Social and Sexual Awareness, the Perspective of Persons with Disabilities
By: Amoah Kwaku Addi
Sexual awareness is normal. Sexual feelings are normal, and there are many ways of expressing one's sexuality. If a person has a disability, it does not change any of this. What often changes is the socialization that provides the foundation for sexual identity.
In Ghana , persons with disabilities are sometimes oppressed and treated as less than someone without an identifiable disability. This can have a profound impact on the individual's self-identity. Often, people with developmental disabilities feel they are bad or that something is wrong with them. By extension, they can feel that their normal sexual feelings are also bad or wrong. Humans' sexual drive is a primary drive; it is not optional. We have a sexual drive as long as we have enough to eat, drink, and sleep; and we are not under undue stress.
Many of my of my disabled friends have told me in confidence that having sex with someone is the only time they feel normal. They have a job that they know a "normal" person would not have. They cannot drive. They are not free to go where they want, when they want. They always have to tell someone where they are and who they are with. They feel like they are treated like a child.
Children with disabilities, in the early years, we give them information on being a boy or a girl. It is also helpful to give them correct names for their body parts including penis, vagina and anus. These terms should be taught using relaxed and open language.
Whatever words you choose, they will best serve a child by imparting the notion that sexual feelings are wonderful and very personal. Bath time is also a good time to teach body awareness including the need to treat one's body with respect. Based on my experience, I believe this can be taught, regardless of the identified level of disability.
If we allow the child's disability to keep him from teaching these concepts, then we will leave him/her vulnerable. Just as children learn to eat, drink, sleep, and deal with fear, they can learn to express their sexuality. In fact, children need appropriate support to express themselves sexually; and this support includes information about appropriate boundaries and various ways to show regard for one's self.
Teenagers and Adults with disability, by the time they move into their teens, they will experience changes in their bodies that are reflected in their sexuality. They will begin to experience orgasms. They will grow pubic and underarm hair. Overall body hair will change. A young man's voice will change. A young woman will begin to menstruate. Imagine going through these changes without knowing the names of body parts, without the preparation of anticipating change, and without the awareness that someone trusted is available if he/she has any questions. This type of information helps these individuals know that they are not "falling apart" and that they can ask questions. It is not enough to just wait and then tell someone "oh, by the way, ask if you have questions."
After a young woman begins menstruation, she is old enough for regular vaginal exams. Many will be terrified of these exams. Women with disabilities often need training on how to breath during an exam, how to relax the vaginal muscles, and how to be assertive with the physician in order to go through exams without being medicated. Women who do not speak can be taught to use gestures to tell the doctor to "stop" or "wait."
Women are abused sexually at alarming rate, however, women who have a disability appear to be abused even more. While accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, it is certain that all women and men with disabilities need to be aware of their healthy sexual options; and they need to know what to do if faced with sexual abuse or sexual contact that makes them uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, some people are victimized sexually because they value the feeling of sexual activity. If we can recognize the power of an abusive relationship because of one’s sexual feelings, we will be better able to support people in developing ways to discriminate respectful relationships that can grow and benefit both people.
Adult men and women who have disabilities may or may not be aware of their own attractiveness and how they present themselves to others. Women who have a disability may want to shave their legs in the summer. Men may want to experiment with hairstyles. Both may want to decide what looks best on them. This may seem trivial, but it is important; it allows them to deal with the world.
Some individuals with disabilities may need specific instructions about social expectations. Some manners, ways of conversing, or sexual mores may not have meaning for them in the same way a person without autism might experience them. For these individuals, it is important to provide them with ample information about social rituals and boundaries. Role playing, discreet reminders when in public, and lots of practice are helpful.
People are sexual beings. It is not a choice or an option. It is a truth. The best sex education is a full awareness of social skills, boundaries, sexual expression, and expectations.
The author is the president of the network of journalists for the promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities in Africa (PROMOAFRICA), email:firstname.lastname@example.org Tel:0233 267457253