Love it or loathe it, it’s coming: Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is a whirlwind of romance, fancy dates, chocolates, flowers. Or it’s a sad reminder of the lack of intimacy in our lives.
The topic of intimacy and adults with intellectual disabilities can be rife with controversy, and not without valid reasons. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice suggest that people with intellectual disabilities are more than seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted than people without disabilities. Often, the perpetrators are paid caregivers or family members upon whom the person with a disability relies for support.
A recent National Public Radio series exposed the public to this oft-forgotten subset of the #MeToo phenomenon. But many friends and families of people with intellectual disabilities have been long aware of the dangers to their loved ones. Thus, the idea of an intimate relationship is anathema.
Scary as it is, intimacy is an important component of the human condition. Love and belonging are on the third step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: just above physical needs (air, water, food) and personal safety. Having an intellectual disability does not preclude the desire and need for intimacy, and adults with disabilities have the same rights and responsibilities in sexual relationships as adults without disabilities.
Even with the support of family, people with intellectual disabilities may find the dating scene even harder than people without disabilities (and the dating scene is grueling enough as it is). The barriers come from all directions. Physical impairments or need for support around bathing, feeding and other hygiene tasks may impact the way others view the person sexually and often impacts how attractive the person with a disability feels. Opportunities for privacy or connecting with potential partners can be difficult for people in facilities or other programs designed for people with disabilities.
The good news is that there is evidence that one solution can assist with both protecting people with intellectual disabilities from sexual assault and opening the opportunities for positive consensual relationships. Sexual education helps people with intellectual disabilities learn to respect their bodies, set appropriate boundaries and speak up for themselves. Beyond the typical “stranger-danger” training (which is highly ineffective because most people with intellectual disabilities are assaulted by someone they already know), sex ed classes for people with disabilities can help shape understanding of how healthy relationships should look.
Katherine McLaughlin is a sex educator from New Hampshire who has developed training specifically for people with intellectual disabilities that uses the learning techniques most effective. She credits loneliness for a lot of the vulnerability her students experience and how they so easily fall victim to abusive relationships. By learning healthy sexuality, people with intellectual disabilities can improve their access to loving relationships and improve their safety.
In March, a group of disability professionals from Southwest Colorado are being trained by McLaughlin to be sexuality educators for our region. Perhaps next February holds romance for a few more of us.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.