Sexuality and disability are topics we don’t often talk about. What is the sex life of someone in a wheelchair like? It depends on the injury and the person’s mindset. So, I’m really glad that Nio- a straight man living a sexual life with a spinal cord injury- agreed to this conversation. If you’d rather watch us chat, go to my Katch and YouTube channel (also at the end of this blog).
Me: Let’s start with telling us who you are, where you’re from, age, and where do you live?
Nio: Hi there. I live in Orlando Florida, I’m 37 years old and I suffered a spinal cord injury back when I was coming out of high school at the age of 17. I’m originally from Columbia, raised in New York. After I went to high school in New York, I moved down here to Florida. I surf and just started studying gold smithing. It’s something I wanted to look into so I just started doing it. I just kind of live my life, you know, live my life with a spinal cord injury.
Me: What do you do for a living?
Nio: I volunteer and also work for Project Walk Orlando. It’s a spinal cord injury recovery center in Longwood Florida. It’s an amazing rehabilitative facility. I’m an Ambassador for them as well. So I go around and teach people, educate them about disabilities and people with disabilities, and especially on the rehabilitative side. It’s amazing what we do there, amazing.
Me: Let’s go a little bit before the injury. It happened when you were 17? What was your sexual development before that?
Nio: Well in High School, I came into sexuality early and lost my virginity at 14. It was really early for me and I had a few other sexual experiences but it wasn’t much. During those years, you’re still kind of getting to know what’s going on. So I did have some experiences before my accident and I guess you could say they were regular experiences that we all go through, some failures and some successes.
Me: What happened after the injury? How did the injury affect things?
Nio: Everybody’s injury is unique and my body changes will be completely different for somebody else, even if we have a similar spinal cord injury. So, everything that I will say pretty much pertains just to me. Coming out of the injury, in the hospital bed after the shock and trauma, when I had a moment to think of everything, sexuality was definitely one of the things that came up. You know, there’s been so much taken away already, and you think “What can you get me back? What can you let me keep?” It does come to mind strangely because you’re kind of thinking about all these other, I don’t know if you call them more serious things, maybe more vital things to some other people, “Am I gonna walk, am I going to all these other things?” and sexuality does come up.
Me: Did doctors talk about that with you at all? Was that something that came up in conversations with the doctors?
Nio: My accident happened in 1993, and the rehabilitative community was still very young on the sexual aspect. They gave me a huge book on the whole rehabilitative process and what I should expect physically. But nothing much in there, maybe like 2 or 3 pages covered sex.
Nio: Yeah, and actually one of my doctors, the head doctor, she made a sex video. Well, I call it a sex video, but it was a medical video, and it was horrible. It was not the right representation of what I would have thought of sexuality, especially after disability. So they kind of touched upon it, but not really. It was kind of like being thrown in the fire and having to run really quick.
Me: Were you able to get an erection after the injury?
Nio: I was able to get an erection naturally. My injury was at T4*, right around chest level, where they call the nipple area (*Further info on Spinal Cord Injury Classifications). But I wasn’t able to maintain an erection, and back in 1993, we didn’t have Viagra. They had different methods of either giving you an erection, or helping you in sustaining an erection. Either with a vacuum pump or medicine, but you had to inject the medication. So your options were limited. In my case, I could get an erection through stimulation, but I couldn’t maintain it the whole time. So that was really hard on my mind. You know, it kind of plays with you for a little bit.
Me: Yeah. I bet. So how did things develop in terms of sexuality and dating?
Nio: Well, dating, I just kind of went right back into it. I just jumped back into everything that my life entailed. Not that everything was great that I did. The sexuality part took me a little bit to overcome, especially in the beginning because I didn’t know how my body would react. I didn’t know if and how I was going to be with this girl. I had all those worries, about the erection and all that. I guess I was lucky in that people were willing, they didn’t see me as any different. They were willing to be with me, date me, and kind of get into sessions. But after the accident, very briefly, I didn’t do anything more than what a high school kid would do because I was still worried about that. Then slowly, as I started meeting more people and they were more open, I realized that it doesn’t matter, that sex can be had in many different ways. I guess that’s when my mind started opening up to sexual exploration. Not toys yet. I didn’t think toys at that point but more, “What can I do with my fingers? What can I do with my mouth?” stuff like that. I was with one of my girlfriends, like I said this was right before Viagra, and those years were a little hard because you sit there thinking of all these new things to do, at the same time you’re still worried about that gosh darn erection. Then one day, Viagra came and that was I swear a godsend to me.
