Sex education for women with intellectual disabilities is the 'ignored curriculum'

A relationships program designed by women with intellectual disabilities, for women with intellectual disabilities, is the first of its type to deliver the sex education many missed out on, as it was presumed they wouldn't need it.

The course, which addresses consent, healthy relationships and abuse, intends to help protect those most vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment.

It was designed in conjunction with People with Disability Australia (PWDA), which has trained eight New South Wales women as peer educators to run courses across the state.

Wollongong-based mentor Chloe Kearns, 17, described it as the "ignored curriculum".

"A lot of my peers in mainstream education get taught about domestic violence, abuse, safe relationships and how to have a healthy lifestyle in a relationship and a good sex education, unlike me in a support unit," she said.

"We get life skills and that's it. We don't even touch base with it.

"I think sexuality should be a normal thing in our lives, because other people get that, like my peers."

Fellow trainer Shailaja Menon also said she wasn't taught much about respectful relationships and sex at school, "but I think it's very important to make that a general form of education".

PWDA senior policy officer Meredith Lea said while numbers were hard to quantify, anecdotal evidence had confirmed Ms Kearns and Ms Menon were not alone in their experiences of exclusion.

"We've spoken to people with disability about the fact that they were excluded from sex and relationships education in school settings, either because they were physically excluded from that class, or it might be that they had an intellectual disability and they were seen to not require that education for their lives," Ms Lea said.

"Often times people with disability are seen as asexual or childlike, which isn't the case."

Photo The Sexuality and Respectful Relationships course will be run by eight peer mentors.

Six women standing out the front of the People with Disability Australia sign. ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham
Women, disability and domestic violence

Aside from curriculum exclusion, Ms Lea said women with an intellectual disability were also more likely to experience violence than women who did not have a disability.

While there is limited data on the prevalence and incidence of violence against women with disabilities, reports suggest they are 40 per cent more likely to be the victims of domestic violence.

Another report found that more than 70 per cent of women with disabilities had been victims of violent sexual encounters.

Ms Lea said she believed missing out on sex education was related and put women in danger.

"It's a huge and very serious gap," she said.

"It can mean that people experience violence and they don't necessarily recognise it as such because they've not had any information provided to them about what is good touch, what is bad touch."

Ms Kearns said abuse was something she had seen first-hand and that change was needed.

"I've been in a disability support unit all my life and I've had a lot of friends fall victim of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and abuse."

"A lot of these girls had no idea where to go to."

Photo The program has been co-designed and developed by women with intellectual disability.

A page of the course workbook titled, 'what I need to know about touching other people'. ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham

The Sexuality and Respectful Relationships Program will run across two days, each with four-hour sessions.

Project officer Paulina Gutierrez said the peer educators, who have just finished their training, will be based all over New South Wales.

"We've got two Sydney-based peer educators, two in the Central Coast, one in Newcastle, two in Bowral and one in Wollongong, and each of them will run eight sessions.

"It is a program that is based on respectful relationships. We're also discussing sexuality, healthy and unhealthy relationships which includes added content in regards to the LGBTIQ community."

Photo Meredith Lea says not teaching women with intellectual disabilities about respectful relationships is a serious issue.

People with Disability Australia senior policy Meredith Lea smiling at other participants. ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham
Teaching the next generation

Ms Menon said while she wished her in-school sexual education was more formative, she acknowledged that her ability to teach other women with intellectual disabilities about safe sex and relationships was a privilege.

"I can't do anything about the past and can only focus on the future.

"Seeing the difference that other people can benefit from this kind of project when more people know about it, I think that will be the best thing for me.

"Having that power to educate women is a privilege and I don't take it for granted at all and I'm very, very happy."

The project is funded through the New South Wales Domestic and Family Violence Innovation Fund.

While currently only offered to women, organisers said they hoped it would be extended to include men in future.

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