Merlene Davis: Confronting the sexuality of the disabled might lead to understanding

Recognizing that adults with intellectual or cognitive disabilities are also sexual beings is about as uncomfortable for many of us as imagining our parents being intimate.

Our discomfort, however, does not change the facts.

That is why Bruce Burris wants to give the disabled, their caregivers, guardians, and professionals an opportunity to discuss openly what has often been cloaked in secrecy.

"Most of us agree that sexuality is an important part of being a human being," said Burris, of Latitude Artists Community, which helps people with disabilities realize their artistic gifts.

But, "sexuality, in general, is something that does not often have a place in the life of a person with a disability," he said. "It is a very easy thing to feel uncomfortable with the topic. We want to put it off. I've done it myself."

Burris said he was inspired to open the discussion after reading about two intellectually disabled gay men in Hazard who were expelled from a public pool in June 2011 by a city employee because of their public display of affection. They both were in the care of Mending Hearts Inc., a program that provides services and support for those with developmental disabilities.

Burris joined forces with Progress LEX, the Nursing Home Ombudsmen Agency of the Bluegrass, and the Human Development Institute at the University of Kentucky to host the "Undressing Normal, An (Un)conference on Sexuality for Those of Us DisLabled," on Feb. 10 in Lexington.

The goal is to have those attending determine what topics are discussed, he said. The larger group will break into smaller groups and participants will be the discussion leaders. The concept of the participant-driven gathering or (un)conference has been used by Progress Lex before, he said.

Bev Harp, who is autistic, said there are people in group homes or under guardianship who are not allowed to be sexual beings. She'd like to talk about that.

"Our goal is to get the key stakeholders together, working with people who have power alongside of those who don't have power, to have a conversation about the barriers to people being free to live their lives," she said.

The (un)conference doesn't want to attack guardianships, which are needed, or the laws meant to protect the disabled, she said. Many times agencies simply want to avoid problems of liability and to protect their charges from predators. But that may lead to lumping the disabled together.

Jeff Bradford of the Human Development Institute said the conference is controversial and the format is quite different. "We don't know where people are or what they want to talk about," he said. "So we thought we might as well go at it from this angle."

The hosts are not trying to figure out ways for people to have sex, Bradford said. "That's not what this is about. They are already having sex.

"But people with disabilities are often cast in a forever-child model," he said. "We have to figure out a way to educate people so they can make good choices."

The conference is open to a maximum of 100 people from a variety of sexual orientations and disabilities. Will it change things?

"I don't really think so," Burris said. "But I do think this is a bold first step. We are putting ourselves far in advance of other states that don't broach the subject. It shows commitment and courage, and it is the right thing to do."

Harp agreed.

"We want to open the door, get the conversation started, advance it, and see where we can go with this," she said.

By discussing the issues, we just might understand one another a little better.