Credit: Photo by Loren Worthington/@AzRollingPhotog

Those of us who have adapted to a wheel-based life due to injury, illness, or other circumstances are overwhelmingly peddled the narrative that when it comes to sex and relationships our experience is somehow going to be “less than.” In movies, TV shows, magazines, books and pornography we are shown what sex and relationships are “supposed” to look like: normative bodies strolling hand-in-hand down an inaccessible hiking path with the sun shining through the trees. It’s flawless skin brushing up against rock hard abs with meticulously groomed eyebrows and genitals, and no hemorrhoidal skin tags. Phooey.

Occasionally, we get limited snapshots of what the experience as a wheeler is “supposed” to look like. The problem is, these narratives are usually written by people who don’t write from experience, but rather from conjecture. The stories are often stereotypical and limited, and rarely venture into the realities of intimate spaces. Where is the hot sex scene with the couple on a bed pad and a Hoyer lift hanging over their heads? If we never see it, then we don’t think it’s possible. But it is.

If you are a wheeling person who wants sex, or wants a relationship, it’s available to you. It might look different, but it’s there. Experiencing paralysis or using a wheelchair doesn’t diminish who we are as intimate or sexual humans. In fact, if we allow it, sex and relationships after a physical transformation can be “more than.” It can mean increased exploration, adaptation, and vulnerability. We have the potential to achieve deep and expansive intimacy in ways some non-paralyzed, non-wheeling folks will never experience.

Gina and Nick

“Instantly we had an attraction.”

For Gina, a 32-year-old C5-6 complete quad who lives near Phoenix, Arizona, being in a chair hasn’t resulted in any compromise or sacrifice of satisfaction. “So many people say ‘I can’t date because of my chair.’ It’s not the chair, it’s your attitude. Either you’re doing it wrong, or you haven’t found the right person.” She laments that “we have really desexualized people with disabilities — there’s a stigma to it.”

Nick-GinaGina was injured in a diving accident 14 years ago at age 18. She had been sexually active before her injury, and always had a strong sex drive. Following her injury, she was married for five years before divorcing. “We were just different people,” she says.

Following the divorce, “I was a slut!” she says, laughing. “I would do a one night stand and do my thing.” She joined Tinder, and was always entirely transparent about using a wheelchair. “I didn’t lead with my chair, and I’ve never had a problem [getting a date]. But then I was on Tinder looking for another hookup, and he stopped me in my tracks.”

“He” was 28-year-old Nick, her current boyfriend of two years. “First of all, he had a job!” she jokes. “And he was so funny in his profile and could communicate well.”

The feeling was mutual,” says Nick. “I was attracted to Gina the moment I laid eyes on her picture of her enjoying a cigar and scotch. To be honest I didn’t even realize she was in a chair even though it was in the picture.”

It took about two weeks for them to meet. “Instantly we had an attraction,” she says. Since he had never dated anyone in a chair, she found a creative way  to start addressing questions. “I wrote him an erotic story and I outlined details like lifting me up, getting me undressed. He would write back and he could ask questions, and sometimes I would think, ‘I gotta address this.’ I recommend people writing — it’s so sexy. You’re reading a story and it’s hot.”

They were well-matched, with similar upbringings, a lack of nervousness or embarrassment with intimacy and senses of humor. “He’s hysterical, he’s got his shit together. He puts up with my shenanigans and puts up with me when I get drunk!” She laughs.

Gina’s straightforward approach appealed to Nick. “That was just the type of personality I was attracted to, the no nonsense lover of life,” he says. “I told her from day one that her chair and disability were irrelevant to me, I was attracted to her for her.”

His family immediately built ramps at their house and were intentional about including her, and they found mutual shared hobbies like cooking and playing Magic: The Gathering. “I’m a closet nerd,” Gina says.

The chemistry was just as palpable in the bedroom. “We have sex three to five times a week,” she says. It’s not the same as before her injury. “Before my injury, I would masturbate once or twice a day. And was the sensation better? Yes. Now it’s nowhere near the same sensation, and it’s not as easy.”

But she does still have sensation and sensitivity, and sex is infinitely more fulfilling than pre-injury. “Sex with someone with a disability is so much more intimate because your partner has trust in you — you have more of an emotional connection.”

“I told her from day one that her chair and disability were irrelevant to me, I was attracted to her for her.”

“I told her from day one that her chair and disability were irrelevant to me, I was attracted to her for her.”

