Master’s student Kristyn White is creating space for young adults living with complex physical disabilities to share their thoughts on sexuality and sex positivity thanks to a recent 2SLGBTQ+ Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity Micro-Grant from the University of Regina Queer Initiative and the Humanities Research Institute.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Brenda Rossow-Kimball was working as a caregiver at a group home for adults labelled with intellectual disabilities. One evening she went into the basement to grab a loaf of bread and found one of the residents making out with a fellow from another group home down the street.

She wanted to give them privacy. But she also knew the policy of the group home required her to file an incident report about the woman’s behaviour that would trigger a cascade of consequences, not the least of which was that the woman’s family would be notified of her “infraction.”

“These were two adults who cared for one and other. They had been in a relationship for a long time. Filling out an incident report didn’t seem like the right way to proceed,” says Rossow-Kimball, an assistant professor in the Faculty Kinesiology and Health Studies whose research engages people labelled with intellectual disabilities.

It was the type of incident that many caregivers have faced.

“Sexuality is an important part of all people’s lives,” says Kristyn White, who has worked in the disability sector for years. Yet, she says, sexuality is often ignored in people with disabilities, causing them – and their caregivers – overwhelming struggles. And these struggles are predominantly caused by caregiver or family discomfort.

“People with disabilities are often represented as asexual – without sexual needs or desires. They are also shamed around things like masturbation and pornography. The idea that they shouldn’t be having sex, or are sexual beings, is alive and well,” says White. “But that’s an old trope.”

Now, more than a decade into her work with people who have disabilities, White is working to support the full lives of the people she serves – which includes sex positivity, sexuality, gender identity, and romantic relations.

“These are essential to most of our lives, but when I first realized this was something I might need to assist with, I was very uncomfortable. That discomfort was steeped in not knowing what to do or what my role was. That’s when I realized this was something I could take on by working to support the whole person – benefiting both caregivers and the people they serve.”

White began to facilitate a sexual health class for the people she works with called “Tell it like it is,” where she provided information about consent, legal rights, safety, and abuse.

Now she wants to continue to expand and add to this curriculum to reach as many people as possible, and be as inclusive as possible.

That’s why White, now a graduate student in the University of Regina’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies, applied for and received a 2SLGBTQ+ Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity Micro-Grant from the University of Regina Queer Initiative and the Humanities Research Institute. The funding will allow her to create more resources about sexuality and empowerment while also making them as inclusive as possible.

“By having these conversations we want to identify gaps in services and information, and promote sexual-health literacy and sex positivity for people with complex physical disabilities.”

The research team also includes Rossow-Kimball – who is White’s faculty supervisor – the Big Sky Centre for Learning, and Being Astonished Inc. Astonished is a grassroots organization based at the University of Regina that aims to support young adults living with complex physical disabilities to live a life according to their strengths, dreams, and needs.

“By creating space for young adults living with complex physical disabilities to share their thoughts on sexuality and sex positivity and what this all means for individuals who live in complex bodies, we will provide information to their caregivers and support systems with the goal of changing attitudes,” says White, who adds that the project is called Navigating Sex Positivity in an Ableist Society.

The research will be carried out in multiple steps.

“First we need to connect with our researchers, the young adults at Astonished, and get to know one another. Then we will start to learn from them what their needs are, through the ways that are comfortable for each individual – whether that be through one-on-one talks, group discussions, written information – or combinations of these.”

White says issues important to the group will be discussed, and may include topics on self-care, self-pleasure, healthy relationships, gender identity, sexual identity, safe sex, and accommodating sexual experiences.

“The caregivers need to feel supported in order to help them support the people they are caring for with regards to sexuality and relationships and dating,” says White.

“By having these conversations we want to identify gaps in services and information, and promote sexual-health literacy and sex positivity for people with complex physical disabilities.”

This participant-driven research will result in resources for caregivers that include photos with diverse body types – for example people who have cerebral palsy or use wheelchairs – something that is currently lacking.

“The caregivers need to feel supported in order to help them support the people they are caring for with regards to sexuality and relationships and dating,” says White.

Rossow-Kimball, says that historically the message sent to caregivers was to focus on food, shelter, behaviour management, and medication – ignoring or denying anything related to sexuality.

“That’s where this project comes in. We are hoping this work and the resources we create will shift that false narrative.”

The 2SLGBTQ+ Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity Micro-Grants are designed to enable researchers to develop projects that enhance Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity at the University of Regina, and that develop knowledge regarding 2SLGBTQ+ inclusivity in research, teaching, administration, policy, and decision-making.

Other recipients include:

Principal Investigator: Dr. Claire Carter
Research Team:
Caitlin Janzen, University of Regina
Risa Payant, Common Weal Community Arts
Fran Gilboy and Heather Cameron, FadaDance Troupe
Project Title: Community Movement: Trans and Queer Body Mapping Workshops

Principal Investigator: Dr. Jennifer L. Gordon
Co-Investigator: Ashley A. Balsom
Title: Exploring the Experiences of Members of 2SLGBTQIA+ Communities Pursuing Medically Assisted Reproduction

Principal Investigator: Dr. Gwen Grinyer
Co-Investigator: Dr. Claire Carter
Project Title: 2SLGBTQ+ in STEM: Understanding the Barriers

Principal Investigator: Dr. Fritz Pino
Co-Investigator: Dr. Randal Rogers
Project Title: Paths to Inclusion: Social Support Needs of 2SLGBTQ+ Faculty and Staff Members of the University of Regina

Principal Investigator: Dr. Alexandra Stoddart
Project Title: We Belong Here: An Exploration into 2SLGBTQ+ Pre-service Teachers’ Post-Secondary Experiences in Physical Education and Beyond

The University of Regina has committed to creating a healthy campus community and learning environment in its 2020-25 strategic plan All Our Relations, or kahkiyaw kiwȃhkomȃkȃninawak in Cree.

Well-being and Belonging is one of the five areas of focus in the strategic plan, and includes objectives related to strengthening the University’s commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Healthy Living, and Mental Health Literacy and Research. This feature is a part of the University of Regina’s participation and support of Pride Week from June 4 to 13 and Pride Month in June.

About the Author

Krista Baliko is the University of Regina’s research communications strategist and the editor of Discourse Research Magazine.