By Shanda Glover
Individuals with disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
It is an unfortunate truth that in our society there are STIs, sexual abuse and exploitation, and unplanned pregnancies or complications. With all of these in mind, everyone needs to receive education on sexual relationships and come to terms to their own sexual understanding. However, often, when we think of sexuality education, we don’t think of those with developmental, physical or mental disabilities.
We need to start.
According to Dr. Brian Armour, of the Center for Disease and Control, women with a disability are more likely than women without a disability to have a history of unwanted sex with an intimate partner, statistics being 19.7 % for women with disabilities compared to 8.2% for those without one. Furthermore, his study shows that 80% of women and 30% of men with intellectual disabilities have been sexually assaulted. And of that 80% of women, 50% have been assaulted more than ten times.
The saddest statistic is that of all the individuals with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime only 3% of them have reported their assault.
Many people with disabilities receive advice and guidance when adjusting to a life that involves getting a job and an apartment, however, there is a lack of sexual or relationship support. There needs to be a curriculum centered on sexuality self-advocacy. Disabilities should not hinder opportunities for individuals to stand up and state that they want meaningful relationships. Everyone should learn how to build strong relationships with the people in their lives, regardless of their disabilities.
When you compare different states where sex education is started earlier, you see lower rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, all have extensive sexuality education curriculums that address safe sex practices, adoption and abortion choices, and information on how the male and female bodies develop. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have had the lowest teen pregnancies rates since 2010. On the hand, states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas do not have a safe sex education and have chosen to not address teen pregnancies or STDs. They, interestingly, have the highest pregnancy rates in the continental United States. In states where the topic of sexuality is addressed, you see better results.
So why don’t we already have extensive and adequate sexuality education programs for those with disabilities?
Perhaps, it is because of the connotations that our society has tied to the word “Sexuality.” According to Katherine McLaughlin, a Sexuality educator for adults and youth with mental disabilities, “when we talk about sexuality education, people think that you’re teaching someone how to have sex. That’s a piece, but it’s such a small piece. It’s more about relationships and communication.” Students without disabilities often learn about sexuality from the people surrounding them, however, those with disabilities often do not.
Many don’t have that kind of informal learning, it’s more isolated. McLaughlin states the “more you talk about [sex], the more likely they’ll wait and the more likely they’ll use protection. Plus, it’s not like the media’s not giving them any ideas about sex!”
There are many barriers when it comes to educating students with disabilities. More schools, according to McLaughlin, need to address sexuality education when helping students with disabilities transition into a new life after school, because some parents are wary when it comes to talking to their kids about sex.
It is even harder to talk about sexual abuse, which is a bigger part of an adequate sexuality education program.
The most important part of sexuality education is giving individuals the tools to say “no” and speak up for themselves. Which according to McLaughlin can be harder for women with disabilities since “women in general are pressured by society to please others, women with mental disabilities are perhaps even more so.”
In 2015, Sweden released a series of sex education books to help teens with disabilities gain better understandings of puberty, love, relationships, and masturbation. Margareta Nymansson, one of the authors behind the new series, explained to the Local that talk about sexual topics is essential for all people, however, there seems to be discontentment from educators and parents when addressing those with disabilities. She states “it is a sensitive topic and therefore a topic where special needs education is very behind. [I] always felt it was something that had to be taught in class.”
There are some textbooks that contain information on how to educate students and what topics to educate them on, however, our textbooks are still lagging behind. Especially when comparing our texts to Sweden’s series. There are more resources for adults and a little bit for teens, but for teens with disabilities sex education is less accessible than for those without.
Educators have to be really concrete. They can’t just use the word “sex,” and assume everyone knows what that means. People with mental disabilities want what everybody wants—love, friendship, and meaningful relationships that support their growth. By giving adults and students with disabilities a sexuality education, educators are giving them the tools to build these relationships.