There are important considerations, like counting on your partner to communicate openly, and for the ladies, using lubrication. “You need a partner who knows your body. For me, the sex is still ‘normal’, I just can’t stand up.” She enjoys a partner who has the physical ability to move her around. “We get creative. He’s so strong, and he can throw me around. I love being on top of him, and he can offer me support.” She also likes massage, “but that’s because I’m selfish!” she jokes.

As for positions, “I’m a lazy pillow queen — give me missionary, it’s so easy and it’s my favorite!” She also emphasizes the importance of foreplay. “We’ll watch porn, or I send him a naughty pic.”

When it comes to advice for others, she says people need to be open to things like toys. “Vibration can give you a different response,” she says. And for her, keeping caregiving separate from sex is a must. “He might help me get into bed, and if I need to cath [with a Mitrofanoff] he helps me with that. But morning routine? Hell no. My ex helped me every once in a while, and it screwed things up — it takes the sexy away, it takes away the mystique.”

Bedroom activities only add to their overall relationship, which Gina says isn’t in a rush. “He’s a good guy, he makes sure I’m OK,” she says. “Neither of us had a need to get married. But he’s everything.”

“Yeah, mornings take a little longer to get ready and yes, we put a lot more thought into arranging our travels,” says Nick, “but at the end of the day, I can’t imagine my life without her.”

Taylor And HannaTaylor and Hanna

“He was loud … you could hear him coming around the corner.”

Before Taylor became a C6 incomplete quad in a motorcycle accident, the 23-year-old Lincoln, Nebraska, resident admitted it was a bit of a “revolving door” when it came to the ladies, sometimes with a different girl every weekend. That didn’t end after his accident. “It was never a struggle,” Taylor says about his ability to connect with women from a chair. “I was realistic, and to be blunt, I could be an asshole. I just thought, GET OVER IT.”

Girls came to rehab and things would happen. During bed baths from female techs in rehab, he’d get reflex erections. And at first it was all reflex, as he had complete paralysis from the waist down. After two months, he could get some stimulation from touch, and then achieve arousal from thoughts. But it could be frustrating. He even got a prescription for a super-powered vibrator, but for the first year and a half it didn’t improve function.

“I had to put in way too much time,” Taylor says of masturbation. Within one year, he was able to achieve orgasm four times. “It was frustrating, but then I knew it could happen, and then I was more determined.” He took a use-it-or-lose-it approach. The more he did it, the more successful he was.

Enter Hanna. She was working as a tech at the rehab hospital, and was a coworker of Taylor’s friend. He was younger by five years, and she had sworn she wouldn’t date the young ones. Hanna was also more of a relationship gal — she didn’t practice Taylor’s same “revolving door” approach. But she was looking for heart and personality, traits she found in Taylor.

Taylor And Hanna“I got questions like, ‘Is this what you really want?’” says Hanna. “And I thought, ‘I don’t know.’” Hanna was just getting out of a relationship, and had a young daughter. But Taylor was open to her situation, and she was open to his. She got it — he didn’t have to put his quad cards on the table. Simultaneously, he fulfilled her emotional needs. “We’re the same,” says Hanna, “We’ve just had some different shit happen.”

They continued to develop communication about everything from kids to relationship roles. Hanna “wears the pants” with bills and household duties, but Taylor plays an active role, both supporting the family with his job staffing for hospitals, and playing second dad to her daughter. “It’s just Dad-in-a-chair,” says Hanna. “Parenting happened naturally, and Taylor was careful not to step on toes.”

A focus on openness from both of them made some of their circumstances easier. “We have no problem telling each other when we’ve crossed the line,” says Hanna. She’s careful of her propensity to put on her therapist hat with Taylor. “She’s like my mom sometimes,” jokes Taylor. “I have to remember I’m a wife first,” says Hanna. On the flip side, Hanna can get overwhelmed by Taylor’s lack of a filter. “He’s an open book, and a people pleaser. Sometimes I’m like, reel it in a bit!” she jokes.

But she appreciates how his openness puts her at ease. Taylor feels compelled to be open so he can help people learn and break down walls. And together with Hanna, they maintain a focus on trying things and not being embarrassed, which includes in the bedroom. “There are lots of firsts in this relationship,” says Taylor.

“He can go for hours … it’s exhausting,” says Hanna. “And when it comes to the bedroom, quadriplegic my ass. He’s the aggressor!”

They joke that some of the time, their sex is pretty “boring.” Although, that wasn’t the case when Taylor first orgasmed with Hanna during sex. “We were trying different positions as part of a consult on fertility. Normally we could have sex for two hours with no orgasm. But that time, it was like 10 minutes. His eyeballs were as big as saucers!”

