As a student physical therapist, my future career is primarily to serve individuals with short-term or long-term physical disability. Working with individuals of various forms of physical disability such as those with cerebral palsy, to stroke survivors, to amputees, I have become more aware and appreciative of buildings and spaces that are physically accessible with ramps, elevators, and ADA bathrooms. However, despite my acute awareness of physical accessibility for individuals with disability, accessibility to sexual and reproductive health for this population was not something that crossed my mind until I stumbled on the anecdote by Stella Chiwaka.
Chiwaka, born with albinism, was denied contraceptives at a local health center in Malawi and was told by a health provider that “People like you should not have sex”. As a future health provider, I found this discriminatory act appalling. People with disabilities, just as those without disabilities, have the right to make their own choices–including choices regarding their sexuality and sexual health. To deny that right is not only a disservice to your patient but also a denial of their human rights.
In the UNFPA summary brief “Young Persons With Disabilities: Global Study On Ending Gender-based Violence, And Realising Sexual And Reproductive Health And Rights”, I discovered more statistics that show unfortunately Stella Chikawa’s case in not uncommon. Young persons with disabilities have little knowledge about their sexual and reproductive health rights and have limited access to such services. Because of limited education and knowledge on services, young persons with disabilities report low levels of contraception or condom use and are also tested for HIV less frequently than their similar aged counterparts. Additionally, young persons with disabilities are three times as likely to experience sexual violence compared to young persons without disabilities.
As a future health professional, I will encounter younger and older persons with disability on a weekly basis. Becoming aware of the inaccessibility to sexual and reproductive health services for this population is an important part of my care. A physical therapist does not just treat the body’s impairment; we treat the whole person. Awareness about this inaccessibility helps me understand more about the role sexual health plays globally, but also helps me provide better care to my patients locally.