World-famous disability advocate Dave Hingsburger has been working with and advocating for intellectually disabled people for over thirty years. We read his books in my training to become a developmental services worker. He’s highly respected in the field, and it’s long been one of my goals to attend at least one of his workshops.
Content Note: Sex, sex education, relationship norms, sexual assault/abuse, sexual safety
Image Description: “SEX ED” written on a chalk board with a heart drawn around the words.
Dave Hingsburger has a great deal of experience with speaking to intellectually disabled people about sexuality. I’m so glad for this…regular readers will know how important I believe it is that intellectually disabled people get the chance to ask questions about sexuality and accurate information in response. When I first wrote this blog, I’d found a video explaining why he prefers to do what he calls “relationship training” rather than sex education with the people he supports, and I put it up because I wanted to talk about that approach.
Unfortunately, the full video is no longer available on YouTube…you can get a taste of it from the preview I’ve posted here, and hopefully my reflections on the full video will still make *some* sense!
Dave Hingsburger on “Sex Education”
Dave Hingsburger is correct (as I’d expect him to be!): The term “sex education” does make parents, Boards (not to mention many teachers) nervous when it comes to intellectually disabled people. And yes, the only times I’ve really had to have a discussion about the mechanics of sex explicitly are when an issue has already come up (some sort of assault or abuse has happened, sexual safety within a relationship is a concern, someone’s level of understanding about sex needs to be determined).
The rest of it, as Dave Hingsburger talks about, has been the sort of questions that you’d expect from people that have modeled to them that it’s the norm to be in a relationship, to want to be a relationship…but that don’t always have the skills required to negotiate relationships (which is a great deal of us, disabled and non-disabled).
I’m not crazy about the term “relationship training”…”training” leaves me cold…but I do like the concept, for a couple of reasons:
- It gets around that knee-jerk negative reaction that people have to sex education for intellectually disabled people.
- It reinforces to intellectually disabled people and to the people involved with them that it’s healthy and natural for intellectually disabled people to want to be in relationships. It’s their right, and an appropriate area in which to offer guidance should it be desired.
- It normalizes a healthy need for education for *everybody* in this area. I can think of at least five non-disabled people off the top of my head who would likely take “relationship training” if they felt that it would increase their chances of finding a long-term partner. Hell, I’d benefit from it myself. It’s not just intellectually disabled people who, for a variety of reasons and sometimes through no fault of their own, need to learn or improve upon relationship skills. In fact, I’d go as far to say that we all struggle at times with knowing and or/doing what it takes to be in a relationship – this isn’t a “disability thing”.
- As Dave Hingsburger points out, it de-emphasizes sex. Sex is (usually) a part of a romantic relationship, but not all of it.
- Lots of platonic relationships require negotiating as well, and some of the interpersonal skills that “relationship training” would teach are transferable to platonic relationships.
- In both individual and groups contexts, it could address confusion about sexual orientation and different kinds of loving relationships in society.
For staff and families, supporting intellectually disabled people as they learn relationship lessons can be a full-time job in itself – Linda Atwell does great writing about this on her blog. We should make use of all the effective tools available. I like the idea of “relationship training” as a tool.
Now, if we could just do something about the name…
Thanks, Dave Hingsburger, for (as always), giving me plenty to think about.