By Ruthie Kolb, Training Manager
June 23, 2016

Students with disabilities are people.

While this is theoretically stating the obvious, often educators and caregivers shy away from acknowledging the sexuality of people with disabilities. This omission undermines the foundational tenant of their personhood. To educate the full health of people with disabilities, we must include and acknowledge them in our sexuality education.

Sometimes people have the misconception that people with disabilities are either hyper-sexual or asexual. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Just like their able-bodied and neuro-typical counterparts, students with disabilities have varying experiences of sexuality and deserve medically-accurate and comprehensive, strengths-based messages to support their healthy sexual development.

Additionally, conversations about sexuality (including STIs, pregnancy, and contraception), healthy relationships, and boundaries are important protective factors against sexual abuse, unintended pregnancy, and STI transmission.

Furthermore, we must talk about pleasure. We cannot hide behind prevention by teaching students with disabilities only about inappropriate sexual contact. This again undermines the expression of their full personhood. If we are to teach students about saying “no” to when something feels bad, is unwanted, or is with an inappropriate person; we must also teach them that people say “yes” when something feels good, is wanted, and is with an appropriate person.

There is a huge diversity of student needs within a classroom, so it is impossible to write a catch-all blog that adequately represents this spectrum. However, there are some common themes amongst teaching techniques for students with learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities, or an autism spectrum disorder (including Asperger’s). I am not in any way saying that their disabilities are the same, but I am suggesting that these basic tips can address multiple needs when coupled with awareness of your students. Many of the following techniques can be used to varying intensity to meet your students’ needs. Additionally, I would argue that all of these following adaptations are often present in good, diverse teaching practices, regardless of the presence of a diagnosed disability in the classroom.

Be detailed and explicit with your information. Because of our societal discomfort when talking about sexuality, often sexual health education can be full unspoken messages and assumptions. Be aware of your discomfort and your tendency to avoid or gloss over topics. Be brave and face that discomfort head-on. That is probably the topic you NEED to talk about. For many students, the unspoken expectations of sexuality and interpersonal interaction may not be clear, so you must cover all of the facets of sexuality topics so that students clearly understand them – try to answer what, when, where, why, and with whom?

For example, when talking about masturbation, it is important to not only cover “What is masturbation?” (Touching your own genitals (usually penis or vulva) for sexual pleasure) but also “When can a person masturbate?” (when a person do not have somewhere else to be or other responsibilities), “Where can a person masturbate?” (in private places such as a private bathroom or bedroom; even if a place is initially private (like a public bathroom), but another person could walk in, that isn’t an appropriate place to masturbate), “Why does a person masturbate?” (because it feels good to them), and “With whom can a person masturbate?” (alone or with a significant other/romantic interest).

By covering all of these facets of masturbation, the students now know that in the school bathroom with other classmates would not be an appropriate situation for self-touch.

The Circles curriculum uses pictures to help students understand the levels of intimacy with different people in their lives. Similar sorts of diagrams can be made to help students categorize places that are more or less private and appropriate for different activities (playing soccer vs. peeing), body parts and under what circumstances it’s ok to touch another person, etc.

Use Precise Language. In the same vein as being precise with your information, it is important to avoid using figures of speech or making assumptions of shared language for your students. Some students with cognitive disabilities may not have learned slang, students on the autism spectrum may have difficulty following figures of speech, and many other students may have never really had the terms specifically defined for them.

Sexuality is littered with slang and figures of speech, so it is very hard to avoid them “slipping out” once in awhile as an educator. Additionally, students will often use slang terms in discussion because those are the only terms they know or are comfortable with. Therefore, take this language in stride as it happens, make sure to define the slang or figure of speech when you notice it in straight-forward basic language, and then use medically accurate language to make sure that you are saying what you mean to say to every student in the room. For example, “A blow job is a slang term for when a person uses their mouth on someone else’s penis. We call this ‘oral sex’ in our classroom. It’s important to know that some sexually transmitted infections can be spread through the mouth, so it’s safest for people having oral sex to use a condom.”

Use visuals. In general, finding appropriate visuals for teaching can be difficult – I’ve spent many hours searching for the perfect picture that isn’t too dated but coolly illustrates the exact point I’m trying to make. In sexuality education in particular, educators are often shy of using visuals, afraid that they will be too explicit or titillating for their students. For both students with cognitive disabilities, learning disabilities, and students on the autism spectrum, however, visuals strongly reinforce your content by illustrating exact behaviors along with associated risk factors and protective measures.

I am in no way suggesting showing pictures penises and vulvas infected with STIs to scare your students away from having sex. Please don’t. I am suggesting finding realistic (not cartoony) line-style drawings or photos of body parts and sexual interactions. Illustrations need to be realistic so that they are recognizable in students’ lives. Line drawings keep the illustrations from having an explicit feel for use with higher-functioning students. For lower-functioning students, photos may be better understood.

For example, The Life Horizons curricula for students with severe cognitive impairments includes photos of sexual interactions so that students can readily connect specific activities with their need for protection.

The Sexpressions website offers a lot of resources, including appropriate visuals, for educators.

Give pause and processing time. We all need processing time, but be particularly sensitive to the diverse needs of your students. Every classroom and student will be different, but many students need more processing time than we assume. Educators are often stuck with the time-crunch decision whether to finish the activity with no time remaining or to not fully finish the activity but give time for processing. I challenge you to err on the side of giving time for a debriefing conversation, response, activity, or even silence. Periodic pauses within the class time for processing may also be useful.

Have an interactive classroom. When teaching about sexuality, many teachers who are otherwise aware of the multiple learning styles in their room can default to a more didactic approach – because they are afraid of where student-driven learning experience may take them.
What will happen? What will they ask? How will I answer? What if…? What if…? What if…?

Say “ejaculation” so many times that it really feels no different from saying “elbow”.
Then breathe again.

As educators, we want our learning to be lasting. And we know that safe behaviors don’t come from information, they come from interaction, conversation, and application. Therefore, we must put aside our need to control the information boundaries and allow them to interact with and direct the content, just like we give them manipulatives in mathematics and creative outlets in language arts. Let them draw, talk, act, dance, investigate, and apply. It WILL be ok.

Tips for Teaching Students with Physical Disabilities. Like with other disabilities, the information you teach these students about sexuality – anatomy, STIs, HIV, pregnancy, and healthy relationships -- won’t usually need any adaptation. However, you will have to give thought to how your teaching methods may need adaptations, depending on the student’s impairment.

For example, if you generally have pictures of the reproductive anatomy for students to label and interact with, you may need to supply a student with visual impairments with a larger picture, a picture with textured lines (ex. use puffy paint), or a physical model to handle (such as some of these.

Additionally, I suggest making sex-positive statements such as “there are resources and adaptation tools so that people with physical disabilities can have and enjoy sex”. By acknowledging their sexuality and right to pleasure, you will actively break down the myth that students with physical disabilities are asexual and support their healthy and positive sexual development. Here is one example of a manual of adaptive devices for people with physical disabilities.

I’ll reiterate that this is (clearly) not a comprehensive look at sexual health education for students with disabilities, but I hope that it has provided you with some helpful information. Don’t forget, a foundational part of your classroom should be creating safe space. Establish group norms and expectations for all students so that they feel supported, comfortable asking questions and actively engaging. In conclusion, I will leave you with some additional resources should you be ready to learn more.