Guest columnists Valle Dwight and Brian Melanson: New sex education framework must include students with intellectual disabilities

By VALLE DWIGHT and BRIAN MELANSON

Published: 07-17-2023 4:17 PM

Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed update to the state’s sex education curriculum covers a range of important topics to ensure that students are getting comprehensive and medically accurate information about their bodies and their health.

“All of our students benefit when they learn from up-to-date, evidence-based material grounded in science,” Healey said in a statement.

We agree with this sentiment, but an important group of students were not specifically mentioned in this new framework: students with intellectual disabilities.

To truly promote inclusivity and ensure the well-being of all students, there must be specific curricula that includes this same level of comprehensive sex education for students with intellectual disabilities.

These students encounter barriers in accessing comprehensive information, navigating relationships, and understanding their rights and boundaries. These students, who rarely receive high quality sexuality education at school, are the least likely to receive this information from other sources. Without a comprehensive understanding of healthy relationships, they remain the most vulnerable to become victims of abuse.

Historically, students with intellectual disabilities have been provided only basic information about their bodies, leaving them vulnerable to abuse. Society has wrongly believed that they are incapable of understanding or giving consent. This misconception contributes to high rates of isolation and depression among adults with intellectual disabilities.

At Whole Children and Milestones, we noticed this critical gap in education over 10 years ago and began teaching a host of classes focusing on basic concepts such as “public” and “private” and the changes that come with puberty. Our classes ultimately move into more complex concepts about relationships, the right to say no (and yes), and how to navigate these relationships in real life and online.

Our experience has shown us that with the right tools and personalized approach, students with intellectual disabilities can indeed learn about consent and much more. We have witnessed students gain knowledge about their bodies, understand their rights, and navigate the complexities of relationships. They have formed meaningful friendships, developed romantic connections, and become strong advocates for their own needs and desires.

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A truly inclusive sex education curriculum uses plain, concrete language to present complex concepts. It incorporates a variety of teaching methods, such as role plays, videos and photos, and allows for repetition and practice opportunities. By integrating inclusive sex education into the proposed framework, Massachusetts would ensure that students with intellectual disabilities have equal access to crucial information about their bodies, relationships, and personal boundaries.

It is vital that educators, policy makers and disability advocates collaborate to ensure that any proposed curriculum includes the needs of students with intellectual disabilities. Educators must receive training on how to adapt the curriculum to meet the diverse needs of students with intellectual disabilities. They should be supported by experts such as special education teachers, counselors, and disability rights organizations, who can provide guidance, resources, and best practices.

By leveraging their collective knowledge, Massachusetts can develop a comprehensive and truly inclusive sex education framework that addresses the unique needs of all students.

Brian Melanson, M.Ed, LCSW, is lead sexuality educator at Whole Selves and Valle Dwight is director of development and communication at Pathlight.

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