I met Josh* when he was 15. He attended one of the high schools where I taught sexuality education. He was scheduled to be in one of my classes, but his aide was reluctant to leave him alone with the group.
I was firm. I’d encountered well-meaning adults in the past as they tried to buffer a teen living with a disability from information. I respectfully explained that Josh’s mom gave consent for his attendance. I assured her I was very comfortable with Josh’s presence. She hesitated. I asked Josh directly — did he want her to remain with him? His head shook back and forth in a forceful “no” so quickly his unruly dark brown hair bounced! His aide left and a wonderful teacher/student relationship began.
It’s been more than 20 years since Josh’s class. He wasn’t the first individual to whom I taught sexuality education, and he most certainly wasn’t the last. He stands out in my memory for two reasons. First, Josh possesses an amazing, upbeat, outgoing personality. He’s a joy to be with — I doubt I’ve ever seen him without a smile on his face. Most importantly, Josh and his family became my good friends. I’m honored to share that he’s taught me as much as I’ve taught him. He is a strong self-advocate now. When I created the curriculum, Me Too: Real Talk about Sexuality for People of All Abilities, Josh gave the book its name. We were having a pizza lunch. Josh’s left-sided hemiparesis makes it easier for him to eat using his right hand. I shared that I’d been working closely with Arc Human Services of Washington to create interactive learning tools for caregivers, parents and self-advocates. I said I needed a name for the program. Josh struck his chest hard, smashing his saucy pizza against his T-shirt. “Me too,” he crowed, his wide grin making him glow. “Me too?” I studied him, observing his usual passion for life. “You think the name should be me too?” He nodded. “Because it’s for me,” he said, “for me too.”
It is my honor and privilege to share six tips about sexuality education for individuals living with disabilities. My philosophy is simple: Each person is a person of worth. With respect for all individuals as my foundation, I find it easy to adapt interactive learning tools, so they are understandable and helpful to all.
- Tip #1: Accept that each person is a sexual being: Each individual has the right to information about sexuality. Josh and other young people like him have shared their frustration with adults who see them as childlike or asexual. Some people are genuinely asexual (defined as a person disinterested in sexual contact — think Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory), but a person’s ability does not mean asexuality. A person is a sexual being with or without sexual experiences. Research shows that individuals living with disabilities are just as sexually involved as other individuals.
- Tip #2: Explore the topic of sexuality without judgment: Knowledge truly is power. A common myth states that sexuality education causes people to have casual sex. The opposite is true. Comprehensive sexuality education that includes relationship, communication, refusal and decision-making skills creates people who honor their own sexuality and the sexual needs of others. Do not define sexual experiences. Take off your own “glasses” and view other peoples’ lives with empathy. The ultimate experience for an individual may be kissing. Honor choices.
- Tip #3: Protect and empower: I agree that protection is vital. An individual living with a disability may be more vulnerable to exploitation, more likely to experience domestic or partner abuse, and more easily involved in risky activities. I’m upgrading a successful child abuse prevention program for use with adults. Creating safe environments, teaching consent/empowerment of self, and preventing STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and HIV/AIDS or an unplanned pregnancy are important health goals.
- Tip #4: Model joy: Too often information on sexuality for individuals of differing abilities focuses on victimization. Teach about pleasure, joy, and love. Be aware of the difficulty some individuals have understanding the concept of love. Classes should include activities on feelings, boundaries, setting limits, and dealing with drama. Cyberspace is an incredible outlet for some individuals. Protect but respect privacy.
- Tip #5: Be open to difference: People have a wide range of sexual and gender identities. Do not assume heterosexuality. Studies show that individuals living with disabilities are as diverse sexually and by gender as others.
- Tip #6: Never underestimate the power of self-advocacy: Working with Arc Human Services of Washington has given me the opportunity to train their staff, mentor trained professionals as they train their teams in group homes, and work closely with self-advocates. I believe peer education is powerful. A flexible approach can truly make a difference. In her autobiography, In My Dreams I Dance, Anne Wafula Strike states: “When you have a disability, knowing that you are not defined by it is the sweetest feeling.” Each person is a person of worth, each person is a sexual being, and each person is important. Pass it on.
*Josh is a pseudonym.