Disabled people have periods, too
Disabled women and people with cycles face barriers to period care
Top things to know:
Most disabled women and people with cycles have periods
Disabled women and people with cycles face barriers like inaccessible bathrooms, shame and stigma, and affording period products
New period products designed for disabled people, including period-tracking apps like Clue, can improve their experience
The ways in which women and people with cycles experience menstruation varies from person to person. When we think about these experiences and how periods make people feel, we often think of non-disabled people, and don’t consider the period experiences of disabled people.
Most disabled women and people with cycles have functioning reproductive systems. They experience the same or similar cycle changes as non-disabled people. But there’s one big difference — having a period can be physically and emotionally difficult for disabled people because of the barriers they face, like lack of access to bathrooms or sinks, and restricted or no access to period products or pain relief.
Raising awareness about disability and periods can help reduce stigma and encourage disabled people and caregivers to seek help if they need it.
This article will explain how resources, information, and period products are usually not designed with disabled people in mind and how eliminating menstrual taboos will help disabled people have better periods.
When talking about disability, some people choose to use “identity first” language, in which the disability is mentioned first (1). This way of speaking uses terms like “deaf person,” or “autistic person,” rather than “a person who is deaf,” or “a person who is autistic.” Clue has decided to follow the lead of disabled communities who use identity first language. We use it on our website and in this article because it allows people to embrace their disabled identity and celebrate membership within a wider group .
Another way of talking about disability is to use “‘person first”’ language (1). Some people prefer to use “‘person first” language when talking about their disability since “person with a disability” puts the person before their diagnosis.
What does “disabled” mean?
You might get different definitions of the word, “disabled,” depending on whom you ask. This is because there are different “models” to describe disability. Clue’s values align with what’s called “the social model of disability.”
The social model of disability states that a person with an impairment is disabled by their environment and society, rather than by the impairment itself (2). For example, a person using a wheelchair is disabled by buildings that don’t have wheelchair access. The lack of access makes them unable to enter the building, not the fact they are using a wheelchair.
The social model of disability calls attention to barriers in society that disable people. Other disabling barriers might include flashing lights that trigger epilepsy, the absence of sign-language interpreters for deaf people, or school attendance policies for people with chronic fatigue.
This model also acknowledges that an impairment can have a significant impact on the person’s life. Living with chronic pain can make it difficult to move through day-to-day life and symptoms such as post-exertional malaise can make it difficult to participate in various activities, however accessible they may be.
Challenges faced by disabled women and people with periods
Within the disabled community, experiences of menstruation can vary. However, there are also some similar challenges that disabled women and people with cycles face:
1. Lack of accessible bathrooms for disabled people
Many bathrooms are inaccessible to wheelchair users. Because of this, they may change their period products outside of bathroom stalls or in places without privacy or running water (3). In areas where water supplies are limited, disabled people may have to reuse menstrual products or be unable to wash their hands, increasing risk of infection (4).
2. Lack of period education for disabled people
Global cultural taboos often lead to people with cycles not being educated enough about periods. Where people do receive education about menstruation, it is rarely written for disabled people. This might be due to a prevalent myth that disabled people have different reproductive systems and do not menstruate (5).
Menstrual education for disabled people can also be difficult to understand or access. This might look like a lack of sign language interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing, sex educators who are not trained in working with disabled people, or educational materials that are not written clearly enough for intellectually disabled people (3, 5). Some disabled people who rely on family or carers might also be disadvantaged if their carers are not educated about periods (3, 5).
Menstruation can be stressful and difficult for both a disabled person and their guardian. Cultural messages that disabled people should not be parents or sexual beings can complicate how guardians view the disabled people they care for (6). Some guardians do not see the benefits of disabled people having periods and may request a sterilization procedure (7). This happens most commonly to people with intellectual disabilities (7).
Sterilization is unethical when the disabled person does not consent to the procedure. The European Disability Forum, an organization fighting for disability rights, denounces the sterilization of people with disabilities (8) since it goes against their human rights.
3. Shame and stigma around disability and periods
Most non-disabled people take the ability to change a tampon for granted. A disabled person on the other hand might not be able to do this on their own. People of all abilities often struggle to ask for help, but asking for help around your period is awkward or embarrassing for many. Studies suggest that disabled people may change their period products less frequently than recommended or avoid using certain products like menstrual cups that might be viewed as difficult to use (9,).
4. Practical problems for disabled people
Disabled people face barriers to having a comfortable and dignified period. Period products are rarely made with disabled people in mind. They can be hard to use for people with limited mobility, stiff muscles, pain conditions, or sensory issues.
