Opinion

Speaking of sex-ed — how about we develop some for students with developmental disabilities?

Various teaching resources have been developed in several provinces, but whether and how they are used in the classroom remains a question. The result is that the risk of abuse, victimization and poor sexual health remains all too high.

Rolling back sex-ed is one thing. Not having formalized sexual education for a student population is another

Students are calling for change over the sex education curriculum scrap by the Ford government. (Olivia Chandler/CBC)

Last week, thousands of students across Ontario schools walked out in protest of changes to the province's sex-ed curriculum. It was a culmination of years of discussion from a diverse group of voices about what should or should not be taught in our schools. But there is one group whose voices have largely been missed: that of students with developmental disabilities, along with their parents.

The fact is that these students need sex education too. And few people across Canada are talking about it.

When my sister, who has a developmental disability, and I were growing up in the '70s and '80s, neither of us received very much formalized education on sexual health. I eventually learned what I needed to — through friends, the media and books — but she had access to none of that.

As a result, my sister and her peers lacked the most basic sexual health knowledge. They did not learn about contraception, consent or what it means to have pleasurable romantic and sexual relationships. And she and her friends were defenceless in the face of possible sexual victimization.

Lack of formalized policies

Fast forward to the present, and although we see changes, there is still much more to be done. Across the country, it's not easy to find formalized policies addressing sex education in publicly funded schools for those with developmental disabilities.

I've had conversations with school teachers from several provinces who teach these students (both in separate classrooms and integrated classrooms), as well as had conversations with parents, and it appears it is too frequently left up to individual teachers to decide, what, and how, they address sex-ed for this population. 

Various resources have been developed in several provinces (by community living agencies and others), but whether and how they are used in the classroom remains a question. The result is that the risk of abuse, victimization and poor sexual health remains all too high.

I remember once, in my job as a psychologist, assessing the sexual knowledge and attitudes of a young man with a developmental disability. He knew what homosexuality was and clearly articulated that it was bad. It turned out that he was sexually active in the LGBTQ community and felt confused and ashamed of who he was because he was never taught differently.

I also remember working with a young woman with a developmental disability who was diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI). She got it from her boyfriend, who had told her they didn't need condoms because she took birth control pills. In this case, the young woman had a knowledge gap, as well as a skills gap, around how to negotiate the need for protection with her partner.

Without inclusive sexual health information and the necessary skills to negotiate intimate relationships, people with disabilities remain extremely vulnerable. They also learn attitudes and false information that can put them at risk, misguide them and also make them feel guilty or ashamed of the choices they are making.

The government's decision to revert the curriculum to the 1998 version only affects elementary schools, but older students say they need to stand up for their younger friends. 2:17

Here's the staggering evidence.

A 2018 national NPR investigation conducted a review of federal data in the U.S. and found reported sexual assault rates are seven times higher for those with developmental disabilities than those without, with most assaults occurring during the day and by individuals familiar with the victim.

A recent large-scale study from the U.K. reported that youth with intellectual disabilities were significantly more likely to have unsafe sex than other youth, and girls with these disabilities were more likely to get pregnant and to become parents by age 20.

And in Canada?

The limited data available suggests that sexual assaults are more common for this population here too. A Statistics Canada report based on 2014 data says a staggering one in four women with cognitive disabilities experienced abuse by an adult before age 15.

In terms of pregnancy, young women with developmental disabilities have babies as often as young women without disabilities. But they are more likely to be living in poverty, with mental health issues and with health complications for them and their newborns.

A new study from my colleagues and I also indicates this population is twice as likely to have another baby within a year of childbirth, putting the infant at high risk for health complications and even mortality.

Sex happens whether it is discussed in the classroom or not. And those with developmental disabilities have sex too. Quality sexual health education in schools for those with developmental disabilities is a critical need, and must be a mandatory part of classroom instruction.

We need to think carefully about how to teach the information in a sensitive way, matching the learning needs of each student. The good news is that we live in an era where we have great advocates with disabilities who are ready and able to be part of the conversation on how we can do this better. So while we continue to debate the nature of sex-ed across the province, and indeed the country, we should be mindful of whose voices remain outside the conversation.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Yona Lunsky is Director of the Azrieli Centre for Adult Neurodevelopmental Disabilities and Mental Health at CAMH and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at University of Toronto. She is also a contributor with EvidenceNetwork.ca based at the University of Winnipeg.

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