Dating and relationships can be difficult regardless of who you are. It’s important that emotional needs, physical and sexual needs, and communication needs are met. But for those living with disability, significant mental health issues, neurodivergence, or chronic illness, there is another aspect of intimacy that needs to be considered as well: access intimacy.
Access intimacy, defined
The term access intimacy was coined by disability justice organizer Mia Mingus in 2011. She describes it as “that elusive, hard-to-describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.”
Rebecca Blanton (aka Auntie Vice) is a sex educator who lives with disabilities and mental health conditions. She tells O.school that access intimacy includes “making spaces physically accessible, increasing communication accessibility, and providing [accommodations] to make physical intimacy possible. It also means making a relationship or space emotionally accessible.”
Access intimacy can mean different things to different people
What access intimacy actually looks like is going to vary person to person based on what their access needs are. For someone who experiences executive function issues, for example, access intimacy may look like a partner sending Google Calendar invites for dates to help their neurodivergent partner better remember plans. For someone living with a lot of chronic pain, access intimacy may be incorporating massage with healing balms into foreplay so the disabled partner can more thoroughly enjoy sex. For someone with autism spectrum disorder, access intimacy might be choosing a date venue without a lot of noise or other stimuli.
Leon Harris, disability advocate and content creator has been living with a spinal cord injury for 15 years. He tells O.school that, for him, access intimacy is “knowing that even in my disability I can be myself, I can still have love, I can still be appreciated, and I can still be valued.”
For me personally, the first time I experienced access intimacy with a romantic partner was when a date prepared for me to have a chair at a venue that was predominantly standing-room only. While this may sound like a small thing, it made me feel incredibly seen and understood. I saw that my date was aware of my needs and saw them as important. I felt similarly seen and understood when that same partner got me a book about sex and disability, inscribed with a note saying they wanted to read it with me because it was important to them that they understand me and my specific sexual needs as a disabled person.
Why access intimacy matters when it comes to dating
Access intimacy while in dating, sexual, or otherwise romantic relationships is important for a variety of reasons, but predominantly because of that feeling of safety it provides for disabled individuals. On a daily basis, disabled people have to navigate a world that was not meant to accommodate them. This can be exhausting and frustrating. We face physical barriers in our daily lives, and oppressive and false beliefs about our disabilities and who we are as people. The last thing we want to do is to face these things in our intimate relationships as well. We want our romantic partnerships to be safe, supportive, and accommodating, just as any non-disabled person would want. Disabled people may just need a few more things in order to have that sort of partnership.
Blanton states that one major barrier disabled people face in dating is stigmas. “These can include beliefs such as people with mental illnesses cannot become a good partner in a relationship, that people who are quadriplegic don’t ever want or need sex, or similar biases,” she says.
Why it matters when it comes to sex
Sex can sometimes provide barriers as well without proper accommodations. However, there are ways a partner can show up and provide access intimacy in this area as well. Maybe the disabled individual needs extra pillows or wedges to get comfortable, for things to go slower and with more frequent check-ins due to trauma, or for a partner to avoid certain types of touch due to pain.
Due to my disabilities sometimes I have significant spasms during sex or after orgasm. These can be scary for my partners, as I often tremor and shake, sometimes even looking like I’m seizing. In the past, I’ve had partners who have recoiled, been aghast, or even refused to have sex with me because they didn’t like the way my body responded. However, when a partner can just hold me when I spasm or laugh and joke with me about it, I feel seen and understood. It is with those partners that I feel my access intimacy needs met.
How to employ access intimacy in your relationship
As Harris states, “The importance of access intimacy is knowing that all my needs should be met, and this is someone who gets that and is ok with that. Access intimacy can be the deciding factor in whether or not you want to make someone a romantic partner. Living with a disability can present a life of challenges, and having someone who gets it as well as fully supports it can make or break the success of the relationship.” If your partner is disabled, there are a few key things you can do to employ access intimacy in your relationship.
1. Educate yourself
Learn about your partner’s disabilities by reading books, listening to podcasts, or attending seminars. “People living with disabilities constantly have to educate and advocate for themselves,” says Blanton, “As a partner, if you take the time to learn about their disability independent of them teaching you, it shows love and commitment.”
2. Communicate with your partner
While communication is important in all partnerships, in relationships where one or both partners are disabled it is even more vital. Through communication, you can find out how you can each work to meet each other's needs, including access intimacy needs.
Harris agrees that “having a voice is very important, and making sure your voice is heard is also very important.” His wife Tierra Harris, who is not disabled, encourages communication as well. “[Access intimacy] can look like learning more about their disability and asking questions. It could look like asking what they need and what they prefer help with.” Communicate your needs to each other so you can show up for each other in the best ways possible.
3. Tailor dates or outings to your partner’s specific needs
It will go a long way if you consider and think about your partner’s needs prior to dates or outings. “Do some of the leg work,” suggests Blanton, “Call ahead to see if a space is accessible. Take the pressure off your partner to do all this for an outing.” We are used to, as disabled people, having to navigate all of these things and overcome any obstacles on our own. By doing something as simple as calling ahead and seeing if a play includes flashing lights, or looking up pictures of a restaurant online to ensure it has a ramp, it shows your partner that you care about all aspects of them.
The bottom line
Access intimacy will look different in every relationship. However it looks in yours, though, it is highly important. As Harris states, “[W]e don’t always feel heard, understood, and not made to feel a burden. When we find a romantic partner that ‘gets it’ we treasure it.