The Halifax chapter of the Tetra Society of North America, which helps create assistive devices for people with disabilities, is working with Venus Envy in Halifax to on a project in which people with disabilities will help create prototypes for sex toys.
Andrew Jantzen, Atlantic region coordinator with Tetra, and April Hubbard, a volunteer with Tetra, are part of the project’s organizing committee. Hubbard and Jantzen are also partners and both have disabilities. Jantzen learned about Tetra’s work after they created a custom workspace.
Jantzen says he’s been talking with several people about this topic since he started with Tetra just over a year ago. He says while there hasn’t been a formal request for such devices, people will often have these chats about this topic some still see as taboo.
“This is essential,” Jantzen says. “It’s part of the human experience and a human right. For people with disabilities, having access to this is just as important as a key holder to get into your door or a bar in your bathroom. It’s just another assistive way of being able to access things everyone should have access to.”
Hubbard volunteered to help organize the project because she has an interest in disability and sexuality.
“As a woman with a disability and someone who became disabled at the age of 16, I never had access to any sex education or conversations,” Hubbard says. “With a lot of my partners, we just had to figure things out on our own. We really saw this need for having these conversations and having access to these types of aids out there.”
Those interested in taking part must be at least 18 years of age, live in Halifax, and be comfortable talking about sexuality and sex practices in one-on-one and group interviews. The committee says it’s prioritizing the voices of people from intersecting communities, including Black, Indigenous and people of colour, 2SLGBTQIA+, those living in long-term care, and those holding marginalized religious and cultural identities.
Those people taking part will have to participate in three to five interviews and will test out prototypes, providing feedback to the designers.
This project was inspired by the That’s Handi project, which was founded by Drew Gurzan and Heather Morrison. That project has people with disabilities consult with occupational therapists, product engineers and industrial designers on the development of sex toys for people with hand limitations.
This project will work in much the same way. The committee is looking for about five or six participants to sit down to have conversations to learn what the needs are. Based on those conversations, they’ll find another group of volunteers, including designers, 3-D printing, engineers, to help create prototypes based on what they heard in the conversations.
“We really want what is being put together and prototyped to work for people,” Jantzen says. “The experience is going to be very different for people and that can look like so many things. But to give opportunities to build a prototype, to give feedback, to work on it again, and see if we can meet that need a bit better is a big part of it.”
Besides those products sold by That’s Handi and those currently on the market that can be adapted for people with disabilities, Jantzen says there aren’t many options. And if people can find them, they’re often very expensive.
“I had a conversation with someone about toys for folks with disabilities and one of them was $1,000 that they had to get shipped from another part of the world,” Jantzen says. “That’s not really accessible to people.”
Rachele Manett is on the organizing committee for the project, but this is a topic she’s been researching for a while. They’re (Mannett asks that we use both pronouns) the education coordinator at Venus Envy and their work on their masters included researching disability and sexuality. She also lives with a disability and chronic pain. At Venus Envy, Manett says clients with disabilities often are looking for specific adaptive products and asking questions.
“A lot of sex toys and types of equipment like that are made with very specific bodies in mind,” Manett says. “And only recently have we started to see the sex toys with specific focuses. They’ve been really focused on penetrative sex. In the last five years, we’re finally seeing toys focused on other body parts. It’s sort of time for us to be able to look at these toys and say, ‘How can we take them a step further?’ How can we make them work for even more bodies and more people?”
Manett says what they hope to learn is not just what people need in sex toys, but what have they already tried.
“People with disabilities are really good at that creative practice and making things work for us because we don’t have a choice,” Manett says.
Hubbard says she thinks the able-bodied community can learn from people with disabilities because they can be great communicators, especially when it comes to sexuality.
“We know our bodies well and what works,” Hubbard says. “When you can’t use your hands or you can’t move in the same way, you have to become really good at communicating with your partner or someone who’s helping you exactly what you want and need. I’m excited for the able-bodied community to learn from us in the disability community what great communication can do for pleasure.”
The first interviews will happen in the next three to four weeks and then work will start on designing the prototypes.
While the project aims to create practical products, there’s a bigger lesson about understanding human sexuality.
“I want everybody to being more open to having these conversations,” Hubbard says. “I think once we start having them, we’ll find more similarities than differences in our approach.”
“I’m really excited for the larger community to see that this project exists for a reason,” Manett says. “We’re not out here asking if people with disabilities are sexual. We know people with disabilities are sexual. People are sexual. The bigger picture piece is instead of avoiding that subject or pretending it doesn’t exist, actually saying people with disabilities are having sex and that’s just a fact of life. Sex toys and the way we understand sexuality is not meant for most people. It’s meant for a very specific kind of person. Very heteronormative, a cis normative, and very colonial and ableist in the way we look at sexuality. I love the idea of that we recognize this version of sexuality is important and deserves to be focused on and needs to be focused on.”
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