Personal Story

Feature Issue on Sexuality and Gender Identity for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Student Voices:
Discovering What We Want


David Hicks is an academic program manager at Unitec in Auckland, New Zealand.

Author David Hicks and a few Unitec students got together to talk about some of the things they discussed in the health and well-being class about dating and relationships, and what’s important to them today. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:

David Hicks: Thanks for joining us today. Just to remind everyone about some of the things we covered in class last year, we had an outside organization come in and talk about consent and some other issues around sexuality. And then we continued that conversation as a class, covering the different types of sex, gender identity, pornography, masturbation, relationships, and other things. What stood out to you about those conversations?

Zion Tshimanga: I remember we talked about homosexuality and other types of sexuality. Overall, I think the class helped people learn how to navigate relationships and to think about what we want. There isn’t a lot of support available to help people develop romantic relationships, but the course did get me thinking about knowing my worth in a relationship. For my own life, I know there are a lot of places I want to go and things I want to do before I get involved in a long relationship.

Liam Innes: One thing I remember feeling was that I don’t have a gender identity. It’s just me. I’m not real social and don’t pay attention to what others are doing when it comes to dating. I do have friends, including Zion, and my parents want me to be independent, which is good.

David: Saione, after you took the class, you were invited to participate in the second season of the dating show Down for Love. Did that experience result in a relationship?

A person in a dark blue sweatshirt smirks and clasps their fingers together. A person in a jean jacket and a baseball cap smiles brightly.

Liam Innes (left) and Zion Tshimangan

A person in a gray t-shirt and displaying a smart watch. A person with gray hair and a beard, wearing a leather jacket.

Saione Skelton (left) and David Hicks

Saione Skelton: No. I had an interview with one of the people in charge of the show and he wanted to know details, like what I do in my spare time, and he said they were going to help find a match for me, and they did, but it didn’t work out. Things were going well for me at first, but at one point we were having a conversation and then it got heavy and after that we didn’t see each other again. I’m not planning to go back to the show again. The person I matched with had been in front of cameras before and I was a first- timer. She knew I wasn’t for her, and I agreed. I think I learned I’m not going to do that kind of thing again. I’m 50/50 on whether I think the experience will help me in the future and whether I even want a relationship, but I know I need to find a different approach and to date in real life instead of on television. It’s quite tricky because sometimes I don’t feel like I fit in with the rest.

David: In the class, we talked about a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset as you discover how you want to define yourself in all your identities. Was that helpful?

Liam: I think it was, a little bit. People are noticing neurodiversity more today, and it’s a constant discovery process.

Saione: Yes, it helped.

David: Yesterday, we all went to a disability expo on transition to community living as adults. Did you notice that among all these different stalls for education, support services, independent living, there wasn’t one for dating and relationships? That’s interesting actually because that type of support is only just coming into popular culture. There’s a TV show about it now, but it hasn’t hit that systemic level yet and we really need that to be part of the conversation.

Zion: Yeah, I noticed. There should probably be more support for developing relationships.

Liam: Now that you mention what was missing, you’re right. There was nothing there about dating. Things like loneliness are a low priority, and it is hard to interact with the world. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more reclusive, so this is a constant difficulty. And then if you’ve been bullied in the past, it’s really hard to just go out there and ask someone out.

Saione: It’s a real struggle to know if I even have a shot at dating, actually.

David: All of that is really interesting. Some of the challenges of disability have a direct correlation to trust in relationships. If you’ve had bad experiences, why should you trust people? That’s another reason I’m glad for this program, just as a way for people to come together and form some friendships that they might not have had otherwise as a step toward building that trust.

Zion: I want someone I can be comfortable talking about my feelings to. I have met people online, but I prefer real life. You can’t get to really know someone looking at a profile picture.

Liam: I’ve always struggled with connection and it’s especially hard behind a screen. I’m an outlier, but I have a few friends I like hanging out with. I’ve never really had romantic partners.

David: I think online is used less here in New Zealand than some other countries. Particularly for this group of students, in the last few years with COVID-19, we encourage the face-to-face aspect of learning, so I’m not surprised you are saying you prefer meeting people in real life instead of online.

Zion: It’s hard, though. When it comes to relationships, I struggle with keeping in touch with friends because I get easily distracted. The little gestures of keeping in touch and saying hello are hard.

Saione: It’s the same for me. I had a friend for a long time, but he moved and I was back to square one.

Liam: Keeping in contact with people can be quite difficult. I did an Outward Bound experience and met some great people, but I haven’t been in touch with them. I just forgot.

David: You know, this is quite common and at your ages, you’re just figuring it out. I know the struggle is real, but it’s all part of it. Unfortunately, I haven’t got the magic pill that will fix everything, but just keep trying. Sometimes you forget to reach out, but maybe today you didn’t and you can go ahead and contact that person you’ve been meaning to reach. Don’t let others make the rules for you in terms of relationships. There’s no right answer and the fact that you came to this conversation today tells me you’re motivated to at least participate in the process.

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