appreciate the positive lens we have on our posts. Instead of only negativity around sexuality and intimacy,” says Eastman, a research assistant. “Organizations are already sharing our infographics in the disabled community.”

The lab is in a virtual space, for now, with plans to do more outreach and events in the community. The wider community is already taking notice. Scholars in countries such as Malta, Brazil, Ireland, U.K., and the United States are asking about the current projects, as well as disability service providers across Canada.

“There is clearly an interest in this type of work, which is extremely encouraging to us. There is a recognition that sexual education for disabled people over-emphasizes abuse, vulnerability, and abstinence. Of course, those topics are crucial,” says Martino.

“But we also need to make space for conversations about more positive aspects of sexuality with people with disability. This includes, for example, “Netflix and chill,” navigating online dating, knowing where to meet people and being comfortable expressing sexual identity outside dominant heteronormative/able-bodied discussions.”  

Call for study participants

Martino has two studies underway that require additional participants. One is recruiting parent(s) and sibling(s) in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge who have family members labeled with disabilities. Researchers want to learn how family members are supporting their loved ones’ intimate life.  

The second is seeking input from graduate students. The team wants to explore the attitudes of health-professional students in Canada toward the sexuality of disabled people. Prior studies suggest that post-secondary students in health professions may lack knowledge and understanding about the intersection of disability and sexuality.

Alan Santinele Martino is an assistant professor in the Department of Community Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

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