In June 2014, Concordia’s Centre for the Arts in Human Development (CAHD), a creative arts therapies program involving music, art, dance, and drama therapy, performed a musical ethnodrama (an adaptation of ethnographic data into a play) titled The Amazing Adventures of Relationships, which tackled sex and relationships among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs). In the play, people with IDDs shared their own experiences, and challenged the stereotype that adults with IDDs are “childlike.”
Able-bodied people seem to struggle between wanting to encourage the sexual liberation and autonomy of individuals with IDDs and an instinct to protect them so that they are not taken advantage of or abused, as might happen when they are perceived as vulnerable and sexually unknowledgeable. However, this able-bodied saviour mentality is harmful.
The stereotype of adults with IDDs as childlike is false and belittling, and often invokes the idea of a person’s “mental age.” However, sexual and emotional maturity ought to be distinguished from intellectual functioning, and assigning a “mental age” of a child to an adult is demeaning and denies many aspects of that person’s identity.
I have volunteered for CAHD since 2011 as a reliably awkward person with a possibly inappropriate sense of humour; I never hesitate to share my love of ‘adult’ humor, such as Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song.” Nonetheless, I had assumed that broaching the topic of sex with people with IDDs would be inappropriate, reflecting my implicit perception of this population as childlike. Even though adults with IDDs have sexual desires and enter sexual and romantic relationships, the explicit discussion of sexuality with this population is socially taboo, in my experience.
I believe it is critical that we do not homogenize the population of people with IDDs, within which exists as much individual variation as exists in any other population.
I recently spoke with drama therapist Shyam Anandampillai, one of the co-researchers and creators of the play. After the 2014 ethnodrama, Anandampillai moderated an open dialogue with the participants and the audience, permitting the exploration of perceptions, assumptions, and concerns surrounding sexuality among people with IDDs.
Anandampillai stated that, according to the perceptions of the audience, “there was a strong distinction between romantic relationships and sexual relationships among those with developmental disabilities.” The pursuit of romantic relationships was generally treated as an innate right, but sexual relationships were perceived apprehensively due to the risks of sexually transmitted infections, the ability to give informed consent, worries about the quality of sexual education, and the risks of pregnancy. The undoubtedly challenging issue of pregnancy, which necessitates consideration of an individual’s autonomy as well as the well-being of children, must be handled on a case-by-case basis, during which genetic counselling and encouragement of safe sex practices may be appropriate. Sexual education is clearly needed, as it is with everyone, to ensure an understanding of informed consent, including what it means to agree to a sexual act, as well as of all the potential risks associated with that act.
Individuals with IDDs are often dependent on family members or caregivers, and may be sheltered from opportunities to have sexual relationships. Some audience members at The Amazing Adventures of Relationships expressed the necessity of supervision for sexually active people with IDDs.
According to Anandampillai, “depending on the individual’s level of functioning, some individuals living with intellectual disabilities are heavily dependent on their support system, and because the support system is wary of their sexuality, perhaps individuals with IDDs aren’t allowed to experience sex in a way that is natural.” This is an another social barrier for some individuals with IDDs.
People with IDDs are presented with unique obstacles in their efforts to become political or legal activists for their own sex lives. However, it is demeaning to suggest that able-bodied people ought to do the political activism “for them,” reinforcing the perception of these individuals as childlike and dependent. Encouraging more opportunities like the ethnodrama, in which individuals with IDDs represent themselves, is important for the sexuality of those with IDDs to increase in visibility, challenging the taboo and coming to be seen as the universal human right that it is.