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Sex Education and Students with Disabilities

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The state of sex education for students with developmental disabilities is a story idea that's been on my plate for ages, and I now may have a good "hook:"

Researchers in Philadelphia have tracked rates of treatment of sexually transmitted infections among more than 50,000 Medicaid*-eligible 12- to 17-year-olds, including about 8,000 receiving special education services, in the Philadelphia school district. In Philadelphia, unlike in many districts, students who are gifted are also provided with an individualized education program, and thus were included in this count.

The study found:

For males, being classified as [learning disabled] was associated with a 36% increase in the odds of having an STI. Latinos, whites, and those in the "other" ethnicity category (OR = 1.79) were at increased risk compared with African-Americans.


For females, being classified as [mentally retarded] was associated with a 37% increase in the odds of having an STI and being classified as [mentally gifted] was associated with a 10% increase in odds. Again, those in the white and "other" ethnicity category were at increased risk relative to African-American females. Asian females had one third the odds of being diagnosed with an STI compared with African-American females. Unlike among males, older age was associated with increased risk for an STI among females.

(The study was released in the July edition of the Journal for School Health, published by the American School Health Association.)

What does it all mean? The researchers concluded that it means, in part, that sex education classes need to be particularly sensitive to the "social vulnerabilities" of this group of students. I wonder how often this kind of discussion comes up during IEP meetings. It's uncomfortable for some parents, and probably equally as uncomfortable for some school officials. And, as the researchers conclude:

Often, special education students are not given the option to participate in health or sex education programs in the schools, and when they are, the materials are not always appropriate to their needs. A small number of sexual health education programs have been developed specifically for students with special needs, but they have not been rigorously evaluated and are not widely used.

Is this an area that where you feel schools and parents could do a better job?

*Correction: my earlier post said "Medicare" instead of "Medicaid." Medicaid is the nation's health insurance program for people of low income; Medicare provides health care services to people aged 65 and over.

5 Comments

Christina;

Thanks for the topic. I live in the midwest where people are squeamish about such things. The tension between the "if we talk about it they'll want to do it," folks and those who believe in providing free condoms has resulted in pretty close to a don't ask, don't tell policy with regard to sex education. Not only are there no state standards, but anything related to human biology has pretty much disappeared from science and when it comes to students with disabilities--well, like any other untested subject (science, social studies), its a pretty mixed bag.

My first thought on reading your post was about the high school student with disabilities who was sexually assaulted at school. I am close enough to that district to understand that consensual sex (or non-sex--as the kids are wont to brand oral involvements) is a not unheard of occurrance (in the back of the school bus, in the bathroom, other unsupervised areas). The outcry and focus of this incident really did nothing to respond to some of the basic problems which include: kids (dis and non disabled) not getting much helpful information about human sexuality--in any context, let alone one that gives them clues about emotional entanglement, abuse of power, respect of self or others, or simple physical consequences; adults who are willing to walk away from things that they are embarrassed to deal with; and lets not even begin to talk about supporting kids in understanding anything about sexual orientation.

I will add that my son was fortunate to have a teacher who coached him through reading the parts of the health book that dealth with sexually transmitted diseases (and he was actively engaged in the content). But at the same time, the school had no idea how to handle any of the very real things that were going on simultaneously outside the classroom that had to do with sexual conquests, gay harassment and boy-girl attractions.

This is a very important topic. School staff are --more often than not-- notoriously unsupportive about dealing with topics concerning sexuality. We can't expect our students to learn if we aren't willing to teach. But, in all fairness, with so much suspicion placed on teachers, many have learned that this is a topic to avoid in order to stay employed. Sadly, this avoidance behavior is a direct consequence of punishment based systems. How can we support instructional staff so that they feel comfortable working with the whole child?

Based on both of your responses (and a couple that have been emailed directly to me) it definitely sounds like there's enough "meat" here for an article.

This is just such a thorny topic. Parents are protective -- just ask mine! -- but I've got to imagine that some are even more so with their children that may have developmental disabilities. But, teenagers are teenagers. And I do think that teenagers with disabilities have some unique vulnerabilities.

Someone emailed me and said that she's heard of girls with mental disabilities having sex because it makes them feel "normal." That would be a difficult issue to tease out in a research study, but I wonder if that feeling does come into play...that and the hormones!

Educating the children about this matter could also be helpful, for them to be aware about this and awake to the reality of this topic. But, the responsibility isn’t only on teachers or professors but parents are also responsible on teaching this issue. Government leaders, particularly, President Obama is taking an action regarding to this. In fact, this is also part of stimulus plan. There are a few piggyback riders on the economic stimulus bill. The parts of the stimulus I'm referring to are two parts, one for providing aid to child care on military bases, and the other is a chunk of change that will enhance sex education in the U.S. These are good measures, but this may not be the best time for this kind of expense because they deserve their own bill. Read more about quick payday loans and the stimulus bill here.

I am planning on doing my doctoral thesis on this topic. Any opinions,ideas,links to articles or other refences that could best inform others of this issue is welcome! Even contact info for people that are also looking into this issue further, please let me know!
It is time to make this topic more public, for the sake of all those affected, and to make it known that the "able-ist" attitude of our society can be overcome.

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