It’s Time to Change the Dialogue: Sex Ed + Special Ed
When I tell people that Health Connected has a sexual health curriculum for special education (SPED) students (Teen Talk: Adapted for All Abilities), I often get one of two responses. People either say, “This is great! I’m glad these students are getting the information,” or they say, “Why do you need a class for special education students on sex?” In response to the latter, I always ask, “Why not?” People often seem surprised that students in SPED classes would need this education, perhaps because they think students with cognitive or physical disorders wouldn’t be likely to have romantic or sexual relationships.
Societal attitudes that disconnect sexuality and disability hinder this population from accessing sexual health education. An article from the American Psychological Association states, “People see individuals with intellectual disabilities as eternal children who are asexual” (Collier, 2017). However, people with disabilities experience puberty, sexual feelings, and intimate romantic relationships, just as those without disabilities do. It raises the question: shouldn’t ALL people, regardless of their ability level, have access to sexual health information without assumptions made about what they need and what they don’t need?
Due to this perception, people with disabilities often receive little or no formal sexual health education at school or at home (Collier, 2017). While special education students may not be receiving sex ed, the California Healthy Youth Act mandates that school districts provide students with integrated, accurate, and inclusive comprehensive sexual health education at least once in middle school and at least once in high school, and the instruction and materials must be appropriate for and accessible to students with disabilities.
Without proper information or resources, this population is left vulnerable. In fact, children with intellectual and developmental disabilities are 4.6 times more likely to be sexually abused than children without disabilities (Collier, 2017). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reports that 37.3% of women with a disability experience domestic violence in their lifetime, compared to 20.6% of women without disability (CDC, 2014). Sexual assault is also common among this population; among people with disabilities, it is estimated that 80% of women and 30% of men have been sexually assaulted, and 50% of women have been assaulted more than ten times (“People with Disabilities and Sexual Assault,” 2012).
You may be asking yourself, so if they need this information what is the best way to provide it? Special education students need a modified, medically accurate, inclusive, and culturally- sensitive curriculum that acknowledges people with disabilities. They need this information to create a foundation to build skills of self-advocacy in setting their own boundaries and conveying these boundaries to their partners. Given the prevailing beliefs about people with disabilities and sexuality, it’s not surprising that there are not many curricula that are adapted for all abilities. That’s why we created our own.
In July of 2017, Health Connected published our special education curriculum, Teen Talk Adapted for All Abilities (TTAAA). Since we published our curriculum, we have directly taught over 300 special education students, with the majority of our students in San Mateo County public schools and at private schools around the San Francisco Peninsula. Our training team has also trained over 130 providers (teachers, counselors, nurses) who work directly with special education students using our TTAAA curriculum.
Bringing this curriculum into special education classes has reinforced the value and need for this kind of education. I was recently at a school where I was discussing traits of healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships. After the lesson, a student asked “How can I make sure that my relationship is healthy, and how can I tell my partner when I don’t like things?” After I explained and gave examples of establishing boundaries, the student’s teacher said, “Wow! I didn’t think that my students were in relationships yet or needed this information, so I’m glad you are here to talk about this and give them language to use with their partners.”
Having Health Connected in the classroom allows students a chance to ask their questions to trained health educators, face-to-face or anonymously, regarding sexual health topics they may be curious or concerned about. We have received questions from students with different intellectual functioning levels about topics ranging from puberty changes to sexuality to consent. Here are some examples of some student questions we have received:
“Is getting subincision [circumcision] bad for your health?”
“Is normo [normal] to tach [touch] yourself?
“How to use condoms?”
“Why do LGBTQ experience more bullying and violence?”
“How can you tell if your emoshnly [emotionally] abusive to your partner?”
“For age of consent, what exactly counts as sexual activity? Does kissing or touching count?”
The anonymous questions allow the educators to break down any misinformation and concerns students may have. Without proper education available, students turn to the internet or try to navigate these complex situations on their own (Winges-Yanez, 2018) . However, navigating websites can be a challenge due to the lack of credible and accurate information presented.
Students also appreciate the opportunity to have Health Connected in the classroom. Many students comment that the condom demonstration is one of their favorite aspects of our course, demonstrating the importance and impact of providing hands-on instructional opportunities for those students who are able and want to participate. Students also mention their appreciation for learning about healthy relationships and consent. For example, a student approached me after class and said, “I feel confident in knowing how to take care of my body, tell people my boundaries, and ask for consent.” One of the most rewarding parts of my job is working with these wonderful students to empower them to make thoughtful decisions, advocate for themselves, know who they can talk to, and know how to better communicate their boundaries and values to others.
My hope for the future is that one day the dialogue around sexual health education and people with disabilities will reflect that regardless of someone’s abilities, they deserve to be seen as a person capable of intimacy and sexuality and that they have the opportunity to advocate for their own sexual health without limitations or censorship.
1. CDC. (2014, March 31). Women with Disabilities | Disability and Health | NCBDDD | CDC. Retrieved November 29, 2018, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/women.html
2. Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Instruction - Health (CA Dept of Education). (2018, May 18). Retrieved November 29, 2018, from https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/he/se/
3. People with Disabilities and Sexual Assault. (2012, November 20). Retrieved November 29, 2018, from https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/sexuality/assaults.php
4. Collier, L. (2017, December). Sex and intellectual disabilities. Retrieved November 29, 2018, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/12/seeking-intimacy-sidebar.aspx
5. Winges-Yanez, N. (2018, February 9). We Need to Make Sex Education for People With Intellectual Disabilities a Priority. Retrieved November 29, 2018, from https://news.utexas.edu/2018/02/09/make-sex-ed-for-people-with-disabilities-a-priority/