This article is part of a series around femtech and the people leading the charge in this growing sector. See the femtech series here.
Femtech Spotlight: Heather Morrison of Handi
Siblings don’t often talk about their sex lives. But when a documentary about sex and disability gave Heather Morrison a window into her brother’s sex life as a disabled person, it also opened her eyes to a problem; for many people with physical disabilities, self-pleasure just isn’t accessible.
“Watching that, for me, was a real eye-opener,” Morrison said, one that opened up a real conversation between her and her brother.
"So, I said, very naively, why can’t you just use a sex toy? There are hundreds of those ... surely one of them would work?”
Morrison’s brother is Andrew Gurza, a disability awareness consultant, podcaster and the star of “Picture This,” a 2017 documentary where he discusses his experiences with sex and disability, and his work to bring those experiences to light.
Read: Why Sexual Function Should Be Part of Occupational and Physical Therapies for Disabled People
Gurza was quick to set his sister straight. He told her he’d been working in sexual health for more than a decade and, as a result, had been the recipient of many sex toys.
“He told me he couldn’t get many of them out of their packages - and most didn’t really work for him at all,” Morrison said.
It was a light bulb moment, one that activated Morrison’s skill set as a brand and innovation strategist.
“So I said to him, ‘Do you want to change that?’ Do you think we could make a toy that would be something you could use?”
Handi, a company and brand devoted to designing sex toys for people with physical disabilities; Morrison serves as the CEO. The company is working on making the first line of sex toys that doesn't require the use of one's hands to operate them.The conversation led the siblings to co-found
“What we’ve found in talking to so many people in the community is that from a societal and systemic standpoint, disabled people are often assumed to be not sexual or asexual,” Morrison said.
What Morrision and Gurza knew - and the data they gathered confirmed - was that this is not the case. A survey by the company found that more than 50 percent of physically disabled people struggle to achieve sexual pleasure, even though most of them (90 percent) said they wanted to. As a result, Handi came to be about more than just making a sex toy - it also needed to be about changing people’s minds about disability and sexuality.
More than 50 percent of physically disabled people struggle to achieve sexual pleasure, even though most of them (90 percent) said they wanted to.
“If, from the age of puberty, you’re being told … you shouldn’t be sexual, that breeds feelings of isolation and shame,” Morrison said. “We have three strategic pillars at Handi: tearing down taboos, product, and education and sex ed.”
And while companies working in sexual health always face more hurdles than those in less taboo fields, working in sex and disability can unfortunately mean an additional layer of challenges.
“Sex is still really taboo in our culture - and God forbid you start talking about masturbation. Then people get weird,” Morrison said. “But add disability and people’s heads explode and they want to crawl under a rock.”
Despite the challenges, Handi has been making notable headway and gaining momentum. The company was accepted into the 2020 cohort of the Remarkable Tech Accelerator program, hosted in Sydney, Australia, where they got the opportunity to work with other start-ups in the disability space as well as access to funding.
In December, Handi partnered with mega sex toy retailer Lovehoney to help distribute The Handi Book of Love, Lust & Disability, a book filled with stories, poems and art about disabled sex from 50 disabled contributors. Lovehoney will also help with the manufacturing and distribution of the company’s first sex toy, the Handi Joystick, which is expected to be available for pre-sale in May.
But while Morrison and Gurza were quick to land on a market and mission for their business, developing that first prototype was much harder than they expected.
“I had never heard the term ‘hardware is hard,’ but bringing a physical product into the world is very hard,” Morrison said. “But we decided we are going to do it and we haven’t looked back.”
As for the product itself, well, you’re probably wondering what a sex toy that doesn’t require the use of the hands looks like, right? Morrison describes it as “the love child of a pool noodle and a body pillow,” which is apt. That, in itself, makes it a huge departure from every other sex toy you’ve probably ever seen. Because it's made for people who have limited use of their hands, the Handi is a sex toy you cuddle up to, rather than hold. It's designed to work with a vibrator, dildo or masturbation sleeve of the user's choice, allowing for more personalization. The toy also has big (like, very big) buttons; the company is also considering voice activation.
And, while it addresses some of the key pain points for people with disabilities, it's easy to see people without disabilities enjoying it too. The toy is designed for pleasure and ease of use. In this, Handi’s keen attention to detail is enviable; every detail of the product - from the packaging all the way to how it’s cleaned and cared for - has been considered.
The fact that Handi is going to such great lengths to design something just for a group of people whose sexual pleasure often hasn’t been even considered is a testament to their commitment to and engagement in these communities.
“We started out wanting to create a product, but we just had no idea how much there is to do in this space, or how much opportunity there is. The more you talk to people, the more you realize there are so many areas that need attention or connection,” Morrison said. “Sometimes at a meeting, the product ends up at the bottom of the list because we are talking about taboos and education.”
So far, the company has found its greatest success in “leaning into taboo,” as Morrision calls it. By harnessing the power of influencers and people in the disabled community, Handi is building momentum, recognition and what could be a life-changing product that actually puts disabled people’s pleasure first.
Morrison says that it’s only when we call attention to the things we don’t talk about - like sex, and self-pleasure, and how those experiences are impacted by disability - that we start to solve these sorts of problems.
“It’s about opening the conversation,” Morrison said. “If the best design minds don’t know a problem exists, they aren’t thinking about how to solve [it].”
This profile was produced in partnership with The Femmys, the first-ever awards celebrating innovation in femtech. Want to apply for an award? Learn more here. Want to attend the (virtual) event? Get on the list to be the first to know when tickets are released.
Tara Struyk is a co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Kinkly.com. She’s a content creation and management executive with 15 years of experience working in online media. As a writer, her work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Forbes, Glamour, MensHealth and Investopedia.
Tara is currently the VP of Content at Janalta.com, where she leads the editorial department and directs content production for a diverse portfolio of websites in niche verticals. She has launched several sites from the ground up, and has experience managing sites from pre-launch all the way to maturity. She has deep experience in online analytics, SEO optimization, content marketing and editorial direction.