Nio: Yeah it was revolutionary and it was great. I mean come on, you got a young man who suffered an accident. One of the big parts of his life gets taken away for a very sexual person. To finally get this thing that helps you out, I know it’s more mental than it is physical, but to me it really helped me so much because I started to integrate both of those parts, the mental and the physical. I had learned before Viagra came out what to do with my fingers, what do with my other sensations, how to make myself feel good in my mind especially. When Viagra came out, it was like the visual put it together, like the brain synapses, they rerouted themselves and they just said, “Well, let’s go with these types of feelings connected to that when this or that is seen.” It became amazing and it was great.
Me: Does Viagra work well?
Nio: It does. It works really well. It has some side effects with it, but you weigh the options out. I get a clogged up nose, and sometimes I get a headache. But definitely worth it. There were two points in my sexual life when everything changed. The first point was the injury, the second point was Viagra. That was huge.
Me: How many years was it in between the injury and Viagra?
Nio: It had to be at least 5 years. Don’t get me wrong, those 5 years were great but when Viagra came out it was phenomenal. That was a highlight in my sexual life. The other thing that totally changed my sexual life for the better was when I started introducing toys into the bedroom. I use them as an extension of me. No pun intended. But when you have a spinal cord injury or a disability you need to be really creative and open to communication with your partner. Then you will see that the sexual world will really open up to you. There’s not just one single sexual way and we know that.
Me: Want to share some of the toys that you use and how you use them?
Nio: There are so many options out there. LELO is a great company, by the way. I found that company and I was like this is it. Now, I don’t work for LELO, but if LELO wants to throw something my way, that’s okay! There’s a product called the LELO ELLA*. It’s just like a regular insertion toy, where it has ends that you can work really well with the G-spot. The other end turns it around and you just could do a lot with it. That one’s my favorite because that one I felt was like the truest extension of myself. Things I’m not able to do per se because of my disability, maybe I might not to be able to get into a position or something, but when I incorporate that toy, I can. It’s phenomenal, that’s one of my favorite ones. [This product has been discontinued. Try one of the other LELO G-spot massagers, like the Mona Wave, or the Gigi 2. Use code DRZHANA for 20% off and free international shipping!]
Me: Yeah, with toys, you can do anything. What about your orgasms? You talk about pleasing your partners, what is the kind of pleasure that you get in your experience?
Nio: I was talking to a friend about this today also. People get so curious about sex after spinal cord injury, and orgasm is always a question. Once again, like I said, this all just pertains to me. Before the injury, I did have that male orgasm where you ejaculate, there’s that orgasmic sensation and that’s it. After the accident, I do not have that. Why? First, because I don’t have sensation and second I don’t ejaculate. I have ejaculate but it goes back into the urethra.
Me: Oh, I see.
Nio: It doesn’t come out. That’s something that may occur with people with a spinal cord injury. What happens is that you learn to really use your mind a lot. I guess in all those years I wasn’t using anything other than my mind, I’ve come to the point where orgasms are amazing, it’s like a full body thing, and it can happen multiple times. It’s crazy, I try to explain that to people but they don’t get it, they can’t put their finger on it, “What are you talking about?”. I’ve learned how to incorporate everything. Everything connects and when it all connects perfectly, in that perfect moment, boom! It’s amazing and it can happen over and over again, which is great. I think it has to do with what I can feel as far as sensation. Afterwards, I guess you could call it the come down part or you know the coming down part, it’s like everything’s heightened. If my partner maybe starts touching my arm again it feels amazing.
Me: Right, right.
Nio: It’s like I’m talking about natural ecstasy. Its strange it happened this way, I guess I always had an open mind after my injury because sex is such an important part of my life. I didn’t want that part missing so regardless of how it came I had to quench those urges. That’s something people don’t realize either. They’re very curious about how sexual you are especially with the disability. It’s like, we’re just like you. We are human beings. Same desires and everything. Just because we have disabilities doesn’t mean we don’t have those desires and those thoughts.
Me: Yeah, I mean people with disabilities are just like people without disabilities. Some have a lot of sexual desires, some have medium level of sexual desire, and some have no sexual desire. It runs the gamut. Just because you got an injury doesn’t mean that’s all of a sudden going to change, even though we don’t like to think about those kinds of things or that it’s kind of a taboo.
Nio: You paralyze an 8-ball; it’s still an 8-ball, just in a wheelchair.
Me: Exactly. So what’s your relationship status now? Are you married, do you have a family, do you have kids?
Nio: No, no, and no. Right now I’m very single. I am dating but it hasn’t gotten to that point where we’ve been with each other yet. At the talking part right now. So pretty much just single and dating, no kids, and haven’t been married. Everybody knows my whole history now!
