From the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling, to the growing awareness of police brutality, to the debate over cultural appropriation to the expanding impact of feminism, equality is a hot topic. But in these progressive conversations, one issue is being ignored altogether. North American education systems, though increasingly progressive and supportive of sex education, lack such a program for mentally disabled children. The reasons for this problem are routed in stereotypes, causing unfair and unsafe consequences.
One in 100 people in North America is considered “intellectually disabled” or “having varying degrees of deficits in intellectual and/or adaptive functions like reasoning, abstract thinking, and practical understanding.” With this in mind, it seems strange that the needs of a such a large group go ignored and unnoticed. When you consider the stereotype surrounding the disabled individual’s sexuality, however, it is less surprising than it is infuriating.
Many parents of disabled children believe in total integration of their disabled kids into “normal” school life. They think that putting their kids in regular classes and typical social situations, such as sports and extracurricular activities, is beneficial emotionally; it makes their child feel accepted and less like an outsider. When children need to be taught at a different level and pace, education programs have also evolved to teach them in a specialized way. But when it comes to sexual education, parents and educators alike feel uncomfortable communicating with special needs students. The educators feel that because the mentally disabled often struggle socially, exposing them to sexual content is a precarious situation. Educators and parents treat these students excessively delicately in fear that kids, God forbid, make someone uncomfortable by talking about sexuality.
Social discomfort in educating neurotypical kids about sex is considered a polarizing point for those who advocate for safe sex education over abstinence education. But forget that debate for a minute and pretend we are all on the side of progress, that safe sex education is the norm. Parents and educators on this side of the spectrum still buy into narrowing stereotypes, of a mentally disabled person that is either a wholesome, asexual individual or a sexual predator. These stereotypes are inherently wrong, and fail to portray the disabled as complex and human. Yet they continue to prevail today.
In May, when Madeline Stuart appeared in glamour shots with make-up and in a bikini, she received criticism for exploitation and inappropriately over sexualizing herself because — never mind the fact that she is a model and an actress — she has Down’s Syndrome. The backlash she faced is evidence that even though issues like sexism and misogyny are being called out today, those with special needs continue to be misrepresented. People are warming up to letting non-disabled women express their sexuality and self-confidence, but most still fail to view those with special needs as multi-faceted and dimensional people. Of course, mentally disabled children and adults contain multitudes of sexual desires, orientations and experiences. Because of the lack of a disabled-specialized sex-education system, the mentally disabled are thrown into the same confusing situations of wanting to explore their sexuality, but without any of the information that the other kids receive.
The stereotypes of only innocent or predatory mentally disabled people are also inaccurate, considering these abuse statistics. Research shows that “30 percent of men and 80 percent of women with an intellectual disability will be sexually abused in their lifetime. Of that 80 percent, over half will have been raped at least ten times before age 18.” And yet we perpetuate the belief that the disabled are sexually naive. Based on this data, continuing to think this way and failing to expose how kids are targeted (solely because they are disabled) puts them in danger.
When the media continues its discussion of equality, the need for a sex-education program for differently abled children must be included for one simple reason: the mentally disabled are entitled to the same rights and safety as anyone else.