Teaching about sex for students with disabilities

What’s going on with sex—and sexuality—education for individuals with disabilities? Let’s start a conversation.

There are many intersections when talking about students with disabilities. One can find observations and research about racial or ethnic background, gender, LGBTQ+, and etc. I thought about  creating a Venn diagram showing the multiple overlaps…but bailed on it. 

Instead, I hope we can discuss different views about how special educators should handle the topic of sex (and sexuality) education in general. Kids, including kids with disabilities, will grow up, and part of being grown up is learning how to decide what adolescent and adult behavior, including sex, are and should be like and the consequences of those decisions.

There are strong parental concerns about parental authority regarding a sensitive topic. Parents of children and youths with disabilities have perspectives that merit consideration. For example, in August of 2021, Cammie McGovern, the mother of a young autistic man, explained her perspective in a New York Times opinion piece; she made many good points, including noting how few US states mandate sex education and describing what she sees as a beneficial approach employed in the United Kingdom.

Educators should also consider the perspectives of the people who receive sex education. Basing arguments on “crip theory,” Frawley and O’Shea (2020) make the case for participant participation; they describe an Australian program created in consultation with individuals with intellectual disability.

As special educators will know, the intersections among asepcts of the lives of individuals with disabilities—as well as the perspectives of parents and educators—produce lots of questions about teaching for students with disabilities. Here are a few:

  • What should be taught about sex, intimate relationships, masturbation, and many other normal human behaviors to any students, including those with disabilities? 

  • How should topics about illegal or unpleasant sex be addressed?

  • What should the curriculum include about individuals with disabilities?

  • What should be discussed about LGBTQ+? issues?

  • What guidance should we provide to students with disabilities who intersect with LGBTQ+? issues?…and also race-ethnicity?

  • Is there research that can guide education efforts?

There is a newish book that I am hoping to read. Toft and Franklin (2020) have chapters in their edited book that look interesting. If anyone’s read it, please provide comments. There is also other literature about the topic, but little of it I saw rose to the level of prescriptive research; there was lots of authors’ arguments, but I found few experimental studies (exception: Hayashi et al., 2011). If you know of some, please enlighten us.

Speaking personally, I hope that young adults and adults with disabilities do not get the message intimacy is a bad thing; intimcy is a fundamental human priviledge that can bring joy and closeness. Neither do I hope that they learn that promiscuity is the appropriate path. And I hope that they learn there are times and places for sex and that force should not be a part of it. Those are some starter thoughts.

Anyway, as indicated earlier, I hope we can have a discussion here.



Frawley, P., & O’Shea, A. (2020). ‘Nothing about us without us’: Sex education by and for people with intellectual disability in Australia. Sex Education20(4), 413-424. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681811.2019.1668759

Hayashi, M., Arakida, M., & Ohashi, K. (2011). The effectiveness of a sex education program facilitating social skills for people with intellectual disability in Japan. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability36(1), 11-19. https://doi.org/10.3109/13668250.2010.549463

McGovern, C. (2021, August 24).Children with disabilities need sex ed too. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/24/opinion/sex-education-developmental-disability.html

Toft, A., & Franklin, A. (Eds.). Young, disabled and LGBT+: Voices, Identities and intersections. Routledge.

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