Those with disabilities fight many battles, but those with disabilities who also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) face an even harder fight. Regardless of personal beliefs, sexuality plays a significant role in healthy development, and those with disabilities need to understand how their sexuality impacts their lives.
The Role of Sexuality in Healthy Development
Learning to accept the changes of adolescence and adulthood is a strong part of sexuality. According to Michigan State University, discussing sex and sexuality with adolescents is one of the most frightening and difficult tasks adults endure. In fact, a caring and honest conversation about sexuality may need to take place during childhood, especially as society moves toward a more sexually-inclusive era. Unfortunately, those with disabilities may find the “talk” about sexuality to be much more difficult.
For example, people may try to “blame” a person’s sexuality on a preexisting intellectual or physical disability, but a disability does not define sexuality. Instead, sexuality revolves around a compendium of diverse values, explains the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. Unplanned pregnancies could occur, and the cruelty of peers can quickly evident. However, education is vital to helping those with disabilities understand their sexuality.
The Importance of Education in Healthy Sexuality
Before teaching those with disabilities about sexuality and sexual orientation, it is important for authoritative figures, which include family members, social workers, case managers, parents, caregivers and other direct service providers to help them understand how their bodies change during puberty. This conversation can seem like a burden, but it is necessary to promote healthy development.
During adolescence, the body develops secondary sex characteristics, which include the following:
- In young men, the voice deepens, the testes mature, facial, pubic and body hair may appear and sperm production begins.
- In young women, the hips widen, the breasts grow, and young women experience their menarche, otherwise known as the first menstruation.
These changes in body appearance and characteristics can be especially frightening for those with disabilities, but caregivers can make the transition during puberty much easier by explaining these changes before they occur. However, certain medications can have an impact on the onset of puberty.
For example, those with disabilities who identify as transgender may want to start medication treatment to prevent secondary sex characteristics of their birth-gender from developing. This is where the conversation gets confusing. In another scenario, medications to help adolescents control anger or emotions can delay or catalyze the onset of puberty. The key to preventing these changes from destroying a person’s self-confidence and resolve is helping them understand their sexual identity.
Self-identity is not the only challenge those with disabilities face. According to PinkNews, a UK news organization for members of the LGBT community, those with disabilities are nearly 10-percent more likely to suffer from homophobic bullying than those without disabilities. This could include relationship violence as well. Consequently, you have a duty to help those with disabilities understand what is and is not acceptable as sexuality develops.
How to Help Those With Disabilities Understand Their Sexuality
Sexual orientation and identity are fundamental parts of modern society, but discrimination continues. The only way to prevent discrimination of those with disabilities due to sexual orientation is by helping understand their sexual identity and orientation. Fortunately, the following steps can guide you through the process.
- Recognize that sexuality does not mean something is wrong. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA stopped labeling homosexuality as a mental disorder, reports the publication, “Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality.” However, society has been slow to adapt, and some continue to argue for “aversion therapy” to “cure” those who identify as LGBT.
- Explain how everyone develops sexual characteristics and a sexual orientation. This part of the conversation must include a comprehensive view on sexual orientation. Therapists, social workers and case managers can access a variety of resources at the APA for printed materials and guidelines on explaining different types of sexuality as well.
- Identify unhealthy sexual practices or behaviors. For example, you need to teach individuals with disabilities the importance of consent and unwelcome or illegal sexual advances.
- If a person with disabilities identifies as transgender, recognize that discrimination likely started at birth by assuming gender at birth is the only option, explains the APA’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Gender Nonconforming People.
- Explain the importance of using condoms during sexual activities. This may seem irrelevant, but the use of condoms can help those learning more about their sexuality avoid unplanned pregnancies and possible contraction of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or infections (STIs). Some community centers may offer free condoms to further help this cause.
- Start preventative screening for all sexually active people with disabilities. In addition, focus on how preventative screenings can help those with disabilities get treatment for the presence of any STDs or STIs.
- Set up group therapy or other ways to help those with disabilities who also identify as LGBT to socialize. Those with disabilities who identify as LGBT may become isolated, and the pain of discrimination can be terrible. Group sessions or social interactions help to combat isolation and encourage the development of positive relationships with others.
- Follow up. Individuals with disabilities may feel these conversations are scary and avoidable. However, you need to reach out and keep the connection strong to prevent the turmoil from turning into a tragedy.
Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to become who they want to be, and those with disabilities can develop to be healthy members of the LGBT community as well. By taking the time to recognize that those with disabilities have just as many rights to their own choices in both life and sexuality, you can make a difference in the community you serve.