Disabled People Use Sex Toys, Too, So Why Aren’t They More Accessible?

Photographed by Lexi Laphor for Refinery29 Australia.
Sex is considered one of our baseline human needs. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, some experts place it right at the base of the pyramid with other physiological necessities like breathing, food, water and sleep. Other people consider it a social need, akin to friendships, community and intimacy. 
For many allosexual people, sexual pleasure is an essential part of life. So why are disabled people so often left out of the conversation? 
4.4 million Australians live with disability. While tools that help people eat, wash and walk are widely understood and accepted, there’s a long way to go to rid the taboo of adaptive technology for self-pleasure and sex.
Your life has benefited from adaptive technology — whether you realise it or not, whether you’re disabled or not. Also known as assistive technology, we’re talking about devices specifically designed to aid disabled people with everyday living. Electric toothbrushes, shoe horns and removable shower heads — these household items began as adaptive tech. 
There’s a growing cohort of disabled Australians, occupational therapists and entrepreneurs dedicated to making sex more accessible. “A healthy sex life, whether solo or with a partner, is vital for people with disabilities, just as it is for anyone,” Dr Sakshi Tickoo, occupational therapist and author of SexCare, tells Refinery29 Australia. “Exercising control over [your] body through sexual expression can be empowering. It allows [you] to assert autonomy and make personal choices about [your] body and desires.”

These conversations aren’t limited to disabled people; having frank, inclusive and open discussions about sex benefits everyone.

These conversations aren’t limited to disabled people; having frank, inclusive and open discussions about sex benefits everyone. “Sexual scripts often teach us that intimacy and sex must look a certain way, bodies must work in a certain way, and the experience must end in a certain way. This ‘certain way’ is limiting for all bodies… Pleasure is the measure,” sex therapist Selina Nguyen and sexology masters student Niamh Mannion echoed on Instagram.
Adaptive tools, inclusive education and communication devices are just some of the ways disabled people can enrich their sexual experiences — and the former is gaining traction. In 2022, the global assistive technology market was valued at over $75 billion, a figure that’s expected to rise to $135 billion in 2030.
“Sex toys, especially those designed with accessibility in mind, can compensate for various physical limitations by providing an alternative means of achieving sexual pleasure and satisfaction,” Dr Tickoo says.
Robert Duff-Silsby is the co-founder of Perth-based sex toy brand, Luddi. In 2021, at the disability service provider he worked at, a conversation about a physiotherapist’s client struggling with unmet sexual needs spurred on the creation of their own adaptive sex toy, the Ziggy. The NDIS-friendly toy is touted as an “inclusive vibrator for all genders, sexualities, ages and abilities”. 
“Disabilities vary so much that it's really impossible to make one product that meets everyone's need,” he tells us, sharing that Luddi designed the product to try meet as many people’s needs as possible. What eventuated was a product that’s easy to pick up and turn on and off, uncomplicated to use, and features Braille on the packaging. 
“I think the way that we look at it is maybe a little controversial, but we don't think assistive technology should exist as a category,” Duff-Silsby says. “There should be products that exist for everyone that ha[ve] certain accessibility features built into [them]… If you have multiple products with an extra piece of knowledge, it allows [more] part[s] of the population to access the product. If you have lots of these products, you'll meet a whole population’s needs, in theory.”
One in six Australians are disabled, and becoming disabled is something all people can experience. “Our physical capabilities may change as we age or encounter various health challenges… The relevance of sex toys, not just for individuals currently living with disabilities but for the broader population, [serves] as a proactive approach in maintaining a healthy and satisfying sexual life through these changes.”
23-year-old Sydneysider Ariel* has idiopathic neurological disorder and has always had a “complex… relationship with self-pleasure”. “I often feel disenfranchised from able-bodied communities who discuss sex toys and sex in general,” she tells us. “My disability prevented me from engaging in a lot of social situations as a young person, and as a result, I feel I missed out on times to explore my sexuality and relationships. I hold a lot of shame about that.”

"Sex toys have brought me joy and accessibility and I hope people acknowledge the importance of them for our community!"

Over time, she’s become more comfortable exploring her relationship with sexual pleasure. This openness has allowed her to experience pleasure from her small and portable battery-powered bullet vibrator. “Sex toys have brought me joy and accessibility and I hope people acknowledge the importance of them for our community!”
Lenny*, a 25-year-old from Melbourne with fibromyalgia and self-diagnosed autism and ADHD, grew up in relatively sex-positive environments. From being immersed in the Tumblr and Wattpad fan-fiction community to being in a friendship group that encourages candid and honest conversations about sex, Lenny is “not so intimidated about talking about these topics now” and raves about her “beloved Abbie [Chatfield] vibrator”. 
Despite all this, she tells us about the stigmas she still faces. “I do think autism is often infantilised and therefore embracing one's sensuality and sexuality as an autistic person isn't as widely accepted by neurotypical society… There is often less autonomy granted to physically disabled people and it's often unexpected to hear of or see sex-positive media with disabled folks included.”
Sex in itself is still generally considered a taboo in mainstream spaces. This is only compounded for disabled people. Imagining a future where we respect the varied abilities and preferences in the bedroom is utopic for all of us. A sexual health model that’s inclusive of people’s varying needs and desires respects pleasure and anatomy. And that’s hot.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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