Why it’s vital for young people with disabilities to receive sex education

Against a red background, a young woman is dreaming of romancing another woman, another young person is imagining a collar around their neck, and two young people are gazing at each other lovingly.

The stigma around sex and sexuality means that young people with disabilities are being denied information that could empower them.

I have spent seven years working in the disability sector, and in the recent past I’ve seen many sea changes in certain issues that directly affect people with disabilities. Public policies and attitudes have shifted and led to improved facilities. However, when it comes to the issue of sexuality and disability, things have remained stagnant.

People with disabilities may be getting more rights in many spheres, but unfortunately even today, many people refuse to acknowledge the fact that most people, including people with disabilities, have sexual feelings and desires.
This is the reason most young people with disabilities don’t receive sex education, either in school or at home.

Sex education is a continuous learning process – it’s a way to get information and develop one’s attitudes, beliefs and values around intimacy, relationships and identity. Sexuality isn’t just physical – it is also socio-cultural, spiritual, and psychological. Everyone has the right to sex education that encompasses all of these aspects. These lessons should provide information, and help people to explore their own feelings and attitudes. They should also facilitate communication, decision-making, and critical thinking skills.

Parents ought to be the primary providers of sex education to their children, and be ready to prepare their children before puberty hits. But because sex and sexuality are surrounded by stigma, parents often fear that talking about sex with their teenagers will be harmful.

This adversely affects all young people, but has an even more detrimental effect on young people with disabilities because of the ableism they already face. In the absence of appropriate social skills, young people who live with disabilities may have trouble making and keeping friends, and may feel acutely lonely and ‘different’. Without sufficient knowledge, they may also take risks with their sexual health.

For all these reasons, they need sex education for the normalisation of their sexual development.

After years of counselling young adults, I have concluded that people with disabilities need sex education just as much as they need basic education, skills for gainful employment, accessibility, and the ability to live independently. They have the right to sexual healthcare, and the freedom to socialise.

With this in mind, I recently prepared a curriculum and started an online self-paced course especially designed for adults and teens with disabilities. Thanks to this process, I realised that there is very little literature on sexuality that is specifically relevant to the lives of people who live with disabilities and chronic illness. We really need this material, and I also believe that this education needs to be imparted with accessible and accurate teaching methodology.

I have identified four ways in which sex education can enhance the lives of young people with disabilities:

Information: It can provide accurate information regarding human sexuality, including growth and development, human reproduction, anatomy, physiology, masturbation, pregnancy, childbirth, parenthood, sexual response, sexual orientation, gender identity, contraception, abortion, sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. After learning all this, young adult with disabilities would be able to understand that human development encompasses sexual development, which may or may not include reproduction or sexual experience.

Attitudes, Values, and Insights: It can provide avenues for teens with disabilities to question, find, and determine their own attitudes, and the perspectives of people around them relating to gender and sexuality. This can help them examine their family’s values, establish their own values, upgrade their critical-thinking skills, increase self-esteem, and boost knowledge and understanding concerning relationships with family members, individuals of all genders, sexual partners, and society at large.

Relationships and Interpersonal Skills: It can help in the development of interpersonal skills, including communication, decision-making, assertiveness, and peer refusal skills, as well as the ability to form reciprocal and fulfilling bonds. This can prepare young people to develop the capacity for cooperative, mutually gratifying, warm and loving sexual relationships. This will also help them to avoid exploitative or manipulative relationships.

Responsibility: Sex education can also address the question of how to combat and/or report unwanted sexual overtures, as well as the use of contraception and other sexual health measures.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal