‘Sexual health education for individuals with disabilities: A call to action’

University researchers examine sexual health education resources for individuals with disabilities and discover that barriers to education and unavailable resources, increases vulnerability.

According to the World Health Organization, individuals with disabilities still experience the highest rates of mental, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

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2/4/2019 | By: Nicole Shearer |

“Expressing sexuality is part of the human experience, yet sexual health education is often ignored in regard to persons with disabilities,” Anna Treacy, sexual health educator and University of Nevada, Reno doctoral graduate is special education and disability studies and postdoctoral researcher in educational leadership, said.

Research shows that 69 percent of people with a severe intellectual disability have been sexually abused – the more severe a person’s disability, the more abuse they receive. According to the World Health Organization, individuals with disabilities still experience the highest rates of mental, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

“What adds to these already startling statistics is that many adolescents with disabilities lack the knowledge needed to develop sexual identity, of those experiencing abuse, many don’t even know they are being abused. Lack of knowledge leads to the inability to distinguish what is and is not acceptable,” Treacy said. “Perpetrators look at them as the perfect victim. The opposite is also true. These students, without access to sexual health knowledge, can become the perpetrator.”

For her dissertation, Treacy, with support from Shanon Taylor, University associate professor of special education, and Tammy Abernathy, professor of special education, researched sexual health education for individuals with disabilities. In a recent article published in the “American Journal of Sexuality Education,” Treacy wrote about this research, which examines the risks to people with disabilities, current barriers to sexual health education and available resources. The mixed method research combines both qualitative and quantitative data.

The risks

The U.S. Department of Justice reports a significantly high rate of sexual assault (68-83 percent) for women with developmental disabilities. Reports also indicate that children with disabilities are 3.4 times more likely as children without disabilities to be sexually abused.

According to Treacy and Taylor, limited resources do exist for sexual health education for persons with disabilities, however, there is a gap in how the information is available in today’s special education system.

“There is liability everywhere, which is likely why educational standards continue to vary,” Taylor said. “Even though there is 30-plus years of research on the importance of sexual education, there continues to be a disconnect with how it is implemented, especially for students with intellectual disabilities.”

Being able to provide proper sexual health education that adequately addresses student’s preferred learning and communication method is proving to be very difficult for school districts. According to federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, there are 14 different disability categories, each with varying learning characteristics, which compounds the problem of developing appropriate sexual health course material. For instance, students with autism spectrum disorder need access to direct instruction that incorporates picture cues and non-abstract descriptions, while those who have hearing impairments require a different type of instruction. This lack of consistent teaching structure leads teachers to feel anxious and fearful about teaching sexual health education to those with disabilities.

In Nevada, every school district gets to decide what the sexual health education curriculum includes. In some states, the state board of education may mandate sexual education guidelines for the entire state. While some districts cover sexual education for the general student population, Treacy and Taylor’s research showed variability in the education people with intellectual disabilities receive. Much of which has a lot to do with teachers feeling underprepared or unable to teach these courses because of social stigma and fear.

“One of the most significant findings based off the integration of quantitative and qualitative data was that there is a chasm in teacher education training, which is one of the leading causes for teacher concern, anxiety and fear,” Treacy said. “Health educators are not required to learn how to teach students with disabilities and special education teachers are not required to learn the content/knowledge regarding health and sexual health education.”

Due to this gap in knowledge and training, Treacy said students with special needs are not able to access the content needed.

“Both health educators and special education teachers want what is best for their students, though neither feels prepared or confident to effectively teach students with disabilities sexual health education,” Treacy said.

This variability presented barriers and a clearer need for teachers to receive a foundation of how to teach sexual health education to students with disabilities along with a more clear knowledge of who is teaching it.

Current barriers to sexual health education

The research indicates that there are seven leading barriers hindering access to sexual health education for people with disabilities.

  1. The sexuality of individuals with a disability is viewed as deviant vs. natural;
  2. Lack of teacher education programs;
  3. Lack of teacher knowledge and confidence in teaching sexual health education resulting in concern, anxiety and fear;
  4. Parental anxiety and fear;
  5. The need for school, teacher and parent partnerships;
  6. The lack of valid and reliable sexual health education for individuals with disabilities;
  7. The lack of federal funding specifically designed for students with disabilities based on comprehensive sexual health education.

“These barriers are daunting but not impossible,” Treacy said. “What we need is system change. In addition to teacher preparation, district leaders need to understand the issues regarding lack of access, how they can help overcome these barriers and where to find the proper resources to make the knowledge available to the families and students with special needs.”

Available resources

In their research, Treacy and Taylor discuss the efforts to eliminate these barriers as essential.

“Students with disabilities need to be fully included in all cultural and societal conversations about sexual health,” Treacy said. “For example, research and resource development for LGBTQ+ students with disabilities are areas that need immediate attention.”

Taylor agrees and expressed how teacher education programs could help eliminate at least two of the barriers.

“We need special education teachers to include sexual health education as part of the development of individual education plan and transition plan, which can include families in important discussions,” Taylor said. “The more we include sexual health education into the lives of students with disabilities we will start to eliminate the inherent bias that suggests deviance. While there are some resources available to support families and school personnel, there is very little research to guide resource development.”

Parent education and parent/school partnership can also aid in bridging individual learning gaps. Often, parents of children with disabilities are just as fearful about educating their children about sexual health and rely on schools to do the job. Experts recommend that parents overcome these fears and work with schools on sexual education, which will help support their child’s sexual health and discourage experimentation and socially inappropriate exploration. This team approach will also help identify areas of education that are missing and help make sexual health education more valid and reliable.

A call to action

As a sexual health educator, Treacy has seen first-hand how uncomfortable teachers can be in teaching sexual health education. This is often expounded when working with people with intellectual disabilities. While she recognizes sociological shifts take time, her goal is to continue advocating access to sexual health knowledge for students and individuals with disabilities.

“Children, students and adults with disabilities have the right to be educated about the natural functions of their bodies and their sexuality,” Treacy said. “In order to fully protect and understand themselves, they need and have the right to expect appropriate and timely sexual health education as part of their efforts to become self-determined individuals.”

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