Teacher Beliefs, Professional Preparation, and Practices regarding Exceptional Students and Sexuality Education

Article excerpt

Sexuality, an essential aspect of one's personality and sense of self, offers a gateway to intimacy that includes feelings of comfort, security, support, love, and affection. For people with mental disabilities, expressions of sexuality can become controversial. During the past 3 decades, attitudes toward sexuality of the mentally disabled became more positive. (1) Yet, individuals with disabilities still face more difficulty in achieving intimacy than does the general population, and they are 3 times more likely to be sexually assaulted. (2)

Persons with mental disabilities form their views about sexuality through experiences and interactions with peers and caregivers. (3) Researchers recognize society's reluctance to address sexual issues, especially with the intellectually disabled. (4) Moreover, disabled individuals often experience sexual rejection or abuse by peers or caregivers due to their disability. (5)

Limited research has addressed sexuality education for the mentally disabled. (2) The limited research suggests that adolescents with mental disabilities hold conservative and negative attitudes toward their sexuality. (3) Teachers and parents can help prepare these individuals to develop healthy relationships and protect themselves from unhealthy situations, but parents may withhold information from their mentally disabled children due to fear for their children's vulnerability to sexual abuse. They rarely discuss their child's engagement in healthy sexual relationships, and they seldom teach their children to protect themselves from harmful sexual behavior. (6)

Professionals recognize the need to teach mentally disabled students about human sexuality. (1) Yet, parents and teachers often feel unprepared to handle sexuality issues with this population or to teach them essential components in sexuality education. (7) Many possess limited formal education themselves, and they report a low comfort level in addressing the topic. When they do offer sexuality education, much of what students are taught is presented from a biological perspective rather than in the context of social issues. (8) Thus, health educators could potentially collaborate with special education teachers to incorporate appropriate sexuality education for special education students. This collaboration would additionally support comprehensive school health education for special education students.

Few studies explored the specific nature of sexuality education for mentally disabled children or the attitudes of respondents toward this subject. (3) Lindsay et al (9) demonstrated the effectiveness of a formal, 9-month education program on these students' knowledge about parts of the body, masturbation, puberty, intercourse, pregnancy and childbirth, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases. The 9-month program produced knowledge gains immediately after and at 3 months following program completion.

This study examined the beliefs, professional preparation, and actual teaching practices of special education teachers in teaching sexuality education. Specifically, the study examined the report of selected Florida special education teachers about (a) their beliefs about the need for providing sexuality education to students classified as educable mentally disabled, (b) the range of sexuality topics they actually taught, (c) their professional preparation in sexuality education, and (d) their beliefs about when sexuality education should be taught. The study also explored whether teachers' beliefs about the need for teaching sexuality education predicted the sexuality topics they actually included in instruction and whether a relationship existed between their professional preparation and their beliefs about the need for teaching about sexuality.

METHODS

Subjects

Participants included Florida special education teachers who held a Bachelor of Science degree in special education and who currently taught special education students classified as educable mentally handicapped (EMH) in grades K-12. …