Meeting the challenge of sex education among the disabled
I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend who uses a pair of crutches. He insisted that people with physical or mental impairments should be referred to as ‘disabled’ -- and not the perceived inoffensive term ‘differently-abled’w.
Explaining why, he said that everyone is differently-abled in some way and the term fails to acknowledge that people with such impairments have special needs.
This by no means implies that they are weak. Vulnerability is circumstantial or external, and has little to do with one’s own lack of confidence or feebleness. Women and children are just as vulnerable as people with functional difficulties.
And much like women and children, people with functional difficulties are targets for rape and sexual harassment. According to Christopher Delmar, a sign language teacher at the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind in Ratmalana, those with functional difficulties are, in fact, the highest among rape victims.
Reproductive health education in schools
The lack of comprehensive reproductive health education places people with functional difficulties high on the vulnerability scale for sexual harassment and rape in Sri Lanka. That is 1.6 million people in Sri Lanka, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. They could lead a safer and healthier life, if they simply had a better knowledge and understanding of reproductive health. Women with functional difficulties are more vulnerable than men, and they outnumber the men. 57 per cent of those with functional difficulties in Sri Lanka are women.
Contrary to popular belief, there is indeed comprehensive reproductive health education in the school curriculum. School textbooks actually include age appropriate information on reproductive health. The problem lies in our cultural sensitivities that make many teachers hesitant or unwilling to talk about this topic in class. Children and teenagers with functional difficulties have it worse though, especially those who are visually and hearing impaired. They have limited access to other sources of information, such as the Internet where the information available can be extremely useful and educative, or completely wrong and harmful (depending on where they browse).
A personal experience
Janith Rukmal, a young and passionate activist who is visually impaired, said that his school teachers were reluctant to talk about matters of sex. “Some teachers at least draw diagrams on the boards and the students are able to get some information. That obviously won’t do for those who are visually impaired, and teachers feel uncomfortable talking about it”.
Thankfully for Janith, his mother was a lot more open-minded and felt it was necessary for her son to be fully aware of his reproductive health needs. “My mother was very supportive and encouraging”, says Janith. “She would read my school textbooks to me, and she never skipped reading about reproductive health – from physical changes of puberty and other information related to sexual and reproductive health. She didn’t put that book aside because she couldn’t read it to me as a mother. She explained the lessons and if I had any questions she would answer them”.
His father, however, has actively discouraged Janith from getting married or having a sex life. This was his way of protecting Janith. He would warn him that it would make life difficult for him, as well as for his would-be wife and children.
Janith says this belief is a pervasive myth in the country. “People with disabilities are discouraged from having children because it’s falsely believed that their children will be disabled as well. And people with impairments are dependent on society, so how could another person depend on them; and a child at that”, he explains.
“There are people who are disabled and have children, and they have no complaints about their lives. There are families where the husband and wife have similar disabilities—such as visual impairments – but they have children and they are also doing well. So that’s just a social myth that surrounds this”.
No words, no signs
It only gets worse for those who are hearing impaired. Standard sign language gestures for reproductive health are non-existent in Sri Lanka. So even if teachers wanted to explain reproductive health lessons, they don’t have a way of communicating with their students.
This was the dilemma that Christopher Delmar, of the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind, faced. “I’m a 55- year- old teacher; I can’t teach female students sex education using crude, explicit gestures. If teachers could show them the book and teach them the signs first, then we can teach them very well”, he said.
In most cases people create their own sign language terms. While this may be sufficient for communicating at home or among friends, it would not be so in formal situations. For example, if they find themselves in a courtroom after having been sexually assaulted or harassed, interpreters may not be able to understand what they are trying to say. That, in turn, can cost them their court case.
"The lack of comprehensive reproductive health education places people with functional difficulties high on the vulnerability scale for sexual harassment and rape in Sri Lanka"
Christopher elaborates saying: “Because of the lack of signs, victims have little choice but to act out what was done to them in a courtroom filled with strangers. This makes them feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, and they are reluctant to do so”.
It does not end there. Janith adds that “doctors of pregnant mothers might not know sign language to communicate with a hearing impaired person. And they won’t know how to explain the precautions that need to be taken”.
He goes on to say that Sri Lanka lacks a strong policy to protect the rights of people with disabilities with regard to their sexual reproductive health. Filling a part of the gap, a standard sign language glossary is to be published soon. Christopher is part of the team that has been developing a glossary for comprehensive reproductive health terms.
Speaking about why this project is essential, he says: “Reproductive health education was not available for the hearing impaired individuals because they did not have sign language for it. For example, previously there were no signs for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. We are now including all of this in the new glossary. The students who are hearing impaired would most definitely attend reproductive health classes if the lessons were available to them”.
Filling the gaps
The sign language glossary is an initiative by young leaders from Y-Peer Sri Lanka, which was established as the youth wing of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The Ministry of Social Empowerment and Welfare, Sri Lankan Central Federation for the Deaf, National Institute of Education (NIE) and Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind, played key roles in preparing the glossary.
With their joint effort, for the first time in Sri Lanka, a comprehensive sign language glossary was launched on 3 December 2015, in Kandy. The glossary contains illustrations of 250 sign language gestures for reproductive health.
Addressing the issue surrounding comprehensive reproductive health education, the UNFPA recently launched a mobile application for Android and iOS with detailed information.
The ‘Able’ app contains information on gender-based violence, reproductive rights, sexually transmitted Infections (STIs), sexuality, as well as information on where they can find an STI clinic nearest to them.
Taking it a step further, the application has an inbuilt voice mode option which makes available for the visually impaired as well.
As those with functional difficulties make their concerns heard, their rights and needs are slowly but surely being addressed. While we still have a long way to go, the tools for weeding out the stigmatization, abuse and myths surrounding functional disabilities are now available. If utilized and applied island wide, Sri Lanka can become a safer place for those with functional disabilities.
(This article has been prepared by the editorial team of Kiyanna.lk, a blog dedicated to population and development issues initiated by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka. Readers are invited to join the conversation at: Kiyanna.lk)