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Accessing sexual healthcare as a disabled woman: Lauren and Rebecca’s story

5 April 2024

Lauren and Rebecca are both young women who have muscular dystrophy and are full time wheelchair users. For World Health Day, they share their experiences of accessing reproductive and sexual healthcare, reflect on prejudices they’ve faced and what they feel needs to change.

Accessing reproductive and sexual healthcare as a disabled woman can present many challenges, such as physical barriers in medical appointments, stereotyping and a general lack of knowledge around physical disabilities.  

Rebecca faced physical obstacles when going for her first smear test 

I was called for my first smear test last year after I turned 24. Your first smear test can be quite nerve wracking anyway, but I also had to navigate how I would actually get onto the bed for the procedure. I can’t walk or weight bare at all, so I use a hoist for all my transfers. When I spoke to the GP about this, they told me they didn’t have a hoist at the surgery, and they didn’t offer an alternative solution.  

Luckily, my mum can lift me every now and then, so she came with me to the appointment. But being lifted hurts my back due to having spinal rods, and at 55 years old, it isn’t great for my mum to be carrying a fully grown woman either.

It also felt unfair that I needed to have someone come with me to such a personal appointment when able bodied people are able to have more privacy.

I’m relieved that this was an option for me, but the absence of a hoist would mean that having a smear test isn’t possible for some people with a muscle wasting condition.   

Prejudiced opinions from doctors can also be a common experience for many disabled women, as Lauren found 

I have experienced my fair share of outdated attitudes toward reproductive and sexual health simply because I’m disabled. When I was 23, I started taking a trial drug for my condition. Part of the questioning was to do with pregnancy and sexual health, which was something I had never encountered before in my life. It really put into perspective how many times I’d been to the GP in my adult life and prescribed medication where GP’s purposefully left out questions about sex and pregnancy.

Doctors also often assume my partner is my brother or cousin, which I’m sure wouldn’t be the case if I was able bodied.

Why this happens and what needs to change 

These kinds of assumptions are based on the incorrect stereotype that disabled women aren’t interested in sex or capable of having children. Concerns around sexual or reproductive health can be a difficult topic for any woman. Having incorrect stereotypes to deal with makes it even more difficult for disabled women to voice their concerns, opinions and preferences with medical professionals.  

Additionally, the lack of appropriate equipment can also put disabled women at risk of delayed cancer detection or leaving sexually transmitted diseases untreated. Special consideration may also be needed when prescribing certain contraceptives, such as oestrogen pills for women with limited mobility, as this puts them at higher risk of blood clots. 

Specific training and equipment are needed across the healthcare system about the reproductive and sexual health needs of disabled women to reduce stereotypes and improve care.

We should be entitled to the same standard of care and education as other women, and it’s essential that health care facilities have the right means in place to deliver their services to women living with disabilities. 

If you are struggling to access sexual and reproductive healthcare services, you can contact our helpline for advice. 

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