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Education News

#Relationships: Teaching Sex Ed To Students With Disabilities

The title for today’s lesson is written on the whiteboard of this Hartford classroom: #Relationships.

The youngest student, Rory, is 17 and in a wheelchair. The other young men — Edwin, Joath, and William — are sitting at a table with a few helpers. When the topic turns to strangers, there’s a bit of levity because they know the answer. Growing up, students have learned that strangers might have bad intentions.

Then the sex ed teacher presents this scenario: What if you’re at a bus stop and meet someone who seems really “nice”? So nice that they invite you to go for fries and a soda?

“William, what do you think?” asked Katie Hanley, who runs Oak Hill’s Center for Relationship & Sexuality Education. “You think it’s OK? Tell me more about that.”

At Oak Hill in Hartford, a not-for-profit agency with services for people who are developmentally or intellectually disabled, teaching students about boundaries and consent — along with the so-called birds and the bees — has become a critical part of the curriculum.

An NPR investigation last month found that people with intellectual disabilities are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. Using unpublished data from the U.S. Department of Justice, NPR revealed that people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate that’s at least seven times higher than for people who aren’t disabled.

Abusers see these victims as easy targets — some have trouble speaking, and perhaps they won’t be believed. Abusers can be acquaintances, strangers, friends in a group home, or caretakers they know and trust.

And yet, classes where students can learn about consent and recognizing signs of abuse aren’t always offered to this population.

“There may be competing needs in the school,” Hanley said. “They may have multiple therapies that they need to get to, and often health education or sex education is kind of bumped.”

Clinical social worker Lucille Duguay began developing Oak Hill’s “Positive Choices” curriculum more than a decade ago and founded the Center for Relationship & Sexuality Education. Since 2009, the curriculum has been sold across the country, including to colleges and local school districts such as West Hartford public schools.

Gretchen Nelson, West Hartford’s director of pupil services, said the school district has been using the program for years, choosing specific chapters based on a student’s needs.

“It’s another teaching tool for us,” Nelson said. “Our focus is on safe, positive relationships.”

Researchers at George Mason University studied Positive Choices and reported last year that it seemed effective in increasing sex-ed knowledge for young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Katie Hanley, who runs Oak Hill's Center for Relationship & Sexuality Education, shows a photo to students during a class on relationships.
Credit Vanessa de la Torre / WNPR
Katie Hanley, who runs Oak Hill's Center for Relationship & Sexuality Education, shows a photo to students during a class on relationships.

‘This Is Why’

When Hanley talks about relationships, there’s an underlying tie to safety.

For their first class, Hanley wanted students to have a basic understanding of the different types of relationships. So she introduced a new word: Acquaintance.

“If you have some classmates that you’re not friends with, but you know them, you might see them every day … They’re kind of acquaintances,” she explained. “They’re not friends, they’re not your family. But they’re also not strangers.”

In one activity, students saw a photo of a man standing outside someone’s front door, holding a package. He is dressed in a yellow polo shirt … and doesn’t seem to be a mailman. The students wondered if he could be a friend, a cousin, or an acquaintance.

“It could be a stranger, too,” Edwin, 21, said.

“Right,” Hanley told him. “It totally depends.” 

It was subtle, but Hanley also tried to gauge the vulnerability in the classroom.

“How many of you would worry about hurting somebody’s feelings?” she asked. “You’d worry about saying no, that you might hurt their feelings.”

So remember the earlier question that Hanley asked William? If a stranger at a bus stop offered to take you out for fries, would you go? William said yes, because he likes fries. William is 20 and lives in a group home.

Later, his classmate Edwin said he was concerned.

“When Billy says he can say yes to a stranger, I was like, OK. But you don’t know what that stranger wants to do with you—you feel me?” Edwin said.

Edwin considers himself more experienced when it comes to real-world interactions. He lives nearby in Hartford, but attends Oak Hill during the day. In a conversation with Kerry Kincy, one of the helpers at Oak Hill, Edwin said if he didn’t know about boundaries, he might not be here to talk about it.

“Probably end up in the street, drug dealer, whatever. Probably worse—dead, in jail,” Edwin said. “Never know.”

“So knowing the difference,” Kincy said. “It’s important to make the distinction between a friend, a stranger, if I want your French fries or I don’t, even though I like French fries.”

“Exactly! It’s like the other day, my mom was mad with me,” Edwin recounted. “‘How do you get out of that car if you don’t know the person in there?’ I said, ‘Mom, relax, I know them.’ But you see, now we’re talking about relationships and stuff. This is why.”

Edwin, 21, listens during an Oak Hill class this month.
Credit Vanessa de la Torre / WNPR
Edwin, 21, listens during an Oak Hill class this month.

‘The Ideas Are There’

The first chapter has units on trust, privacy, self-esteem, and right and wrong touch. Other lessons include “The Life Cycle” and “Attractions and Dating.” One of the last units in the curriculum is titled “Sexual Acts That Are Against the Law.”

Some parents would rather not broach the topic of sexual health, Hanley said. She recalled one parent who recently told her, “My fear is if you talk to them about this, it will give them ideas.”

“The truth is that the ideas are there,” Hanley said after the class. “Just because somebody has an intellectual or developmental disability doesn’t mean that they’re not your typical, going through puberty, becoming a sexually mature person. All of those ideas are there. The question is: Are you going to be the one to give them information, or are they going to learn on their own?”

The program has also become a way for group home staff to get more comfortable with the reality that young people with disabilities have “urges, feelings, similar to anyone else,” Oak Hill President Barry Simon said. “How to negotiate and navigate through a relationship is an activity of daily living and a part of independence.”

As for Edwin, he said his biggest takeaway from the class was “trust people, but not anyone.”

The staff were planning another meetup for William, Edwin, Rory, and Joath in the next few weeks.

Disclaimer: Oak Hill is an underwriter for Connecticut Public Radio.

This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.

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