Disability and sexuality exploring the intimacy option

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Disability and sexuality exploring the intimacy option: a young person stands looking isolated against a pink wall.

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Disability and sexuality exploring the intimacy option

Disability and sexuality exploring the intimacy option is a true story about the right to sexual expression for disabled people with developmental disorders and the reaction of their legal guardians.

The thick aroma of chili meandered through the house, as the remaining portion simmered on low. To the side of the stove, little barrels of spice sat corralled in a wooden rack with bulky loomed potholders dangling on hooks below. A colossal oak table in the dining room added to the communal atmosphere, as ten of us sat elbow to elbow eating dinner. The comfortable home, with two full bathrooms, ran under the private ownership of the adults’ aging parents.

“Oh no. I’m spilling.” Walking from the sink, Katherine’s eyes widened as her grip tightened on the cup.

“You’re good,” I said. “Three more steps and you can put it down.”

Placing her feet on beige tiles, she teetered along on the checker-board pattern, water splashing over the rim. Her troubled gaze swung between Clifford and me as her glass touched down on the table.

“I need more water. It’s not full.”

Having worked at the group home as an aide for six months, Clifford had earned his place as part of the family. Working weekends together, I appreciated his humor and even keel.

His hand reached across the table. “Give it here. I’ve got you.”

Katherine glanced at me. “Clifford’s my friend.”

“Yes, he is.” Before cleaning up, I made one final call. “Does anyone want more chili?”

“Yeah me.” Max scooped up the last bit on his plate.

“No, Maxwell. You’re fat.” Joyce pointed a condemning finger. “No more for Max.”

“He puts in a hard day at the workshop,” I said. “Max comes home hungry. He needs a good meal.”

Joyce’s mouth twisted as lumps of meat and beans dropped onto his plate.

“Yeah.” Max’s face lit up. “I push the dolly to the dock. The truck needs the boxes.”

Switching off the flame, I set the pot to cool on the porcelain and redirected my attention at Joyce. I waited until her eyes found mine. “You know what, Joyce? We can call Max stocky. It means he’s big and has muscles.”

“Yeah. I’m Superman.” Max thumped his chest with his fist.

“No you’re not. Stop lying.” Joyce’s hands flailed like she was shaking them dry.

“I pretend.” Max loaded his mouth up chewing loudly. “Yum.”

His appreciation cut across the table, making Joyce scowl.

“Com’on, give Max a break. A man gotta eat.” Clifford reached sideways, offering Joyce a reassuring pat on the back.

“Okay.” She studied her plate, then reciprocated by patting Clifford’s elbow.

Clearing the empty salad bowl from the table, Clifford popped it in the sink and glanced at the memo board screwed to the wall.

“Hey, check the shower schedule everyone. Barbara and Joyce, I think you’re up first tonight.”

Scrubbing a stubborn spot on the pot, I looked over my shoulder. “Folks, put your dishes in the sink and wipe down the placemats before you leave.”

Plates and silverware clattered, and floating sponges were whisked from a soapy bin set on the table.

“Com’on,” Clifford waved a hand towards the living-room. “Bewitched is on. That’s the show about Samantha and Darrin.”

The cleaning efforts of the stragglers quickened.

“Max.” Clifford beckoned with his hand. “We can finish our checker game. There are two other boards out in case anyone else wants to play.”

People sauntered to the living room, but Clifford paused and back-tracked into the kitchen.

“Com’on Gary. You like Bewitched. It’s the lady who wiggles her nose. Come sit by me while I play checkers.”

I listened for the scrape of a chair behind me.

“Gary, put your hand down.” Clifford’s voice was calm but firm.

“There’s a pack of gum in here.” I opened the top cabinet with my soapy hand. “It stops him from chewing on his fingers.”

“No, he’s playing with himself.”

Twisting around, I observed Gary rubbing the heel of his palm over the zipper of his pants. I shut the faucets and did a half turn.

