Sexual Health And Education For Intellectually Disabled!

Intellectual Disability Photo

We’ve discussed before the inadequacy of Young Adults accessibility to information regarding sex, sexuality, sexual health and education. We’ve discussed before how the education system shifts responsibility to the parents, where the parents shift the responsibility to the education system. Often, what’s left is small under funded by the government organisations which are left to fill in the gaps. But they’re not working. What remains is a system of peer based discussion, access to pornography, and a befuddling conversation with parents, teachers and what’s mandatory teaching in the school Physical Education classes. It’s clear, report after report, that young adults are vulnerable in terms of the lack of information that’s given to them when it comes to sexual health and education. The thing is that sexuality is an important part of humanity, humans are one of the few species on the planet which has sexual relationships for pleasure as opposed to solely reproductive purposes. Concepts such as pleasure, consent, masturbation, and sexual experimentation are often left behind when it comes to sexual health and education. More so when the young adult has an intellectual disability. People forget that individuals with intellectual disabilities have the same capacity to experience the same spectrum of sexual behaviour as those without intellectual disabilities. We’re talking about concepts such as sexual thoughts, sexual attitudes, feelings, desires, fantasies – all of which can be experienced by individuals irrespective of their intellectual capabilities. If the reports are indicating that mainstream young adults are not receiving adequate information regarding sexual health and education – then how it is the support mechanisms for those with Intellectual disabilities?

What is an Intellectual Disability?

There are many misconceptions when it comes to Intellectual Disabilities (I.D) – as many people categorise it to individuals which are incapable of self-support. This is incorrect and people with I.D can still be functioning individuals within society. Intellectual Disability is a term which describes a reduced capability to grasp and understand new and complex information. Essentially, I.D can be defined as ‘difficulty learning or understanding things’ (Survey of Disability, Ageing, and Carers). It is, for the most part, further characterised by an IQ below 70, and is associated with minor to significant difficulty with daily living which includes things like communication, safety, and self-care. Disabilities within the spectrum include; FXS, Down Syndrome, Developmental Delays, PWS, FASD and can be present from before birth, or brought on during birth and as a result of other environmental factors from birth. Australian statistics indicate that in 2012 2.9% of Australians (668,100) had an intellectual disability, which signified an increase from 2009 which saw 2.6% of the population diagnosed or 565,000 people. It is inevitable with the growing population rate that there will be a continued increase to people having intellectual disabilities. Breaking this down further from the 2012 results, 567,000 individuals with I.D needed assistance with at least one activity throughout their daily life and as a result needed either a carer, or family member close by.

What does this have to do with sexual health and education though? What’s frightening is that these statistics aren’t the scary ones. Reports vary wildly but research suggests that one in six women will survive a rape or attempted rape encounter but for women with an ID, that number jumps considerably. One in four women with ID whom has been referred to a GP for birth control has reported a sexually violent incident. Other research and reports claim that the number is actually higher – reporting that almost half of individuals with I.D will or have experienced at least ten incidents of sexual abuse in their lifetime. This number can be considerably skewed by the research demonstrated by a 2015 Study published in the Journal of Sexual Research. This study concluded that women with ID have great difficulty/simply don’t associate pleasure with sex and rather will willingly play a passive role which sees them far more inclined in directing pleasure to the penis of their sexual partner forsaking their own pleasure. Furthermore, after sexual activity they are far more likely to exhibit feelings of depression and guilt. Where the Journal of Adolescent Health reports that 10% of women will experience an STD, the numbers jump in comparison to a cognitively impaired female with the percentage sitting at roughly 26%.


Intellectual Disability Photo
Photo: Intellectual Disability


It’s clear that not only is there a significant increase in instances of sexual abuse, but also greater risk of early pregnancy and STD’s with individuals who had an I.D. The question is why? Now, many people will automatically assume or blame the individual because they feel that they can’t control their feelings, emotions or behaviours. Whilst this is true to a certain extent the World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies different primary contributing factors. WHO, as well as other reports on I.D all identify that adolescents and adults who are classified as having an I.D are far more likely to be excluded from Sex Education Programmes.’ (WHO, report). WHO in its report, doesn’t identify specifically on this trend in much detail, it has been speculated elsewhere as to the reasoning’s behind this thinking. These include:

  • The perceived desexualisation and application of Asexuality towards individuals with ID at the hands of other people, IE educators, carers etc.
  • The reluctance of parents exposing children with ID to talks of a sexual nature out of protection, or out of desexualisation.
  • The mentality that carers view an I.D individuals sexuality as something that is feared and needs to be controlled.
  • Misconception of Medical Professionals who perceive people with I.D not to be sexually active which results in a profound failure to offer sexual and reproductive health information and services.

Indeed, in the United Nations Convention on the Right so Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the report notes that even though in many countries there are legal prohibitions, there are still many cases of forced and/or involuntary sterilization used to prevent the reproduction of some people with Intellectual Disabilities and that this sterilization is almost exclusively confined to women. Sex education and accessibility to sexual health information is an important process in the development of positive experiences of sex and relationships that occur with individuals with I.D. Further from this, appropriate relationship behaviours also need to be taught to people with I.D so that they are better able to identify inappropriate behaviour and respond accordingly. Often, people with I.D miss out on the opportunity to mix with other people socially and as such will struggle to develop a relationship with someone else. Reasons for this include;

  • A lack of privacy. Having a carer around constantly.
  • Dependancy on others for daily living
  • Lack of confidence
  • Profound lack of social development due to being excluded from mainstream classes young
  • Limited social experience

What this can result in is inappropriate sexual expression and behaviour and therefore it is clear that any individual with an intellectual disability will need additional support during their teens and developmental years in order to develop coping and behavioural mechanisms to support their exploration of their sexuality and develop relationship skills.

It’s therefore clear that people with an intellectual disability can no longer be excluded from sexual health and information courses. Indeed, people with I.D may need further education when it comes to health and sexuality which entails an education which includes:

  • Teaching individuals that people with disabilities can have sex lives and sexual relationships
  • Cover issues that may be associated with their particular disability that is delivered in an age appropriate manner.
  • Teaches and explains social rules which include differences between public and private behaviours.
  • Is delivered and taught in a way that works with an individuals level of understanding.

It is an important process for parents and carers to go through as well. Carers need to understand appropriate ways in which they can allow the individual under their care to flourish in social relationships which may or may not be of a sexual nature. The educational process needs to facilitated by schooling, parents, and peers in order for it to be effective teaching. Many of the issues are derived from misconceptions regarding people with I.D and this is where social awareness regarding I.D will come into play. It’s a delicate balance that needs to be approached from multiple angles in order to correct this oversight in society.

Adult Lifestyle Centres proudly support and cater for persons with physical and mental disabilities.