HomeableismRelationships, Sex, and Disability Education
Title graphic of a pink foil heart decoration and the title inserted over it.

Original image via unsplash

Here’s a controversial topic for you: sex education. Cue hand-wringing and pearl clutching. It’s already debated enough for so-called “normal” kids, but the disabled community has some additional challenges to address.

Desexualization of Disability and Learning Styles
Much to the chagrin of stereotype adherents, adults with disabilities still want and have romantic relationships. Unfortunately, the social dialogue states that disability somehow neuters those who have it. That often translates into how kids with disabilities are taught about relationships in general and sexual relationships in particular.

We established long ago that many teachers have a hard time instructing students who have learning, cognitive or developmental disabilities. However, our culture is notoriously uncomfortable with the topic of sex in general, but with the relationship aspects in particular. That, combined with mismatched learning styles and poor training, makes good sex ed even more difficult for disabled students to come by.

Folks who already struggle with social cues and boundaries may not be able to successfully navigate the complexities of romance and associated sexual relationships.

Social Consequences
The consequences go far beyond loneliness. It’s a well known fact that people with disabilities of any kind are sexually assaulted more often than those without. The victim is never to blame, but they always pay the highest price. When these attacks happen, the victim may not know what’s happening is wrong or how to react afterwards. If the only access to information on sexual assault and relationships you have is fiction and the media, how can you know when something less dramatic than the screaming and fighting portrayed on shows is wrong?

Some disabled people have trouble with noticing and respecting boundaries, which results in at the least awkward social situations. At the worst, and mind you, extraordinarily rarely, sexual crimes. In their case, it’s highly doubtful they want to actually hurt the victim, but instead are trying to initiate some sort of relationship. Proper and perhaps ongoing sexual and relationship education would prevent many of those situations in the first place.

Views of sex are also profoundly influenced. Our culture is incredibly toxic in this regard, especially in relation to women. The focus is almost always on male pleasure, with the female relegated to birthing babies. When girls aren’t taught that they have value beyond carrying children in this field, it follows they wouldn’t know how to develop their own sexual agency when they grow into adulthood. That’s as true for non-disabled girls as it is for those with disabilities.

When a couple does get together, they, like all adults, should know about safe sex, how babies are made and how to avoid the transmission of STDs. Disability is a spectrum that includes both intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is possible for people at all ability levels to have healthy relationships, sexual and none, but they must learn how to nurture them in order to maintain them.

Methodology Matters
This is one of the most important areas for proper teaching methods to match up with student learning styles. Relationships are fundamental parts of the human experience, regardless of ability level. However, when nonverbal cues and social norms are difficult to understand, a more formal education is required.

In my personal experience as being mostly mainstreamed, relationships and sexual education are rarely addressed. In school, I had that one class session in middle school about the mechanics of menstruation, taught in the boys’ locker room for some reason, and a class in high school about sex and parenthood, in which we had to carry a hollowed out egg for a week without breaking it to simulate what it’s like to have a child. Everything else was either learned from life experiences, or independently researched.

Folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities may get some formal education, but they often miss out on the real life experiences that prompt independent research. Depending on which level they function on, independent research may not be an option.

Fortunately, there has been ongoing research on this subject with the aim of bettering relationship and sexual education for folks with disabilities. According to one study, “Meaningful Sex Education Programs for Individuals with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities”, individuals with intellectual disabilities were asked what areas they’d like more education in. They were:

  1. Friendship
    This seemingly simple task is less simple when a person already struggles with getting along in social settings and understanding nonverbal cues.
  2. Long Term Relationships/Marriage
    Personally, I think that should be addressed for all students, but the fundamental problems with forming relationships feeds into maintaining relationships. On a deeper level, it’s to learn about how to handle stresses relating to forming a family and surviving as an adult.
  3. Safe Sex
    This extends from how to use contraceptives, like condoms, to the social aspect of actually initiating sexual relationships.


While these measures may be great for people with social or cognitive disabilities, it wouldn’t work for those who have other forms of disability, such as mobility or sensory. As someone with learning disabilities, I would have needed something different, perhaps concentration more on the concept of consent and what legal protections I have.

While the specifics can be complicated, the fact remains – disability must be included in sexual education. We tend to focus mostly on reading, writing and academia, but social education is just as important, and perhaps more so.


Schaafsma, Dilana, et al. “Identifying Effective Methods for Teaching Sex Education to Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Sex Research, vol. 52, no. 4, May 2015, pp. 412-432. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.919373.

Swango-Wilson. “Meaningful Sex Education Programs for Individuals with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities.” Sexuality & Disability, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 247-258. EBSCOhost, doi: 10.1007/s11195-013-9307-7.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: