Healthy relationships, dating & sexuality

People with disabilities have the same rights to meaningful relationships and sexuality as their peers.

But often they face stereotypes when it comes to relationships and sexuality, including feelings that they are helpless, asexual, shouldn’t be parents or are not emotionally ready to be in a relationship.

To help people with intellectual disabilities overcome these misconceptions, the Oregon Office on Disability and Health in partnership with the University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at Oregon Health & Science University created a 10-week course about obtaining and maintaining healthy relationships.

The healthy relationships and sexuality course was designed to give people with intellectual disabilities the tools they need to have healthy and happy relationships and to become sexual self-advocates. This course provided a safe place to talk about experiences and to get questions about relationships and sexuality answered.

The class

Ten participants from Portland, Ore., six women and four men 21 to 49 years old with intellectual disabilities were recruited to take part in the class.

Course facilitators included a woman and two men with disabilities. These people were chosen because it was felt they could relate better and have a greater sense of empathy for the issues students face because of their personal experiences.

During the first class, participants took an anonymous pretest to measure how much they learned over the course of the class. The same questionnaire was handed out during the final class.

All topics were presented for participants with intellectual disabilities in mind. Games, visual aids, role-play, information recall and personal stories were effective teaching tools. Facilitators found participation increased while doing these activities.

Class discussion included how to make a friend, physical attraction, appropriate things to do in public and private, self-esteem, flirting, sexual feelings, dating and safety, abuse, sexual acts and pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection prevention. Setting personal boundaries was also integrated into all lessons to help protect the privacy, rights and safety of the students and the people students interact with in their everyday lives.

Lessons learned

  • Participants had difficulty understanding some activities, such as those appropriate to talk about in public and private places.
  • Some participants had a hard time discussing body parts.
  • Many students were uncomfortable with same-sex relationships and reported little exposure to the idea.
  • Participants were uncomfortable discussing physical characteristics that make a person attractive.
  • Personality traits such as honesty, trust and the ability to accept a person’s disability seemed more important to students than physical characteristics.
  • Many participants disclosed physical and sexual abuse stories. Abuse prevention activities were used and resources distributed.

Are you a victim of abuse? Immediately seek help by

confiding in a trusted friend or family member.

You can also find help by contacting:


Before offering the course, people with various disabilities were invited to attend discussion groups where they were asked what they wanted to learn more about regarding healthy relationships, dating and sexuality. The 10-week course was designed based on the information gathered.

Planned Parenthood for Adults with Developmental DisabilitiesDiscussion among these groups helped researchers discover that people with disabilities often deal with lack of privacy, knowledge about sex and basic anatomy as well as communication problems. Discussion also uncovered unfamiliarity with resources meant to help in cases of abuse.

Planned Parenthood’s manual, “Sexuality Education for Adults with Developmental Disabilities,” covered many of the topics brought up during these discussion groups. Various lessons from the book were used to create and teach the 10-week course. Some lessons were created to cover issues the Planned Parenthood book didn’t cover.

Find more on the Planned Parenthood’s manual at

Dating success

Getting to know someone

  • Talk to your date. Ask what they like to do, places they like to go or favorite food or music.
  • Flirt. Give a compliment like telling them they look nice, smile at them.
  • Hang out with friends. Ask your date to join you for a group activity like bowling, movies or playing soccer at the park.
  • Be careful not to be overbearing by sending too many texts or calling too many times.

Asking for a date

  • Don’t wait for someone to ask you, you can ask!
  • Discuss who pays and why.
  • Decide if you will split the bill.
  • Discuss where to go; have a few ideas ready.
  • Ask once. If no, ask only once more.
  • If rejected, remember it is not about you. They just might not want to date.

On a date

  • Meet in a public place the first few dates.
  • Know your boundaries.
  • Let your personal care attendant know what you expect of them before the date.
  • Have confidence and have fun!

Being a couple

  • Decide together if you will date others
  • Talk about sexual behaviors that are okay and not okay (holding hands, kissing, touching and private and public activities)
  • Talk about how much time you will spend together
  • Breakups are best in person, not by texting or social media

How would you answer these questions about sexuality?

The sexuality test measures knowledge of self-esteem, healthy and sexual relationships, partner communication, self-determination, consent and abuse. The test above is a sample of the 21-question test given both at the beginning and end of the course.

1.   If you learn about sexuality you may be a better sexual self-advocate.

a.  True
b.  False
c.  I don’t know

2.   Everyone is a sexual being, and it is important to know about sexuality.

a.  True
b.  False
c.  I don’t know

3.   What kind of communication style is it if you face a person, look them

in the eye and say what you want without feeling guilty and

stick up for what you believe in?

a.  Shy (nonassertive)
b.  Bossy (aggressive)
c.  Speaking Up (assertive)

4.   An abusive relationship can happen between a man and woman, two men,

two women, caregivers, parents or friends.

a.  True
b.  False
c.  I don’t know

5.   Which answer below describes consent?

a. To be sexual, you both have to agree what is and what is not okay. Both have to say yes without lies, pressure or force.
b. To have sex with someone, it is sometimes okay to say, “if you don’t have sex with me, I will never talk to you again.”

6.   There are many ways to be sexual with a partner. Name two besides

penis and vagina sex.

1. __________________________
2. __________________________

7.   If a person says no to touch, is it still okay for their partner to touch them?

a.  True
b.  False
c.  I don’t know

8.   Your romantic partner insists on going everywhere with you and is

jealous of other relationships with your friends. Is this relationship:

a.  Healthy
b.  Unhealthy
c.  I don’t know

Answers: 1– a. 2– a. 3 – c. 4 – a. 5 – a. 6 – Anything is okay as long as both people say yes. 7– b.  8 – b.

 About the Researchers

  • Dana Owens is a health educator for the Oregon Office on Disability and Health and UCEDD. Owens created the class for people with disabilities to learn about healthy relationships and sexuality.
  • Adrianna Richardson is a co-facilitator of the healthy relationship and sexuality class, working to help adults with disabilities advocate for themselves.
  • Ayla Ervin is a student at Portland University, studying public health, and an intern at OODH, assisting in development, preparation and facilitation of the healthy relationship and sexuality class.

The authors are passionate about helping young people with disabilities become strong self-advocates in healthy relationships and sexuality. Their goal is to help them understand their rights and provide knowledge for informed decisions.

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