sex education for people with intellectual disabilities

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Sex education for people with intellectual disabilities has been characterized by neglect. This was evidenced during the time of the HIV / AIDS epidemic, when people with intellectual disabilities found themselves in a vulnerable position because they had no education on protection against this disease.

The push to tackle this epidemic has seen the start of sex education work among people with intellectual disabilities, including HIV prevention work in places like the UK, Australia, Canada and the States. -United.

The pioneering work of educators in the field has focused on bringing sexuality issues closer to people with intellectual disabilities. However, today there is still only a limited amount of direct sex education offered as it is often not part of the holistic education provided to people with intellectual disabilities.

Lack of knowledge in a number of key areas including pregnancy, masturbation, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, types of sex, as well as the legal aspects of sex is typical of people with intellectual disabilities.

There are many reasons for these low levels of sexual knowledge. Among them there is less informal sex education, for example from parents, friends and the media, and ultimately less sexual experiences and relationships compared to people without disabilities. As a result, people with intellectual disabilities often have fewer opportunities to observe, develop and practice appropriate social and sexual behavior.

The influence of Catholic doctrine on social policy and the curricular aspects of sexuality has been notable throughout Maltese history

In addition to receiving only limited information about sexuality, sex education is often marred by moral issues, and the content is often at the discretion of educators and parents. The information provided is frequently revised based on what the latter believes the recipient could understand and use.

As a result, the model of education to which people with intellectual disabilities are often exposed is factual and biological, but also rules-based. Notwithstanding that the WHO definition of sexual health includes “the opportunity to have pleasurable and safe sexual experiences”, protection and prevention are often central to sex education for people with intellectual disabilities. This approach is known to leave them with more questions than answers and information gaps.

Additionally, a predominantly reactive pedagogical approach to sexuality education, rather than a proactive one, is often adopted as a result of a real or perceived problem with sexual behavior or reproduction. The rationale for this ranges from stereotypical beliefs about asexuality to overprotection and cultural taboos about sexuality.

Sex education in Malta

Tom Shakespeare, who visited Malta in 2017, argues that barriers to sexual expression for people with disabilities are primarily related to the society they live in and “not the bodies they have”.

Socio-cultural beliefs surrounding sexuality and disability have a strong and direct influence on the sexuality of people with intellectual disabilities and their desirability to receive sex education.

Therefore, cultural scripts associated with restrictive religious views regarding sexuality have had an additional impact on the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

Malta is strongly influenced by Catholicism and the associated family values ​​which exert a powerful influence on our culture. In the Maltese context, a common portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities is an image of innocence embodying the phenomenon of the eternal child. The state of innocence is believed to be the result of an underdeveloped intellect accompanied by a protected life without exposure to sexual experiences.

The angelic image of people with intellectual disabilities contrasts sharply with another early Christian belief that stereotypically portrayed people with intellectual disabilities as possessed by the devil, thus making them dangerous and unable to control themselves.

These two portraits contributed to the fact that people with intellectual disabilities, in this context, were hidden from society from early childhood, either to be protected from the society itself or to save the family from embarrassment.

The influence of Catholic doctrine on social policy and the curricular aspects of sexuality has been notable throughout Maltese history.

Currently, local research claims that the majority of parents of people with intellectual disabilities resist the idea that their sons and daughters have a gender identity and that they might have intimate relationships. Some parents also lack sex education themselves, in addition to disapproving of it, as they find it difficult to accept their children being exposed to and interested in these issues.

In this context, the discourse on sexuality and disability has only recently come to national attention. As a result, in recent years, local service providers, NGOs and DPOs have been proactive in their approach to sexuality and have sought training in sexuality education. This was ultimately reflected in the availability of sex education for people with intellectual disabilities and their parents, while others used alternative forms of sexual expression through mediums such as the arts, such as the Project Sex-Able by Lou Ghirlando and Diana Cauchi and more recent video productions. by opening doors.

While proactivity, rather than the outdated reactive model, is encouraged, sexuality education should be approached by striving to strike the necessary balance between empowerment through knowledge and sexual autonomy based on the right to sexuality. sexual expression.

Claire Azzopardi Lane is Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Social Welfare and heads the Department of Disability Studies and the Department of Gender and Sexualities. Specialization In the area of ​​disability and sexuality, Azzopardi Lane has worked in various sectors, including education and social assistance. Her doctoral research focused on elements of sexuality in people with intellectual disabilities in a Maltese context. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Women’s Rights.

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