Updated: Dec 15, 2021
Article by Elizabeth Wright
[Image: A person is passing a pad to another person. Their reflected in two mirrors behind them that sit above two sinks in a public bathroom.]
There is a lot of misinformation out there about disability and periods. Did you know that one of the most common questions to pop up on google about disabled women and menstruation is “do disabled people get their period?” Yes, yes we do.
If you are a disabled person with a womb, approximately between the ages of 10 and 55, and you have no other underlying condition or medication to prevent you getting your period, Aunty Flo is going to visit at least once a month.
The first time I got my period we were away on holiday staying at my mum’s cousin’s farm in northern NSW, Australia. I was thirteen years old. The closest town was an hour away, so it was never easy to get things last minute. There was no asking someone to duck down to the shops and get you the “purple packaged pads with wings please.” You had to plan for things. I certainly wasn’t physically or mentally prepared for my period.
As the months went by though I got better at planning and also discovered ways to live with my period alongside my disability. My disability is called limb difference and it affects the dexterity in my one and only hand. I also wear a prosthetic leg which involves wearing a stocking sock between my skin and the socket. This stocking sock can sometimes get eaten by my undies… not pleasant when Aunty Flo is visiting. Therefore my limb difference has had quite an impact on my choice of period products.
In general I use pads. For me it is the easiest product. Tampons I can manage- just- it’s a bit of a struggle to get the right angle with the limited dexterity in my one hand. Menstrual cups are a completely different story. I haven’t tried one, but I’ll admit I’m a bit scared too. And I am not the only one.
Like Lauren Slattery, a woman with cerebral palsy and a Clue Ambassador, I have concerns around using the menstrual cup,
“I have cerebral palsy, and use tampons with no issue. I just got a menstrual cup though and I’m worried about insertion and removal, since my muscular ability isn’t the best.”
So we disabled people can and do get our periods, but what is the best option for each of us to manage our monthly whilst dealing with wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, visual impairments, and varying muscle control? Let us go through the multitude of choices, from the traditional pads through to absorbent undies…
Pads come in so many ways, shapes and forms that the choices can be overwhelming. You can even get perfume free and environmentally friendly ones these days, which is brilliant! When pads with wings came out I rejoiced, my disability makes it hard for a pad to stay in place without the added stability of wings. It is this ease and being the least intrusive (which means if you need help to use sanitary products your carer/spouse/partner can help you) that makes pads the most obvious choice for disabled women.
In recent years reusable pads have become the new, environmentally friendly, way to manage your period. I think these are a great idea, and both environmentally and economically more friendly than most of the disposable pads, but they are not without their issues. For some disabled women they may not have the muscle strength and dexterity to rinse out the pads before washing them.
Pads are also restrictive in terms of activities, and what non-disabled people may not be aware of is that many of us disabled women like to swim, ride bikes, and do yoga too. Which makes the next option, for some, a better choice…
My first memory of tampons was at sex ed in primary school. The teacher scared me so much about toxic shock syndrome that I vowed, at the age of 11, I would never ever use a tampon. Well I have. It took a little experimentation with my limited dexterity to get the right angle, etc, but it happened. Yay!! But tampons aren’t always easy for disabled women to use. Melissa Blake wrote on SheKnows,
“Tampons are out of the question for me because of my physical limitations, so I must rely on pads exclusively.”
And if you can’t put tampons in and take them out yourself it can be an extremely intimate and intrusive exercise to have help. Therefore tampons aren’t the easiest of options for disabled women, even with easy applicators. Anything that requires decent dexterity and at least minimal muscle strength in fingers, hands and arms, is going to be tough to use.
On the surface the menstrual cup can be seen as the equalising and environmentally friendly choice. It is a reusable product that can save you money (no more having to fork out for multiple menstrual products every month). It is convenient (no rushing to the shop when you desperately need supplies). It is reliable (it holds more fluid than a tampon or pad). It is gentler on our bodies (no perfumes, dyes, phthalates, plastics, bleaches, or toxins).
But dig a little deeper and it is a period product that not every women can use. If you have a disability you are probably going to struggle to use a menstrual cup. On Dame, A.K. Whitney describes why the menstrual cup is a no go for her,
“When I was 6, I was diagnosed with idiopathic juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It didn’t take long before I lost mobility in my fingers, toes, wrists, and ankles. It has only gotten in the decades after, making it difficult to do seemingly simple tasks — such as inserting tampons without applicators, or removing a Diva Cup — unless I ask for help, and that’s not practical at school, work, or any place where I am alone.”
There are some disabled women, though, who can use the cup. Crippled Scholar wrote about her experience with the menstrual cup and how she hasn’t looked back since using one,
“…curiosity ultimately led me to buy a Diva cup last year… I can report that they can in fact be used one handed. They can be folded by bracing the cup against something (like your leg or other arm) and then insert it…”
I have had able-bodied friends who initially struggled with the menstrual cup — and though they are more comfortable with it now, they can recognise that for disabled women it might be an impossible task. That’s not to say that there are some disabled women that can use the cup, like Crippled Scholar. With the cup it’s about truly knowing your body and judging your own ability to insert a cup.
Speaking of technology and menstrual products, in recent years underwear that is period proof has appeared, and they have the possibility of being a game-changer for disabled women. Looking and feeling exactly like underwear, the revolutionary fabric is absorbent, wicking away moisture, leaving you feeling dry and comfortable. They also hold a decent amount of liquid with the user being able to wear a pair for up to 8 hours.
Crippled Scholar also uses these, alongside their Diva cup, and finds them to be more comfortable than pads and a lot easier to use — no more faffing about with sticky tabs or packaging.
These are an option I would like to try… though, like my normal go to pads, my prosthetic leg sock may still get scrunched up into the undies. This could mean blood beyond the bounds of the period proof underwear. Being used to this though, I think I would be able to cope.
Period proof underwear does come with it’s own unique issues though. Firstly, they could be difficult to clean for some disabled women. After you have finished wearing them you have to rinse them in cold water until the water runs clean. Then you can wash them in the washing machine as normal. Rinsing them, for some disabled people, could be difficult.
There is also the price point, with a single pair starting from about £18 ($US22), but most topping out around the £25–30 ($US30–38) mark. Therefore the cost may be prohibitive.
I am now entering my 27th year of shedding my uterus lining and I like to think that I am a pro at managing my monthly alongside my disability. It is through knowledge and understanding that I know what works for me as a disabled woman who gets her period. That is not to say that I am not continuously growing and changing with new knowledge and technological advances coming out…
So those period undies? I think I’m going to give them a go (despite the cost, d’oh!). The Menstrual cup? No thanks. Sticking with my usual pads? Yes… they will always be my personal period product of choice.