People with disabilities of various kinds have become increasingly visible in recent decades, with the focus shifting away from ‘pity’ to a sense of equality and the need for society to make adjustments to allow such people to take their rightful place in the workforce and in community groups.
I have been thinking lately about how the Christian churches fit into this, and more specifically how the approach on sexual matters links into this. Articles like this one reflect on the feelings of Christians with disabilities.
One of the key scriptures in this regard is Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that the man should be left alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” It’s a verse that not only influences the role and teaching of churches on marriage, but reflects a secular reality, that most humans yearn for companionship and sharing.
It’s a longing reflected, for example, in this American survey.
Yet, when it comes to people with disabilities, the attitude is still one of either being seen as asexual or else their families wish they were. There is a desire to ‘protect’ disabled family members from the ups and downs of relationships, but this wish to wrap them in cotton wool goes against disabled people’s own wishes to have a normal sexual development.s
Penny Pepper explores this idea of being perceived as asexual here.
It seems to me that the churches are often uncomfortable in discussing these matters and decide to ‘stay safe’ by appeasing families in this regard. However, the losers are people with disabilities, who feel their needs and desires are ignored by clergy.
This applies, in particular, to people with ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as neurological disabilities. A complicating factor is that young people with disabilities are particularly prone to being sexually abused. Wider issues are explored here.
The experience of such abuse, in turn, leads to further complications in sexual development. Now, I know that for families with young girls with disabilities, the fear that they will be raped is ever present, but for male survivors of abuse there are different issues, which are often ignored by the churches.
I refer, in particular, to the fact that male abuse survivors very often have anxieties concerning their sexual orientation.
The legacy of such abuse is often the reason why some men fail to find a companion, despite their desire to do so, but it’s a legacy often unnoticed by their families and local clergy.
People with some disabilities are also over-represented among sex offenders.
The likelihood is that in a parish of, say, 8,000 people, some 2,000 will be survivors of abuse, and the percentage is likely to be higher among people with disabilities. Yet, the loneliness they feel often goes unnoticed by clergy.
Rigid interpretations of traditional Christian teachings on sexuality often ignore the particular needs of the disabled but fortunately more enlightened perspectives are gradually developing.
I recall, with amusement, being at a seminar in Tullamore as long ago as 1988 on the subject of sexuality of the disabled, where a local Sister of Mercy was laughing as she explained to someone how to spell ‘masturbation’.
Traditional ideas of guilt on such matters only go to deepen the loneliness and sense of failure on the part of the disabled. However, the goal of educators and church leaders must surely be to help disabled young people, like anyone else, to feel at ease with their sexuality and able to feel confident to have a relationship with a ‘significant other’.
The Irish playwright John B Keane explored the sense of isolation felt by many in works like ‘The Chastitute’ and while that didn’t explicitly deal with disability issues, the sense of being ill at ease with relationships is all the greater for the disabled, and accentuated by the protectiveness of family members.
Clergy and church leaders need to find ways to challenge that protectiveness and encourage families to allow disabled family members to develop confidence in relationships.
For Catholic priests, in particular, given their own celibacy, there can be a difficulty in understanding the desire for relationships. Given how close they are to their own families, there can be a tendency to ‘worship’ the family unit so much that they don’t want to rock the boat by challenging families over their attitude to disabled members.
I recently worked with a man (since retired) who has Down Syndrome and was amazed to discover that he is married – his wife also has the condition. I have also worked with people with less obvious disabilities, who have partners.
It seems to me this would have been less likely among their counterparts of an older generation, as families would ‘protect’ them by ensuring such relationships could not get underway in the first place.
Declan McSweeney lives in England but is originally from Offaly. He worked for over 18 years for the now-closed Offaly Express and has also worked as a journalist in the UK.