They agree that there’s a healthy, comical side to their relationship, in and out of the bedroom. And this helps their ability to work through some of the more stressful circumstances, like living with his parents and sister in his parents’ accessible house. “Our room is our escape,” says Taylor. “We hope to have our own place in the next six months.”

As they await the arrival of their second child, Taylor and Hanna have struck a good balance, with communication, authenticity, and family at the root of their relationship. “The longer you’re with someone, you learn which things you have to communicate about more gently,” says Hanna. “I enjoy watching his dreams come to a reality.”

Like humor, independence is important to their relationship. “We take care of ourselves, and work for what we want to have,” says Taylor.

JESSIKA AND REYJessika and Rey

“It’s always a workout.”

It sounds like the good premise for a joke: two wheelchair users roll into a bar. Or, two wheelchair users go to Barcelona. Or, two wheelchair users fall in love, do marathons, become scuba divers, and have great sex at Disney World. But it’s not a joke … it’s Jessika and Rey.

“He thinks we first met at a support group when I had red hair, but I didn’t have red hair back then … so whoever he was hitting on, it wasn’t me,” says Jessika, a 31-year-old T2 incomplete para from surgery for a spinal tumor. Following her injury, she met Rey, a peer mentor. He had been a firefighter and EMT before a hit-and-run motorcycle accident rendered him a T6-7 incomplete para eight years ago. “At first, I didn’t like him, because he pushed me to work hard. He would tell me to get on the floor and then get back up,” says Jessika.

“I didn’t expect her to actually do it, but she did,” says Rey. He realized he was crushing on this special woman. They had mutual friends in the SCI community, and before long realized they had similar interests in being active, doing everything from 10k races to handcycling and traveling. “I loved to travel, but Rey had never been anywhere. I think he caught the travel bug from me — we just got back from Barcelona!” says Jessika.

Before meeting, Jessika hadn’t really considered dating. “It just wasn’t on my radar,” she says, because she was focusing on rehabbing and adapting to life in a chair. Having been a chair user longer than Jessika, Rey had experienced the dating world, but found it difficult. “It was very hard dating in a chair,” Rey said. “Often the other person wasn’t open-minded, or her parents wouldn’t see me as part of her future — I didn’t feel accepted.”

Their connection was immediate. Rey was active, having played wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, rugby and tennis. He even introduced Jessika to iFLY indoor skydiving. “He’s my best friend, and he taught me everything about being a wheelchair user,” says Jessika. Their bond has grown strong over three years, staying active and sharing their passion for helping others.

And occasionally, even helping each other on a level that most couples could never dream of, including cleaning up after a bladder accident, or Rey helping with a bowel program when Jessika was sick. “I don’t mind, I’m curious about the human body,” says Rey. “I was a firefighter and paramedic. Even if she’s dealing with bad diarrhea, I don’t care … I want her to be safe and feel better.”

“I fell in love with someone who understands what I go through on a daily basis,” says Jessika.

This kind of openness and vulnerability with each other has helped them grow closer in every way, including sexually. And their sex life is, at the least, incredibly robust. “Before our injuries, things like farting during sex would have been mortifying. Now, we realize we can’t control that aspect, and we’re very open with each other,” says Rey.

“Haha, we’ve had lots of moments of disaster,” says Jessica, including one time when she thought she had farted. “I said, ‘What hole did that come from?’  And Rey said, ‘Mine!’” she says, laughing.

PushLiving Photos

PushLiving Photos

Their own curiosity and willingness to try things has helped them become more educated themselves. For Jessika, sex helps with spasms. Even though she doesn’t feel anything vaginally, her clitoral experience is heightened. It took a bit of trying, but after about a year of being together, Jessika eventually orgasmed from cunnilingus, which helped her feel like the arousal experience wasn’t all focused on Rey.

Rey can get aroused from stimulation, but like Taylor, he found that it took a while and he would get frustrated. After visiting the Miami Project and trying an e-stim probe, it became easier.

As a couple they explore different positioning, and with two paraplegics, “It’s always a workout!” Having Jessika on top with Rey helping to move her hips has been successful, as has having Jessika on top of Rey while he’s in his chair. “He pulls up to the edge of the bed, and I just slide across. But, we have to be careful with my legs, because one time I ended up with bruises all over them from his wheels!” says Jessika.

Cialis has also been helpful for Rey in maintaining an erection, although they joke about how the timing is important. “Sometimes it kicks in at the wrong moment,” says Rey. “Sometimes it doesn’t kick in until the next day when we’re out rolling around, and I have to be like, ‘Babe, help me cover up!’” They laugh. The Cialis also doesn’t do well with an empty stomach or with alcohol. “I drink the alcohol and he takes Cialis, and it’s a great night!” says Jessika.

