THE STATE OF THINGS
Sex Ed in the United States isn’t stellar (#understatement)—and for young people with developmental disabilities, it’s downright abysmal. Very few sexual health curricula are made accessible for people with developmental disabilities, and often students in this population are segregated from the coursework altogether, either sent to a different class for the week or simply not given the permission slip. Too often, educators, caretakers, and family members are hesitant to broach the subject of sex with their teens with developmental disabilities. They don’t know how to go about it, or they think the teen “isn’t interested in/doesn’t need to know all that.” Meanwhile, research shows that people with developmental disabilities are sexually assaulted at more than seven times the national average.(1) People with developmental disabilities who are AMAB (assigned male at birth) are 5% more likely to contract an STI, and those AFAB (assigned female at birth) are 16% more likely to contract an STI, and 22% more likely to become pregnant—more than double the rate of their neurotypical peers.(2)
WHY THIS SUCKS
The idea that teens with developmental disabilities either don’t want to or shouldn’t know about sex is dehumanizing; it ignores an entire facet of their identity and robs them of bodily autonomy and personal agency. It also puts people with developmental disabilities at risk of being criminalized or institutionalized for behaviors that society interprets as sexually deviant, but more often result from a lack of inclusive socialization and education with neurotypical peers. Almost one in three young people who are incarcerated are identified as having or needing special education, with 9.7% of that population having an intellectual (developmental) disability.(3)
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF HOW INCLUSIVE SEX-ED WORKS
I work in special education and I’m in the process of developing a transition program for students with developmental disabilities ages 14-22. Our goal is to prepare all students to reach their highest level of success and independence in adulthood—and we quickly realized that this goal must include sexual health. To accomplish this, we partnered with The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies to train our staff on how to provide inclusive, disability-positive sex ed. In our classes, students learn about consent, healthy boundaries, puberty, self-care and pleasure, STIs and unwanted pregnancy prevention, and anatomical awareness and knowledge. Offering this class also reduces stigma surrounding sex and people with developmental disabilities—not just for students, but also for teachers, parents, and community members. There is evidence that people with developmental disabilities are often deliberately misinformed about sex by the adults in their lives; inclusive sex ed can correct that and put students back in charge of their own bodies.(4)
MORE ALIKE THAN DIFFERENT
So what does it look like? Not a whole lot different, honestly. We don’t modify or manipulate the content of sex ed for people with developmental disabilities. We DO modify the vocabulary, the pacing of the course, and the way the information is presented. Visual supports! Anchor charts! Large print text! So basically the word “vagina” is going to be three inches big on the page and it’s going to be accompanied by simple illustrations free of visual clutter and we’re going to talk about it for two hours instead of 10 minutes. Some people in the room will utilize fidgets while we work, some will sit on a therapy ball instead of a chair, and some will work with a one to one aide to access the content. We’ll laugh a lot because they’re teenagers and bodies are weird, and we’ll stop laughing and get very serious when we need to because we know bodies are also extremely important. As for the students, I’ve learned in the short time that I’ve been doing this work that teens with developmental disabilities are wondering the same exact things about sex as their neurotypical peers—how do I find a partner? How will I know if I’m ready for sex? What’s that body part called?
Check out this NPR article that includes people with developmental disabilities’ words about their inclusion in the #metoo movement that I would encourage everyone to read. (Please note, in writing this essay, I wanted to abide by the principle “nothing about us without us” and reference people with developmental disabilities’ own words about their experiences with sexual health, but those voices are very difficult to find in online research. We need to ask ourselves why that is, and how can we elevate these voices moving forward. In the meantime, read this article!)
Written by: Nikki Mayeux, New Orleans, Louisiana, Special Educator by day, essay writer by night, mama every damn day
(1,2,4) Deschaine, Matthew. “How Developmental Disabilities Impact the Sexual Health of Young Adults.” Sexual Health Disparities Among Disenfranchised Youth, Pathways RTC, 2011.
(3) Redfield, Sarah E., and Jason P. Nance. School-to-Prison Pipeline. 2016, School-to-Prison Pipeline, www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/diversity_pipeline/stp_preliminary_report_final.authcheckdam.pdf.