“He’s only been here for two months. Maybe he’s getting comfortable enough to reveal more of himself.”

Clifford’s brows rose like check-marks. “This mess here, he should keep to himself.”

Clifford extended an open palm. “Hey pal, give me your hand.”

Gary put his hand out looking confused. Clifford loosely clasped Gary’s wrist lifting it in front of his chin.

“Here you go. You want your fingers instead?”

Accepting the bait, Gary reverted to sucking the first two fingers of his right hand.

“Good. You chew on those for a while buddy.” Clifford rested his hand on Gary’s shoulder. “You wanna go inside with the others now?”

Gary sprang to his feet and darted into the living- room.

“Was that the lesser of two evils method?” My head tipped to the side.

“You know it. Last night when you were at the A&P with Nick and Barbara, he played with himself for over an hour while we were making the mosaic trays. I don’t see the others doing it.”

“Maybe they do, but they have a better sense of what’s public and private.”

I flopped into a dinning-room chair. “Remember, Gary’s thirty-eight, and he was locked up in a state hospital for fifteen years.”

“Yeah, I saw that in his file. It must have messed him up.”

“I’m just tossing out a possibility here, but what if all his rubbing is because he can’t get the job done? It’s like being perpetually horny with no chance of relief.”

“Luce, you know you’re being the nasty one now, plus these guys don’t know about sex stuff.”

Clifford’s back slumped against the kitchen threshold. “Yeah, they look like adults, but most of them think like kids. I’m not downing them, they’re good people, but they’re not exactly on the ball.”

“I don’t think sex drive runs on a sliding scale according to your IQ. It’s one of those hardwired things, like running from a mangy dog charging at you. Your instincts kicks in.”

Max entered the room with his hands on his hips, eyes anchored to Clifford.

“Why you in here talking?”

“Sorry, Max. I’ll be with you by the next commercial. Just give me a minute.”

“Hmm.” Max twitched his mouth and did a half turn.

“So from now on, jerking off’s gonna be Gary’s thing?” Clifford’s hands rose and fell to his sides. “That’s not cool when we go out in the community or when he’s at the workshop.”

“Yeah, there’s jerking happening, but I was serious before about the getting off part.”

Clifford’s eyes settled on me, with inquiring eyes.

“Think about it this way,” I said. “He’s trying to reach the ending, and he’s left searching for the answer to the mystery, or maybe something’s getting in the way of him finishing up. Disability and sexuality exploring the intimacy option is a real concern.”

“Man, this sounds wack. Where do you get this stuff from?”

“Wait, Clifford. Just hear me out. Maybe he can’t visualize what turns him on, or the meds are throwing his body off. I don’t want to go all doctor on you, but maybe some signals are crossing in his brain, and look at his fingers. They’re slightly constricted, maybe he can’t find the right grip or speed.”

“I know you’re serious, but this is one crazy conversation.” Clifford’s head wavered.

“Think of sex like a chart with hand-holding on the bottom and screwing someone on top.” I shifted, straightening up. “Clients lock in at different places based on their understanding of their bodies and social relationships. For Gary, masturbation is the high point, but unfortunately, it’s like foreplay that never ends. He should be able to do it to his satisfaction, to completion.”

“I get what you mean. It’s like he keeps trying.” Clifford paused. “Finishing up would be like him having sex for the first time.”

“Exactly.” My palm tapped the table. “It sucks that his mother’s his legal guardian. She treats him like he’s her little boy. He needs a human sexuality coach, or Planned Parenthood nurse.”

“You’re over the edge now, and good luck finding a new job.” Clifford snorted.

The Oscar Meyer jingle free-wheeled into the kitchen.

Clifford nodded towards the living-room.”I better get inside.”

Article by
Susan Dashiell

Susan Dashiell is a middle school teacher in Bloomfield, NJ who enjoys the quirks of adolescence.


Think of sex like a chart with hand-holding on the bottom and screwing someone on top. People lock in at different places based on their understanding of their bodies and social relationships.