Teaching Sex Ed To People With Intellectual Disabilities The high rates of sexual assault among people with intellectual disabilities can make romantic relationships difficult. One class aims to teach them about healthy relationships and sexuality.
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For Some With Intellectual Disabilities, Ending Abuse Starts With Sex Ed

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For Some With Intellectual Disabilities, Ending Abuse Starts With Sex Ed

For Some With Intellectual Disabilities, Ending Abuse Starts With Sex Ed

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An NPR investigation has revealed an epidemic of sexual assault against people with intellectual disabilities. This morning, we're going to hear about one part of a solution - sex ed classes. This is because the first step is to name what is abusive. And just a warning here - there are descriptions of sexual assault in this report from NPR's Joseph Shapiro.


JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We're in a large room - it's full of windows and light - at a center in Casco, Maine, run by a group called Momentum that works with people with intellectual disabilities. They come here during the week for different programs. They go kayaking and biking. They go to the library and do volunteer work at the local food bank. And on this morning, a dozen adults evenly split between men and women take chairs around the large room.

KATY PARK: Wake your bodies up. Great. Keep you motivated.

SHAPIRO: They're here for the sex education class.

PARK: All right, let's do a little brainstorming first. Let's talk about...

SHAPIRO: It's a class about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality.

PARK: Why do we want to be in a relationship?

SHAPIRO: That's the teacher, Katy Park. She's holding a marker and writing the answers on a whiteboard.

JULIAN: For love.

PARK: For love.

JULIAN: And sexual reaction.

PARK: So yeah, love and sex - right? - pleasure. What else?

SHAPIRO: There's a range of disability here.

PARK: How about romance?

ZACH: Yeah.


ZACH: There's nothing wrong with that.

PARK: Nothing wrong with that.

KACHINA: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: You can look at some of the men and women - maybe someone with Down syndrome - and see they have a disability. And others, even after you talk to them, you might not figure out they have an intellectual disability, like this woman.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, he was strangling me and stuff like that.

SHAPIRO: For her, like for others in this class, there's something that gets in the way of relationships. It's her own history of sexual assault.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He was - the R-word - I hate to say it, but rape.

SHAPIRO: The R-word she's talking about, the word she says softly, is rape.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He did that to me. I've been that eight times, so I don't know how I'm alive today, actually. And he choked me where I almost - I blacked out. He used to hit me, kick me.

SHAPIRO: We're not using her name. She's 22 now. She was 18 then, and her boyfriend was several years older. She says he was controlling. He didn't let her have a cellphone or go see her friends. And she thinks she was an easy target for him because of her mild intellectual disability.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I think people, like, take advantage. They like to take advantage of disabilities because I have disabilities not as bad as theirs. But I think he liked to take advantage, which is wrong. I hate that.

SHAPIRO: She says the class helped her better understand what she wanted and had a right to in a relationship, and that she's got a kind and respectful boyfriend now.

PARK: So let's try it where I start it and then you guys follow, right? My body is my own.


PARK: And I get to decide what is right for me.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: And I get to decide what is right for me.

SHAPIRO: The material in this sex ed class is not watered down for these people with intellectual disabilities. They take on complex issues, like breaking up and abusive relationships. The main accommodation is that the material is broken down and spread out over 10 sessions, and each class lasts for 2 1/2 hours. The people here are completely attentive. They do take a couple very short breaks to get up and move around.

PARK: OK, I'm going to start the music.

SHAPIRO: And at one point, they take a break and get up and dance.


SHAPIRO: Everyone in this room says they want love and relationships. They see their parents, their siblings, their friends in relationships. They see it when they watch TV and go to the movies. They want the same things as anyone else. But the men and women in this room know that in the eyes of the rest of the world, they're not seen as people who are going to find love, romance or sex. They're considered childlike or incapable or just uninterested.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T - find out what it means to me.

SHAPIRO: When they were in school, they probably didn't get the sex ed classes the other kids got. And now that they're adults, it's harder for them, compared to other people, to develop relationships. Just going on a date is hard. They probably don't drive or have cars. They rely on public transportation. They don't have a lot of money. They live at home with their parents or in a group home where there's not a lot of privacy.

PARK: Nice moves, guys.


SHAPIRO: And then there's that history of sexual assault - the thing that really complicates relationships for people with intellectual disabilities. They suffer some of the highest rates of sexual abuse. Our NPR investigation used unpublished federal crime data and found people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at rates at least seven times the rate for people without disabilities.

PARK: Oftentimes it actually is among the only sexual experience they've had.

SHAPIRO: That's Katy Park, who teaches the class.

PARK: When you don't have other healthy sexual experiences, how do you sort through that?

SHAPIRO: And that's why Park brought the sex ed curriculum because the best way to stop sexual abuse is to give these men and women the ability to identify what's abuse and then how to stop it.

PARK: And then it's breaking the chain, being empowered to say, no, this stops with me.

SHAPIRO: One woman in the class, Lynne, says she'd like to find a boyfriend. She's 38 now. But in her past, she's experienced sexual assault.

LYNNE: All my friends were with this guy, this older guy that knew us. They wanted us to do some stuff, and I didn't want to do it. And they just forced us to do it.

SHAPIRO: How old were you at the time?

LYNNE: Fourteen.

SHAPIRO: Fourteen.

And the next year when she was 15, she was sexually assaulted again, this time by a boy at her school.

So were you able to tell somebody about that one?

LYNNE: No, I had to - I was trying to scream but...

SHAPIRO: Trying to scream.

LYNNE: Yeah.


LYNNE: To get help.


LYNNE: But I couldn't because he had his hand over my mouth telling me not to say anything to anybody.

SHAPIRO: Those rapes and others left Lynne - and we've agreed to identify her by her middle name - unable to have relationships.

LYNNE: I couldn't trust anybody.

SHAPIRO: She says this class has helped her realize she wants a romantic relationship and that it's something that's maybe finally possible for her now.

LYNNE: By taking the class, I can really try to trust people to like me and then they can just get to know people instead of just rushing into a relationship.

SHAPIRO: Lynne is trying to turn around a history of repeated sexual abuse. It's her personal history, but it's also the common story of people like her with intellectual disabilities across America. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.


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