Commentary: Provide sex ed for people with intellectual disabilities

While sexual assault has been dominating news headlines recently, underlying the problem is a lack of sex education. Texas, we need to talk about sex. Particularly, we need to talk about providing better sex education for people with disabilities. It’s vitally important. In fact, people with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be victimized sexually. We also know that providing information about sexuality and self-determination is one of the most effective ways to reduce abuse. Yet, our state’s lack of sexual education in the classroom contributes to lack of knowledge about bodies, relationships, consent and reliable resources for information.

I know this topic can be difficult and contentious. I am a sibling of someone with an intellectual disability. I have worked as a direct support professional for more than 12 years and have been researching this topic for my entire grad school career. I have worked with far too many people who have experienced traumatic sexual experiences without ever receiving any information.

Many people assume people with intellectual disabilities are asexual, can’t understand the nuances of sexuality, or are too childlike. These are not true. A recent Teen Vogue article pointed out that people with disabilities are less safe because sexuality education is censored, leaving people to search for information on the internet.

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This media attention is also coming at a time when Texas’ federal funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs has been drastically cut. Texas is fifth in national teen pregnancy rates and first in repeat teen pregnancies. Texas does not have mandatory school sex education. A quarter of Texas schools don’t teach any sexuality education, and more than 50 percent teach abstinence-only education. Unfortunately, abstinence-only education has been shown to be ineffective and often medically inaccurate.

Texas has its own prickly history with sex education. However, teaching the most vulnerable in our communities to know their own bodies and communicate about difficult topics is the most effective way to empower them. When I decided to ask my sister what she knew about sex, my mother had assured me she would answer nothing. To my mom’s surprise, my sister knew much more. She lives in a world where sexuality messages surround us, but the context and deeper connections can be lost. Sex education can provide that context and deeper connection, yet for people with disabilities, sex education is often not a priority. That needs to change.

Many teachers are not trained to teach sexuality education, much less this type of education to those with disabilities. We need to prepare teachers to present this information accurately and support sex education programs that are evidence based and specifically geared toward people with disabilities. This means supporting comprehensive sexuality education curricula that support the people in their communities and their learning abilities. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States provides several educational standards for learning.

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We can also follow the lead of other states. For example, a county health department in Oregon has put together a list of evaluated curricula that are specifically for people with developmental disabilities through a grant they received from Texas A&M University. This listing provides a brief overview of what topics are discussed and how understandable they are. Oregon also passed a law in 2009 requiring public schools to teach comprehensive and inclusive sex education, including in special education. In Michigan, parents and teachers created a sex education program for special education students. They found that students did not understand the curriculum being used. A specific program was created using a variety of curricula available, customized for their students. But these public school options are rare across the country. Here in Texas, they are almost nonexistent. That’s why adult sex education programs have started to fill in the gaps, which helps, but it would better if the education started before puberty kicks in.

Simply put, we need to make sex education for people with intellectual disabilities a priority to empower them, not shield them in harmful silence.

Winges-Yanez is the project coordinator for the Texas Sibling Network at the Texas Center for Disability Studies at the University of Texas.

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