Pads can cause sensory-related issues for some people with autism because the feel and touch causes discomfort. Inserting tampons or menstrual cups requires the use of the arms, hands, and fingers, and is not always a viable option for some disabled people.
It can also be difficult to use period products in combination with other medical equipment. Wheelchair users are often sitting all day; a position that can cause pads to slip. People using urinary catheters may struggle using certain products that do not absorb catheter leaks (4,).
Some chronic conditions may flare up during the late luteal phase and during menstruation. This may be because inflammation might be reduced during the early and mid-luteal phases (10). An increase in hormone-like substances like prostaglandins can be a cause of inflammation (10). Migraines, seizures, and symptoms of epilepsy or Ehlers Danlos syndrome are often more frequent during menstruation (11, 12, 13).
5. Period costs for disabled people
An estimated 500 million women and people with cycles globally live in period poverty, which means they cannot afford reproductive healthcare and safe period products (14). Disabled people are statistically more likely to live in poverty or on low incomes. This can lead to lack of access to period needs like water and period products — a situation that can increase discrimination against disabled women and girls (4). Period products aren’t cheap, and many people who cannot afford them turn to items like bark, paper, or cloth to absorb menstrual blood (15).
Some disabled people may have additional costs related to pain management, medication, therapies, and surgeries. Managing these expenses on a low income can make average period products even less affordable. Finding more specialized or convenient period products designed for disabled people can be too expensive for people with low income.
How can disabled people manage their periods?
Businesses are beginning to consider disabled people as new period products are developed. You might find different strategies helpful, depending on your disability:
Cycle tracking for disabled people
Tracking your cycle can help you predict your period. Period tracking apps like Clue make this simple. Tracking is useful to help disabled people better understand their disability in relation to their cycle, understand their period itself, and to help them plan around it. For some people with epilepsy, seizures can be linked to the menstrual cycle (12), so tracking can help them be more aware of the risk.
2. Innovative period products for disabled people
The development of new period products is helping disabled women and people with periods. Menstrual cups can be left in for around 12 hours, hold more period blood than tampons, and have a lower risk of toxic shock syndrome, meaning they can safely be changed less frequently (15). The Flex Cup, was designed specifically with disabled people in mind and features a pull-tab to remove it more easily.
Period underwear provides a comfortable alternative to disposable pads. They can be helpful for people with sensitivities to disposable pads, or they can provide extra support in case of leaking caused by tampons or cups. Modi-bodi, a brand selling period underwear, recently released the luxe collection. This collection includes underwear with clasps on either side, making them more accessible for some disabled people.
3. Seeking healthcare as a disabled person
Disabled and concerned about your period? Check in with a healthcare provider. They can diagnose, manage, and treat reproductive health conditions. Advocating for yourself with healthcare providers can be easier if you have your needs written down before you arrive.
4. Education about disabilities and periods
Online disabled communities are revolutionizing education for disabled people with cycles and the people who care for them. These communities provide useful, accessible resources on social media platforms. These active support groups offer a space to get useful tips and ask sensitive questions. Many disabled people share their experiences on platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Since the people in these spaces are disabled themselves, they know first-hand about periods and disability. Some examples of strong voices in these spaces include Molly Burke, Robyn Steward, and Melissa Blake.
Disability-focused websites, like the MS Society UK, are another resource, full of information about how people with specific disabilities manage periods. Websites like The Mighty, or blog posts hosted by different period-related brands, like Wuka, are also available educational resources.
Some small global initiatives provide menstrual and sexual health education to people with intellectual disabilities. In the UK, the Josephine and Jack project use anatomical dolls to educate disabled people, and similar tools are used in the Bishesta campaign in Nepal.
How can periods be more inclusive?
Disabled women and people with cycles face barriers to successfully managing their periods. Changing attitudes toward both disability and periods can improve the lives of disabled people with cycles globally. In some ways, period experiences may have improved for some disabled people over the last few years. Menstruation taboos are changing, products are created with disabled people in mind, and useful resources are available online. Ultimately, this trend can only be good news for disabled people who menstruate.
For non-disabled people who want to make menstruation more inclusive, you can ask your employer to provide a range of menstrual products at work so there are options for all your coworkers. If you are organizing an event, make sure sinks and bathrooms are accessible to as many abilities as possible. There is still a lot of work to be done to reduce barriers for people with disabilities. As a non-disabled person, you can use your position to uplift disabled voices, so that the people who experience impairments themselves can tell you what changes need to be made.
Download Clue to know when your period is coming so you can be prepared.
An earlier version of this article was originally published February 12, 2018.