Nio: For the people reading that do have some type of disability, I just wanted to say with your partners, it’s about communication. Working as an ambassador for Project Walk Orlando I obviously meet tons of new people with different levels of injury. I know a lot of them that have stayed with their partners and I know some that hasn’t gone easy with them. It comes down to communication, creativeness, and open about everything especially in the bedroom. Everything happens to me in the bedroom, trust me. As a spinal cord injury person you go through bladder problems and bowel problems. Check everything off, it’s happened. Compared to your injury, it’s minimal when those situations happen. But you prepare for it if you need to, you communicate, stay open with each other, and just love each other.
Me: There is another question, “When is it an appropriate time to ask someone if they have a disability?”
Nio: With me, I don’t really care. But it depends. Everybody is different. Don’t come up to me at a bar unless you’re hitting on me and I think you are cute. Don’t ask me questions about my disability if I am in a bar and start talking to me about, “My uncle also was in a wheel chair, he had a broken leg.” Sure I’ll listen to you for 5 minutes but let me have my fun. If you bring up sex, I’ll get into it because I don’t mind. Other people might be more sensitive about it, so it all depends. You have to read the person. When you decide to get into a sexual conversation with someone, you have to read someone in a wheelchair similar to someone without a visible disability.
Me: Disability is sometimes either desexualized, that if you have a disability you’re not a sexual person at all or they’re people who fetishize it and they’re into you because of your disability rather than you as more of a holistic person. What’s your feeling about people who fetishize disabilities? Have you had experience with that sort of thing?
Nio: I’m very lucky. You’re going to hear me say that a lot because my experiences have been pretty much on the positive side. I did have an experience with that, but to me it was good. It was with this girl I met online and she did have a sort of fetish, but it wasn’t like she was overtaken by it. She was more interested and curious by it and it became fetish-like for her without it being out of control. I know friends, especially girls in wheelchairs with disabilities have run into some crazy, I’m not going to say people, but crazy things that get said to them in regards to that fetish. It’s both sides. I was lucky to run into the good side, I guess.
Me: There’s also the fact that most people with very strong fetishes tend to be men. There is a 95 to 5 ratio of men to women in terms of having very intense fetishes. If your partners are female then you are less likely to run into that whereas the heterosexual women looking for male partners are the ones that have to deal with that.
Nio: Well in that case it makes a lot of sense to me.
Me: Are you in any pain?
Nio: Yes, I am and glad you brought that up. I’m in pain a lot just because of my injury. I have problems with my hips so my back is always in pain. The severity is always different, but when I orgasm after sex the dopamine goes crazy and it’s like the best pain medicine.
Nio: It really is. I haven’t done an actual scientific study on it but I did my own “scientific study.” It’s true, I feel great afterwards. As I said, I don’t ejaculate, but that has nothing to do with how great I feel. The chemicals in the brain overtake with those orgasmic sensations. When this happens, the pain kind of dissipates and it just feels good. My friend says, “You feel like a million bucks.” I hope pharmaceutical companies come out with whatever is happening in that moment and use that to treat pain.
Me: Yes, what are released in the brain are endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers. It’s like morphine during an orgasm.
Nio: Yep, from a physical aspect I still get that. What I’d like people to know is even with a physical disconnection there, that these things can still find a way to occur, especially in the human body with neuroplasticity.
Me: Absolutely. People on Periscope are asking if you went through a period of depression or social recluse? If so, how did you overcome it?
Nio: Yeah, especially after the injury. That’s when I tossed myself into the world. There were good aspects and there were some bad aspects. Where I thought I was partying and having good time, it was actually drinking to cope with it at that moment. I realized afterward, that was a little destructive time. It was tough afterwards trying to get used to life again and especially life where boundaries and walls were put up. I wanted to run through those walls each time I saw them. I’m the type of person that wants to keep going and it was tough adjusting to everything. Sexually I went through ups and downs. As people like to say, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Me: Did you go through therapy?
Nio: No, never, I gave myself therapy in the head. I mean you just have to learn from experiences, every minute of your life. We all try to do what’s best and it’s up to you to take the good path. I’m not talking religiously; I mean the good path that ends up for you to keep going. It was tough but I was lucky and had a good support group. I had good friends and family. The hard times are unavoidable, you go through your lows just like we all do. Things later on got better but you always hit your lows sometimes. I look at this way: I understand that I have my lows, I know why, and tomorrow will come.
Me: Do you date able-bodied people or people with disabilities?
Nio: All the above. I’ve been out and people are like, “Wait a minute, how does that happen?” It happens.
