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Emma's artwork

Exploring disability, sexuality, and identity with art

When you think of research, you may imagine lab coats, test tubes and computers.

But for Dr. Amy McPherson and Dr. Fiona Moola, scientists at the Bloorview Research Institute (BRI), the best kinds of discoveries happen outside the lab.

Dr. McPherson and Dr. Moola are using a unique combination of conversation and creativity to learn how young people with disabilities navigate their sexuality.

“People with disabilities are not often seen as sexual beings because their bodies may look different from the types of bodies that we associate with being sexually attractive,” says Dr. McPherson.

“And a lot of LGBTQ+ youth with disabilities feel marginalized and unseen in health care when there's the assumption that everyone is straight.”

Nineteen-year-old Emma, who uses she/they pronouns and who identifies as disabled* and queer, knows firsthand how important it is to challenge those assumptions.

“Youth need a safe, comfortable environment to talk openly and freely about differences and sexuality,” she says.

As part of an ongoing effort to confront this stigma around disability and sexuality, Holland Bloorview hosted the first-ever Connection Day, a virtual conference that brought clients, families, clinicians and researchers together to talk about navigating sexuality in healthcare settings.

“We had two aims: one was to identify research gaps and one was to create resources,” says Dr. McPherson. “What we have found is that there are some resources out there, they're just scattered. So, we’re planning an online hub for resources about disability and sexuality. We will also be potentially creating resources in areas where we see a lack of resources.”

To coincide with Connection Day, Dr. Moola, also planned an art exhibit, Illuminating, featuring work from young adult artists with disabilities.

“Young people with disabilities have not had access to the same resources as their peers when it comes to high-quality sexual health information. With this exhibit, we felt that the arts would be a useful tool to speak to experiences of youth with disabilities,” says Dr. Moola.

Like the Connection Day, the Illuminating art exhibit was initially intended to be held in-person, but is now available for viewing online. Dr. Moola and Dr. McPherson hope to host the exhibition at Holland Bloorview as soon as it is safe to do so.

Emma, who participated in a previous study about Sexuality in Youth with Disabilities Through Art, loves using visual effects to tell others about their experiences of disability and sexuality.

“I created a body map that represents myself, my disability, my sexuality, and the ties between those,” says Emma. “It’s symbolic because I told my story through different colours, shapes, and textures on my canvas. The piece displays that I am so much more than meets the eye.”

Similarly, while all of the artists behind the Illuminating exhibit were asked to consider the same questions about disability and sexuality, they each created eight unique pieces to authentically represent their own experiences.

“I feel grateful to these youth for their vulnerability in sharing their truth, and for the complex and provocative images they made,” says Dr. Moola.

And for Dr. McPherson, these diverse pieces highlight the importance of taking an intersectional approach to research at Holland Bloorview.

“Intersectionality recognises that the needs of some people are met more readily than others. People often have overlapping identities that put them at risk of exclusion, for example, identifying as having a disability and being part of the LGBTQ+ community. Exploring intersectionality further can help design future research and or healthcare.”

* At Holland Bloorview, we believe in supporting our clients, families, and alumni in regards to their preferred language; for example, whether they prefer people-first or identity-first language. In this instance, Emma uses disability-first language. 

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