Intervention can be a complex and diverse field. We understand that we are going to be a crucial part of another person’s day-to-day life. But do we all know what this really entails; how complex each person can be and understanding and supporting them to the best of our abilities? Today I want to talk a little bit about one of those areas of support, and it’s one that tends to make some people a little uncomfortable. Sexuality. Many of us are working with adults and probably assume that this topic was covered in their childhood education. Some of us work with individuals who are also experiencing other developmental disabilities, and may not think this area is something that we need to be concerned with. I’m here to provide you with another point of view and maybe give you cause for consideration.
What does sexuality mean, when in reality it means something different to each and every person? In a room full of people, you will have a room full of different answers to this question. The most basic definition states “a person’s capacity for sexual feelings,” while more broad definitions include sexual orientation and gender. In today’s society, there is a general belief and understanding that sexuality is something that every person develops and experiences. But it wasn’t that long ago that it was a common myth that children and teens with developmental disabilities didn’t require sexual education as they would not develop into sexually mature adults. Depending on the age of your consumer, there may have been a completely different focus, or lack thereof, when it comes to sexual education.
Generally, we tend to break down sexual education to include physical development and changes, hygiene, privacy and personal boundaries. Most of us probably remember some fraction of this information from our elementary school days. How about your consumers? Most of our consumers were in a different line of education, focusing more on basic concepts required to encourage communication and language. If sexual education isn’t a realization during their school years, where does the responsibility fall? As previously discussed, sexuality is a part of every person, so there is an incredible responsibility to help our consumers understand their own bodies and feelings associated with sex and sexuality. They need information that is clear and concise and presented at their level of developmental functioning, in a means of communication that they best understand. For some consumers this may also cover topics like safe dating, safe sex, sexual consent and abuse, and sexual orientation.
It also is important to consider the barriers that arise for our consumers. Most children who are sighted/hearing can learn to pick up on the subtle hints society puts out. They start to understand modesty, and appropriate sexual behaviour, by watching and learning from the world around them. Many of our consumers are never afforded that opportunity, and don’t have the ability to learn about society’s expectations without being directly taught. Society can also be unforgiving when it comes to sexually inappropriate behaviour, and providing this education can be a key component to ensuring our consumers can integrate into society successfully.
Now to consider what barriers arise for us, the intervenors. Some people aren’t comfortable openly talking about sex and the human body. Depending on your consumer’s specific situation, do you have other family members to consult and discuss this with? Do you believe they will be supportive of learning about sexuality? Do you struggle with how you will teach about sexuality if your consumer has limited sight/hearing? How do you approach this topic in a way that will be successful? What are the building blocks to ensure you are providing your consumer with all the information to help them understand? Are you worried how your coworkers or consumer’s family members will view you after broaching this topic? Will they think you are acting inappropriately? How do you move forward, feeling safe and supported, as an intervenor?
These are all valid questions, and I don’t know that there is a clear answer to them that can be applied across the board. Sexuality is such a tough subject, and can bring up a lot of feelings and frustration for everyone involved. But I ask you this, would you rather suffer that frustration trying to provide support to your consumer? Or leave your consumer feeling this frustration at not understanding their own body and feelings? I promise you that if you have any concerns about your consumer and their own understanding of sexuality, moving forward in any way possible, is better than not moving forward at all.
Robbie Blaha, a teacher of students who are deafblind at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, has done extensive writing on this topic and has numerous resources to offer to anyone interested. She offers suggestions for how to go about approaching the topic and preparing yourself and your agency. She also talks about tips on how to build basic concepts and move forward depending on your consumer. I would advise you to start within your organization. Seek support from your immediate supervisor and anyone else who may have something to offer. The training department, for example, may have access to some amazing resources already. Ask for support when approaching the rest of the team and come up with a clear plan about what you are hoping to achieve and why you think it is important for your consumer. With a touchy subject such as this, it’s important to have the support of your employer, and to have a clear goal.
One of the biggest barriers can be family members, and while it can be a source of frustration, it is also of the utmost importance that you involve them and receive their support. Each family has a different set of values and beliefs, and this includes sexuality. Respecting the family and their wishes is key. If you bring forward a well thought out plan, in most cases, the family will want the same things for their child/sibling/parent. No one wants to think someone that they care about is struggling.
At the end of the day, sexuality is just one more thing that we need to provide equal access, and ensure that every member of our society is able to make informed decisions.
Danielle Halliday is a support intervenor with CDBA Ontario in the Supported Independent Living Program in Kingston. Danielle has been working with CDBA Ontario for six and a half years. She enjoys bringing her passions to her consumers, such as crafting, reading and planning outings in the community.