Me: How do you find people to date? Is it easy to do it offline or online?
Nio: I have found that women with spinal cord injury, some of them like to date a lot online, but what will occur is they don’t necessarily put it out there that they’re in a wheelchair. Obviously not all of them, but I do see it to happen. They won’t introduce it until they start talking to the person and they feel comfortable to. Others just kind of post it. I’m on the ship where I want a person to look at me and see the chair, see everything. Right off the bat, it’s a checkmark. They swipe yes or right past it.
Me: You’re on Tinder, aren’t you?
Nio: I’m not on Tinder but yeah you get what I mean? I use online platforms and socialize like everybody does. I consider myself ambivert, but my sisters say, “No way, you’re a total extrovert.” I have my days. Some I’m very social, especially when I go out, it’s easy to meet people and not that hard for me. I just do it because I’m a very social person, but within the community I do see that online helps. Like you said before, the girls have to always worry about who’s got a fetish. They always worry about that, but they’re good at weeding them out. So it’s just like everyone else, online and offline.
Me: What do you want people who don’t have spinal cord injuries to know, to understand?
Nio: I can have kids.
Me: You can.
Nio: Yeah. I would have to get some medical procedures done to have that happen but it can still occur. It is something that I want in my life but just not right now.
Me: Well you’ve got some time still. No rush.
Nio: There are people out there who are willing to just learn, explore, and ask questions when they run into someone with a disability. I guess those people are kind of like the ones, I mean obviously don’t be absurdly open with somebody; you just have to feel it out. Ask what would be comfortable to us and what we would like. Just like in a regular able-bodied sexual relationship. Circumstances are going to be different, but the sexualness is still there. Why wouldn’t you want to be a partner, especially if you connect emotionally? If the emotions are lustful or emotional, those emotions connect you with that person. Why wouldn’t you want to attempt to making them happy and being open regardless of whatever it is? As long you both agree with it, do whatever you may need to do for them. You might need to incorporate pillows and prop things up for somebody or you can incorporate toys if you want. It’s the same thing with us, please don’t forget, our mind hasn’t gotten hurt. When you get into a mental injury in some instances it may affect the sexual-ness. It’s a package.
Me: Yes, different disabilities have obviously very different experiences with everything.
Nio: Just communicate and remember that it’s the physical part that got hurt. The mental part is huge in sexuality. You can still just be there, do things, grow, and just evolve sexually. However, you’re not going to do that if you don’t communicate.
Me: Disability or no disability, we’re all sort of disabled when it comes to sexual communication.
Nio: Just communicate and feel free to ask questions. If they don’t want to answer anything they’re not going to answer anything you know. I would love feedback and anybody with a disability that just wants to reach out to give a shout out would be great. I like to say, even though it’s cheesy and I didn’t come up with it, but that we’re the new face of disability. The things that I have seen my brothers and sisters do, it’s just amazing. More than ever, I guess we are more incorporated in this era than we were before. It’s empowering us.
Me: What would be your message to people experiencing this injury or something similar and thinking that sex is not ever going to be an option?
Nio: Kind of like what would my future self tell my present self?
Me: Yeah, exactly.
Nio: Just be open-minded. Be willing to talk. If the partner that you’re with is not able to do it for whatever reason, because that happens a lot, it will dissolve. I think it’s a strange thing. In certain partnerships because of the disability sometimes the partners can never handle it so they end up breaking up and the relation goes south. If that happens just remember that it happens to everybody. You’re always going to find somebody, regardless of what your disability is that thinks you are sexy and into you. It’s out there. We are so abundant on this planet and all our situations are so different, you’re eventually going to meet somebody that you are going to click with. So just keep going forward. And know it’s hard for everybody. It’s a little harder for us, but isn’t everything a little harder for us? You know with any type of disability, mentally, or physically it is hard. Just keep going and it’s the same on every aspect of your life. We’re all imperfect in some way.
Me: What do you do for fun? You mentioned surfing earlier right?
Nio: I surf, I coach, and I play for a wheelchair rugby (also known as murderball) team. I was an athlete before the accident and I’m still an athlete. I also skydive and I love to cook.
Me: You totally are a keeper, seriously.
Nio: I’m going to have proposals coming out on my Twitter! I like to go out, I love to socialize, I love being an uncle, and it’s just the basic things that we all do to have fun. I’m a little crazy at times, but that just goes with the territory. You’re allowed to be.
Me: Thank you so much for this. Thank you to everyone who watched this interview on Periscope, for all of the comments and questions, and reading. Please share with other people who need a positive, inspiring, and refreshing perspective.