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Teaching about sexuality; guidelines for parents of children with disabilities.

Guidelines for parents of children with disabilities

For more than a few parents, the prospect of teaching a child with a disability about sexuality is disturbing. This anxiety is understandable, but I believe it is unwarranted. I say that out of firsthand experience. Before going further, I want it to be clear that I am not a trained, experienced sex counselor. My only qualification is that I, myself, have a disability.

My father and mother, particularly my mother, educated me in everything from bees and birds to human intercourse and reproduction without, as far as I observed, a single minute of feeling uncomfortable.

Their aplomb was not the result of expertise - they had no formal training for teaching sex education. (In fact, neither of them was a college graduate, although both had gone to college.) What was it, then, that enabled them to swing the door to sexuality wide open for me without embarrassment or fear? I have come to the conclusion that they were successful in this largely because they were not prone to believe in old wives' tales concerning disability; they were fully informed about my impairment, and they were upbeat about life in general.


I should probably list one additional item: mother's uncanny insight into my internal life, including my first love affair.

In the second grade I lost my heart to a seven-year-old demoiselle named Melissa. We became after-school as well as during-school pals. With blue eyes and golden hair, Melissa seemed more beautiful to me than Cupids on Valentine's Day and certainly holier than angels.

Marvelously ethereal, Melissa, nevertheless, produced in me an intense curiosity about girls' bodies. I invented - or perhaps all children have them ready-to-go a as birthright - one or two games whereby I got the opportunity to increase my knowledge of female anatomy, Melissa's in particular. Mother picked up the vibrations of this, either by clairvoyance or by some other mysterious means.

During a conversation with me that appeared to begin quite casually, she remarked that Melissa and I were very pleasant and well-behaved children. Then, as if turning to a different subject, she asked whether I understood where babies come from. I admitted my ignorance. Mother, thereupon, gave me an explanation that would have won the total approval of both Good Housekeeping and Dr. Benjamin Spock.

Also, she explained that my cerebral palsy was the result of my struggling from her womb feet-first. She recounted the circumstances of that misfortune: the sultry July night, the long labor, the doctor's frenzied efforts to keep both of us alive.

She concluded by summing up the predictions of doctors concerning the extent to which my disability would constrict my life as a teenager and adult - my sexual life, as well as education, job and so on.

This conversation communicated several highly significant facts, but, at the same time, went beyond facts. It set forth a prime concept: Sex is a completely natural component of human life. At the same time, mother set the stage for my developing a positive attitude regarding my own personal sexuality. She freed me up to look forward to love, courtship, erotic expression. In effect, she said to me: "Your disability may prompt you to experiment with some slightly unorthodox sex techniques; you'll be able to work out these particulars. Rest assured that sex is for you."


Parental guidance in the matter of sexuality has to be - like parental guidance in most matters - highly personal and individualized. It must be consistent not only with the child's unique personality but with that of the parents' as well. Hence, I will not propound anything except some general principles, primarily based on my common sense and personal experiences.

My first suggestion is: Before talking with your child about sexuality, make a candid assessment of your own feelings and ideas. Do you really believe that people with disabilities have a right to full physical intimacy? Are you genuinely convinced that such intimacy does not violate one or another dictum having to do with moral impurity.. sin?

If you find that your underlying emotions here are tinged with revulsion and fear, it probably would be wise to talk with your pastor or a specialist in sex counseling. You may become convinced that ancient superstitions regarding sexuality among people with disabilities are now widely viewed as having no basis whatsoever either in morals, religion or anything else.

Perhaps you need to explore a related question: "Am I seriously put off by the thought of unorthodox modes of sexual communication? Suppose that a professional advisor proposed mutual masturbation or oral-genital stimulation as appropriate in my child's situation. Would I have major objections?"

This, too, is an issue which you might wish to pursue at some length with your pastor, with a counselor or by your own reading of pertinent articles and books.

One further preliminary step. Review the potential significance of your child's capacities in terms of his or her adult sexual experience. Will your child sooner or later reach the level of mental and emotional maturity needed for long-term intimate relationships? Will your son or daughter have sufficient physical agility to engage in the usual modes of sexual communication? What unconventional modes would be suitable and fulfilling? Will your child one day be able to take on the responsibilities of marriage and parenting?

In considering such questions, you cannot deny that your child is, in some degree, constricted. But you can learn that the spectrum of sexual expression available to people with disabilities is extensive indeed.


Full sexuality consists of much more than merely a biological drive directed only toward procreation. To be sure, sexuality involves, at times, the sex organs. But it also affects our emotions, thoughts and decisions throughout the full spectrum of our interaction with those of the opposite and/or same sex.

One can lack both star athletic ability and outstanding intellectual endowment and still achieve a sex life in which there is an abundance of pleasure, human closeness and tenderness, spiritual insight and exultation.

For this reason, you can feel absolutely fearless about attempting to make a realistic assessment of your child's potential for erotic expression. No matter how you feel, you can get advice from a competent counselor.

Be assured there will come a day when you will feel adequately prepared to begin the long process of intentionally instilling and reinforcing in your child the facts, concepts and attitudes you deem essential for the full experience of sexuality.

What specific areas, beyond those already discussed, will this process include? Precisely those areas about which all parents ought to give their children guidance are: private bodily parts, private acts, hygiene, maturation/body changes, masturbation, appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior, birth control, marriage and parenthood. (Many books and videotapes are available if you need guidance on these matters.)

I regret the necessity of adding a paragraph concerning sexual abuse. There is indisputable evidence that children with disabilities are abused, both physically and sexually, much more often than their peers without disabilities. Molestation occurs not only beyond the home but within the home. Clearly, parents must instruct their children with disabilities on how to deal with it.

To sum up: With all children, whether one's child has or does not have disabilities, parental guidance about sexuality should include exactly the same elements. Parents have an assignment that calls for their willingness to be informative, realistic, open and affirmative with all children. Fulfilling this assignment brings a copious reward: the joy of seeing one's child achieve full potential as a sexual being.

Bern Ikeler holds a B.A. from Dickinson College and has spent his career in teaching and public relations. He is also a free-lance writer and author of Parenting Your Disabled Child (Westminster Press). In addition, he leads workshops for parents of children with disabilities. Ikeler lives in Clarksville, Indiana, with his wife, Carol.
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Author:Ikeler, Bernard
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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