Disability, sex education and language part 2.

Last week, I spoke about how to reference disability during sex education and to include the invisible disabilities in the room. Today I want to talk about sex education with students who we know are disabled – who may, in fact, be in the group because they are disabled.

Targeted sessions for sex education can be really valid and important. There is, as always, the argument to be made that exclusion is never really inclusion. However offering a space that includes only those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities – young people who fit in to this category know who they are.

The difficulty can be that young people with SEND are often slotted in to that category for a number of reasons – some may have physical disabilities, some may have learning disabilities and there is a high proportion of young people who will straddle both camps.

This means that the language that we use may be different for these groups than “mainstream” groups. There is a danger that some students with physical disabilities who are otherwise developmentally typical may find language designed to be clear and simplistic patronising. This can be avoided by making sure that you explain that you don’t want to assume what anyone in the group knows, and that you want everyone to understand.

That being said, for young people who are at a level of learning (or perhaps language understanding) significantly below their peers – for example working at pre-entry or entry level – it may be considered more appropriate to run a session for this group separately to allow content to be more visual than verbal.

It’s important when introducing topics around sexual health and sexual relationships that we offer all young people the same chance at an extensive vocabulary. For some learners, a visual or adapted definition may also be needed, but penis, testicles, vulva, vagina, breasts and anus are all medical terms and all young people deserve the power of being able to use them.

Concepts such as consent, porn, rape and sexual assault are also important for all young people. As educators we sometimes worry about how to check understanding but there are visuals that can help. Makaton and widgit both often symbol packs that can help, and Easy on the I via NHS Leeds offers symbols that could be helpful in breaking down some more challenging concepts.

Even if it is a challenge, all young people deserve access to sex education, and the time taken to explain and cement these concepts shouldn’t be a reason to avoid doing this. The benefit these young people will get is always worth the time taken.

Disability, sex education and language.

I post a lot on my instagram about language and how it matters when we’re talking about sex with young people with disabilities. I have more to say on it than I think one post can cover, so today I’m going to look at including reference to disability in your language.

For many young people with disabilities, especially those in mainstream schools, they don’t often see themselves represented in discussions about sex. I’m thinking particularly of high frequency disabilities such as asthma, diabetes or allergies that can have small but impactful effects on their sex lives.

Addressing this doesn’t have to be as awkward as people think it will be when I first mention it. “Do I have to run through all the disabilities in every session I teach?”, “won’t they just ask if that effects them?”, are common questions I get when I bring this up, and the answer to both of them is usually ‘no’. Most students won’t have ever thought about chronic illness or disability unless it directly affects them, so having a reminder when discussing communication or consent that they should check in on whether their partner has any health issues they should be aware of might genuinely be the first time they’ve considered it. It also speaks to the disabled young people in the room who would never know how to bring it up to someone without health issues. Which brings me on to the second question.

Young people who have a disability have often had it for the majority of their lives. Chances are, even with the best care or support, they’ve felt like an outsider because of it more than once. It’s unlikely that they would put themselves in that position again.

Inclusivity of language when it comes to talking about disabilities in general isn’t difficult – it’s quite simply a case of acknowledging that disabilities exist. Of asking young people to take account of the things they need to know about their partner in order to engage in good communication, of reminding young people with disabilities that their disability should never be a burden.

Practical examples that could be impactful to young people could include:

  • Reminding a group that latex allergies exist and that this is something to be aware of when using condoms;
  • Talking about the fact that there are several health conditions that can make hormonal contraception an unviable option, and that no one should be made to feel bad for this;
  • Talking about the fact that sex can be many different things and that some people may change the position or way they have sex due to their health needs;
  • Reminding them that sex is a physical activity and that some people may find this harder than others, and that checking in is always a good thing.

None of this needs to be awkward or difficult, and it is never unnecessary. For those that don’t have a disability, it reminds them that they might have to learn to accommodate different needs in the future, and for those that do, it shows that this accommodation isn’t a burden or a privilege, but a right.