The Importance of Creating a Safe Space for Your LGBTQ Disabled Clients

by Janani Vaidya, MS, BCBA

There has been a marginal increase in the interest in the topics of sex and sexuality education to individual with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities. Even after the American Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, there is still ongoing work to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities—including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people who have disabilities. Usually, sex and sexuality education focus on sexual health and hygiene, discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviors, reproduction, and reporting instances of sexual abuse (Travers & Tincani, 2010).

There exists very little of the literature under the framework of behavior analysis focuses on non-cis, non-heterosexual, and/or non-heteroromantic orientations. That is, the research and applications of sex and sexuality behavior skills training are cisnormative and heteronormative. Often times, organizations fail to take intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) into consideration and overlook the likelihood that some of their clients with disabilities may also not be cishet. In the United States alone, about 56.7 million people have a disability (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), and about 9 million adults identify as LGBTQ (Gates, 2011). It is highly likely that there is an overlap between these two communities, and the people that fall in that intersection are at a potentially greater risk as a result of these marginalizations.
According to the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts put forth by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, practitioners should not engage in discriminatory behaviors towards their clients (BACB 1.05 d), and must obtain training or consultation when there is a significant difference in gender and sexual orientation that could affect their work with a particular individual or group (BACB, 1.05 c). Therefore, it is the ethical responsibility of behavior analysts to ensure that they provide competent services to LGBTQIAP clients with disabilities.

Barriers faced by LGBTQIAP people with disabilities:
 The lack of a safe space in their home or work environments.
 Inability to tact sexual or romantic attraction, or lack thereof.
 Lack of awareness of sexual or romantic identification.
 A learning history of cissexism, heteronormativity, and heterosexism.
 Inability to consent to sexual and/or romantic activity because they are not their own guardians.
 Legal guardians who do not consent to clients having access to information about sexuality and gender, or engaging in non-cishet sexual behavior.
 Lack of knowledge or ability to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.
 Learning history of any verbal behavior concerning sexuality, gender, and/or romanticism being punished.

What Can You Do To Make Your Organizational Environment More LGBTQIAP Friendly?
 Include an option for “Other” or a blank space for gender on intake forms and other official paperwork.
 Train staff to model introducing themselves with their pronouns (“Hi, my name is _________ and my pronouns are _______________”) and make it practice to ask clients about what they pronouns are.
 Actively hiring LGBTQIAP people to work in the organization.
 Provide workshops or trainings to give staff an overview on gender, sexuality, and romanticism, in order to develop an understanding of intersectionality.
 Providing clients with information and training on gender and sexuality, as needed and with their consent.
 Provide safe space training to staff members, and ensure that these individuals are easily recognizable to clients (putting a sign outside their office door, for example).
 Provide gender-neutral restrooms.
 Training staff to recognize their implicit biases based on their history of responding, and using that perspective in order not to police other people’s identities or expressions.

Further reading:
“I’m Trans, Disabled, And Tired Of Fighting To Get Into Bathrooms” by Christian McMahon:

“Disability Justice Is LGBT Justice: A Conversation with Movement Leaders” by Emmett Patterson, Margaret Hughes, Andrew Cray, and Hannah Hussey:

Behavior Analyst Certification Board (2016). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. Retrieved from
Crenshaw, Kimberlé (1989). “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics”. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140, 139–167
Gates, G. (2011). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender? Retrieved from transgender/#sthash.ZNusTQWu.dpuf
Travers, J. & Tincani, M. (2010). Sexuality education for individuals with autism spectrum disorders: Critical issues and decision making guidelines. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 45 (2), 284-293
United States Census Bureau (2012). Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the U.S., Census Bureau reports. Retrieved from

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