We’ve all been there: that moment in our adolescence when a parent or a friend invites us to sit down and have “the talk”. That conversation that explains the minds of men and women, the basics of human reproduction and the scope love as one of the most powerful emotions. Through this awkward right of passage, young people gain important knowledge about themselves, their fellow humans and how we are all connected.
For people with disabilities, however, this knowledge does not always come so easily. Societal stigmas and attitudinal barriers have often left this group in the dark about how to fulfil a natural need that we all possess. The Southern Alberta Individualized Planning Association is changing that by helping people with disabilities understand the language of love, one workshop at a time.
SAIPA is a small non-profit in Lethbridge whose mission is to “inspire people with developmental disabilities to become engaged and empowered citizens.” We achieve this mission by providing three core services. One of those services involves offering workshops that help people with disabilities gain life skills.
SAIPA offers nine different workshops, including Computers for Beginners, Individual Rights, Abuse Prevention and Response Protocol, and A Needed Boost to Your Self-Esteem. All of these workshops are designed to give people with disabilities the confidence and knowledge to live rich and inclusive lives.
In February 2015, we were proud to begin offering Sexuality for Adults with Developmental Disabilities, an extensive, multi-week course from Planned Parenthood that covers healthy friendships, decision-making, dating, relationships and sexuality.
After several requests, we knew there was a significant need for this kind of education in our community; it was time to address that. We know that natural supports can make a huge difference in the life of someone with a disability, whether that support is a friend or romantic relationship.
People with disabilities are often unable to explore healthy sexual relationships due to barriers such as lack of knowledge, lack of support from parents, guardians or other authority figures, and a lack of privacy. Societal attitudes can also paint people with disabilities as asexual. The reality is: we all have a desire for intimacy and relationships. We wanted to give self-advocates a safe space to explore their thoughts and feelings while empowering them to make safe sexual choices.
We were somewhat nervous about offering a course of this nature, given the aforementioned barriers people face. However, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The participants loved it! Our first workshop in Lethbridge filled so quickly that we immediately started a waitlist.
Since our first time teaching the course last February, we have taught the curriculum twice more in Lethbridge, and once in Medicine Hat. We are also receiving requests from as far away as the Crowsnest Pass. 82 self-advocates have taken the course so far; we currently have 60 people on a waitlist, ready to enroll.
This course has opened up tremendous opportunities for SAIPA. Participants enjoyed the workshop so much that they wanted a space to continue discussing sexuality. Taking a cue from our colleagues at the Scope Society in Calgary, this February, we began our own chapter of Right 2 Love, a free group where people with disabilities can meet to discuss their feelings around sex and relationships. Unlike the structured workshop, Right 2 Love has a loose, baseline curriculum that is flexible to allow participants to discuss topics they wish. Examples could include safe relationships, consent, how to say no, safe masturbation or how to put on a condom.
We’ve also had the opportunity to forge a partnership with Lethbridge’s School District 51 to extend our services to people under 18. Upon learning of our sexuality course, they wondered if we could teach the material to their grade 9 to 12 students with disabilities. We jumped at the chance and began teaching in schools this February. The response has been nothing but positive so far!
We are amazed by how much this workshop has grown in just one year. For us, the ideal success will be when people with disabilities have the same opportunities for relationships as everyone else. As we educate self-advocates, they, in turn, will educate their families and communities about the need to accept their relationship choices.
We are thrilled to provide such important resources. Having an understanding of healthy relationships, sex and sexuality keeps people with disabilities safe, giving them the power to advocate for themselves and avoid dangerous situations.
While they learn from us, we learn far more from them through their strength, courage and determination. We are honoured to be on this important journey with them.