While Jessika and Rey have found the physical experience to be robust and satisfying, they emphasize that the mental component helps a lot. Rey will give Jessika a massage before they get physical, or he’ll tell her the things he wants to do to her. “Although, once he just repeated what I said — it’s still a work in progress,” Jessika jokes.

Which is their ultimate conclusion about their relationship. “It’s work, you have to rediscover your body, and play around,” they say. “You get to know each other’s bodies incredibly well. But, the work is definitely worth it.”

Don and Gail TucsonDon and Gail

“We’re two quads,but together we make a para.”

The joy of a relationship isn’t only expressed through adventurous sexcapades. Gail, a C5 incomplete quad 44 years post-injury, and Don, C7, 37 years out from injury, find their happiness on cross-country trips together in their twin Mini Coopers. “Mine is pepper white with a black roof, and his is bright red with racing stripes,” says Gail, who lives in Arizona with her husband of 27 years.

The couple has built a partnership that reflects the kind of love that can only be formed and re-formed over years of adaptation, patience, humor, trust, and respect. “You gotta be able to stand each other,” they joke.

Initially they didn’t see each other as romantic material. “I thought of Gail as a teammate,” says Don, who first met her when they were on a quad rugby team together. “She was pretty cool, because with her injury level she could reach over, pick up the ball with both hands, and sit up.”

At a state championship game, they chatted at breakfast one morning and discovered a lot in common. They had both been dating non-chair users, and expected to end up with a non-paralyzed person. They both worked in IT and software. They had similar morals, humor and intelligence. They both wanted to achieve great things and had similar challenges. Before long, they had become best friends and more. “I wanted to be able to love someone, and have them love me back,” says Don, the self-dubbed “sensitive” one.

Over the years it hasn’t been easy, but they’ve adapted. Both were laid off at the same time, and they used the opportunity to relocate and build a fully accessible retirement home. Both have had shoulder surgeries. Gail faced cancer. Don broke both legs, and struggled with challenges of OCD.

Through it all, they found ways to support each other and never hold each other back. “He’s always there for me, I’m always there for him. You suck it up and take care of your partner … we would do anything for each other. Well, unless sports is on,” Gail jokes.

“You have to be willing to acknowledge things in yourself, and put them on the table, and dissect them,” says Don. “I would take a bullet for this woman.”

Their intimacy has never been superficial. “We are sensual, but it’s more of an intellectual sensuality. We have romance, we bring flowers, do things unexpectedly, we hold each other. We are physically, emotionally and mentally close.”

Being a strong foundation for each other and not dwelling on the drama has allowed them to achieve great things. “When I was younger I was still focused on me,” says Don.

“Yeah, younger people are,” chimes Gail.

Getting past the inexperience and naiveté of youth brought a life full of accomplishments, including racing cars, scuba diving, and flying. Nowadays, their lives resemble something of a comfy holiday rom-com. Don spends time in his garage man-cave, and Gail enjoys gardening, knitting, and getting together with friends. Mostly, they keep going. As quads, they aren’t dependent on a lot of other people for physical or emotional help. They work together, even though they are yin and yang in some ways.

While Don doesn’t think of himself as being disabled, Gail admits that her injury will always stay with her. “I will always grieve that loss. And sometimes the grief really hits, like momentary passing sadness,” says Gail.

“It hurts me,” says Don. “I want to help, but I just have to give her space and let her work through it.”

So what’s their secret? “We have a deep personal relationship. Anyone can have that, but you have to acknowledge a few things first, and then embrace that and move forward,” says Don. “Knowing what’s important, and then moving on. If one or the other can’t entirely let something go, you can still work through it.”

And the little things. “We’re always touching,” says Don. “Not a day goes by without us saying we love each other, and saying good morning, and good night.”

Nothing Less

Four couples with four very different experiences. But all four are creating their own versions of relationship, sexuality, and intimacy that are robust, adventurous, and deeply connected. No matter who you are or how your body functions, sex, love, and relationships are a wide frontier waiting to be explored.

Can it be challenging, especially when you’re facing the flesh-and-blood embodiment of survivorship after some of our most intense traumas and griefs?  Yes.

But the first step is knowing that your love life post-injury can be extraordinary. As Gina emphasizes, “I’ve had much more intense sexual experiences after being disabled than before.”

Our traumatic experiences are assets that make us more genuine, complex, and lovable humans. They teach us to adapt, to grow, to be open and vulnerable.


• Jessika Kattah’s blog,
• Don Lively’s new novel, “The Social Event,”
• Gina’s Facebook, GinaIsOnARoll, and check out her writing with