Info Center

Sex Education for People With Disabilities

By , 19, Contributor Originally Published: May 14, 2019 Revised: January 25, 2024

Sex, Etc. has provided teens honest and inclusive sexual health information since it started in 1994. Our readers represent all sorts of backgrounds and identities, and for some, it might be the only place they can see themselves reflected and learn accurate information about sex.

This includes young people with disabilities, who especially suffer from a lack of visibility when it comes to sex ed. Disability affects different people in different ways. Some have physical disabilities, such as blindness or muscular dystrophy. Others have intellectual or developmental disabilities, such as autism or Down syndrome. Some people are born with their disability and others might develop it later as a result of illness or injury, like a person who gets into an accident and becomes paralyzed. No two people with a disability are the same.

For intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities alike, finding inclusive sex ed can be a challenge. A lot of sex ed curricula don’t take people with disabilities into consideration. Those with disabilities may also encounter stigma surrounding sexuality, as many wrongly assume that people with a disability are inherently non-sexual. This prejudice can lead to a severe disparity in the quality of sex education that students with disabilities receive, and there are consequences. People with disabilities are significantly more likely to experience sexual violence, more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and may be more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), according to the United Nations Population Fund.

Sex education can reduce all of these. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that when young people are informed, they are more likely to practice safer sex. According to Reuters Health, they’re also more able to recognize sexual abuse and better equipped to report it. Comprehensive sex education is critical for all people, but all too often students with disabilities are not included.

To get more information, I spoke with former Sex, Etc. teen staffer Kehinde Togun, who was born with the birth defect spina bifida, and Katherine McLaughlin, a sex educator and trainer who suffered a spinal cord injury as an adult.

Sexually active or not, sex education is important for all people to make sure they are able to understand their bodies and make healthy decisions.

Left Out

Kehinde was a member of the Sex, Etc. teen staff from 2000 to 2002. As a teen, he often felt excluded from conversations about sexuality and dating because of his spina bifida; when he was born, his bones had not fully developed and parts of his spinal cord were exposed. He has lacked full control of his bowel and bladder and struggled with mobility. He’s also allergic to latex—as many people with spina bifida are—meaning he had to use polyurethane condoms.

While a staff member, Kehinde wrote a story for Sex, Etc. about dating as a teen with a disability. “Unlike many 17-year-old guys I know, I’ve never had a girlfriend,” he wrote. “There were many female friends I was attracted to, but my biggest fear was rejection…. I couldn’t see why any girl would want to go out with me.”

Struggling with self-confidence isn’t exclusive to people with disabilities. However, young people with disabilities—whether physical, intellectual, developmental or emotional—are at risk for bullying, which can have a negative impact on a person’s self-esteem. Bullying, discrimination and stereotyping in a culture that assumes everyone has the same abilities can put extra pressure on people living with disabilities.

Feelings of insecurity can also come from lack of representation. Many depictions of disability in TV, movies or books perpetuate harmful stereotypes, like that people with disabilities don’t date or have sex. Due to stereotypes like this, people with disabilities often don’t get offered sex ed.

Writing about his disability empowered Kehinde. “I wanted to humanize teens with disabilities and show that we can also be included in discussions about sex,” he says. “So while it was uncomfortable, I hoped many others would begin a conversation with their loved ones and/or health providers. I think there is value in seeing yourself reflected, so hopefully articles like mine and the others written after it continue to help teens with disabilities know they are not alone and they can turn to people they trust.”

Disability Inclusive Sex Ed

“People with disabilities get lots of negative messages about sexuality, which keep them uninformed and at-risk,” says Katherine McLaughlin, a sexuality educator who founded Elevatus Training, which specializes in disability-inclusive sex education. She uses a wheelchair after a car accident left her partially immobilized at age 26.

Katherine says many of the students she’s worked with don’t receive the sexual health information they need. For students with physical disabilities, the curriculum may not address their specific needs. Students with intellectual or developmental disabilities may struggle in a classroom setting to do things like read, write and communicate with the teacher. Other times, students with disabilities receive no sex education at all because educators believe they do not need or cannot handle it.

However, people with disabilities are entitled to receive sex education in a way they can understand. “Since people assume people with disabilities are not sexual, they are often left out of any conversations and classes about sexuality,” says Katherine. “All people are sexual beings and all people need information about sexuality.”

Sexually active or not, sex education is important for all people to make sure they are able to understand their bodies and make healthy decisions. Students should not be denied a resource or be excluded on the basis of ability.

Fixing It

Truly inclusive sex education should accommodate a wide range of learning levels and abilities. For those with intellectual disabilities, this means making the classroom material accessible and teaching in a way they understand.

“[I] cover a wide range of topics including sexuality, anatomy and physiology, relationship skills, communication, etc.,” says Katherine. “There are also other topics that need to be taught, like the difference between public and private, different types of relationships and how you touch people in those relationships.”

For those with physical disabilities, there may be some health risks associated with becoming sexually active that a mainstream curriculum does not address. People might have to take certain precautions to avoid injury or strain, for example.

As a teen, Kehinde, the former Sex, Etc. writer, was finally able to learn about his sexual health by asking his doctor. He says disability-inclusive sex ed “would allow all young people to see themselves reflected while empowering them to make sound decisions.” He continues, “Whether a person is trans or living with a disability, one of the worst experiences is sitting in a room where the ‘status quo’ is used as the model. Because that results in you feeling like this isn’t for me or wondering if you/your experience is not normal. Inclusive sex ed would prioritize honest and accurate information while also showing and speaking to different kinds of people and how they might experience sex, relationships, exploration and pleasure.”

Though sex education still has a long way to go, there are more tools and resources out there for teens with disabilities than ever before. For example, Katherine’s organization has workshops for students and sex educators, as well as opportunities for people with disabilities to advocate for themselves.

Kehinde has come a long way, too. In the (almost) two decades since he wrote that article, he has graduated with a master’s degree from Georgetown University, worked on HIV/AIDS prevention in sub-Saharan Africa, traveled the world, got married and now has a young child. He attributes these things, in part, to the confidence he gained while writing for Sex, Etc.

“A lot of who I am today is informed by the work I did at Sex, Etc.,” he says. “It was while writing stories like that, that I found my voice and realized that there was power in my own expression.”

Even now, Kehinde’s story remains one of the most popular on It serves as a testament to the power of owning your story, the importance of inclusivity and the desire all young people have to learn about their bodies and themselves.

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