A week ago I snuck into the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals Webinar on supporting people with intellectual disability who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, or something else under the label of LGBTQ+. It felt like sneaking because I don’t work with folks with intellectual or developmental disability, directly or otherwise, but, actually, I signed up like everyone else. I’d heard about the Webinar on Dave Hingsburger‘s blog and I wanted to hear what he and the other panelists had to say.
I didn’t want to take a spot from someone who needed to be there for their work, so I signed up five minutes before the talk was scheduled to start, figuring that would make everything fair! :-)
Why did I go if I’m not a direct support professional? Promoting healthy sexuality for everyone is what I do. These conversations we’re having online are just the tiniest, tiniest part of what’s happening with disabled people’s sexualities in the world. If I can be a voice, no matter how small, to bring some of that into the light, I will.
I’m not going to go through all the facts and statistics they covered in this talk. They’re all in this article (this is a PDF file) from the International Journal For Direct Support Professionals.
Don’t be put off by the word journal. This one’s easy to read – not full of scholarly words and long rambly sentences. Basically, it looks like this journal is written for busy people who need the facts as quickly as possible!
But, there were a few interesting tidbits from the Webinar I’d like to share.
It shouldn’t still need saying, but people with developmental disabilities are entitled to the same rights as all people; including (from the journal article linked above):
- Sexuality and sexual expression
- Dignity and respect
- Privacy, confidentiality and freedom of association
- Access sexual education reflective of their cultural, religious and moral values
That people with intellectual disabilities haven’t been respected in these ways has lead to tremendous harm. Dave told the story of a client who had grown up in an institution, but was living in the community when Dave met him. The client was deeply depressed, though most of his care team decided he was just unmotivated. Dave and other supportive staff eventually learned that this man had had a long-term relationship with another man with intellectual disability when he lived in the institution. This man was grieving the loss of his lover. Once understanding staff members new what was going on, the lovers were reunited.
That story had a happy ending, but it just as well could not have – and the ending might not have been any happier if the couple in question was heterosexual.
The denial that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities even have a sexuality runs so deep that just asserting their desire and right to date someone can be like them “coming out” – no matter what their sexual orientation is. For a person with an intellectual disability, just announcing that they have a crush, or are in love, or have sexual feelings and desires is met with disbelief, ridicule, rejection, punishment – no matter the gender of their crush object or lover.
This panel worked on answering: How do people with intellectual disabilities know it’s safe to talk about their sexual orientation and sex and sexuality in general?
A few quotes that jumped out at me related to how folks work with their clients:
“If you haven’t made yourself a clear ally, you’re not an ally.”
“People in your care need to feel safe from you.”
“It’s my job to earn their trust not their job to give me their trust.”
“When you push someone to have a conversation, that just becomes another kind of abusive act.”
Allow people (applies just as well to friends or family as to clients) to come forward when they feel most comfortable.
Show acceptance and willingness to listen by being nonjudgmental in other areas of their lives.
For example: Avoid judgmental comments on their preferences, such as that they shouldn’t put jam on their peanut butter and toast because it has too many calories. (Support professionals are their to support adults with intellectual disabilities with living their lives to the fullest. That means not micromanaging or taking autonomy away – making sure these adults have choices, and access to whichever choice they choose. )
People will not trust you with the bigger stuff if you’re always harping at them about the smaller things.
Direct support professionals were encouraged to figure out who will be the carrier of sexuality information at their agency. Talking about sex and sexuality is something most people are pretty bad at, and giving the right information to clients with intellectual disabilities means being able to talk comfortably about sex and comunicate details in ways clients will understand and remember.
I really appreciated how honest and down-to-earth the speakers were – acknowledging that sexuality is messy to talk about in general,. We’re dealing with all sorts of social taboos, as well as the wrong-headed thinking that has governed the way the sexuality of people with intellectual disabilities has been “managed” for centuries. That’s not something anyone can reverse overnight, or through a journal article and an hour long panel discussion. I also appreciated that they acknowledged that many agencies serving adults with intellectual disabilities still have restrictive policies around acknowledging sexuality, and that staff at those agencies probably weren’t being given access to educational seminars like this one.
As I was putting this post together, I came across this piece published in Slate last week. Really impressed with how the writer and editor chose to put this together, with the voices of folks with intellectual disability front and center.
Postscript the Second
The overall theme of this Webinar and the accompanying journal article was pride, and the article has one of the best, most direct, answer to the question: “Why isn’t there a straight pride day?” I’ve ever seen:
Because heterosexuality has never been outlawed, punished, or considered a mental illness and being heterosexual has never been cause for a child to be thrown out of a family, or for someone to lose their job or their home.