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As originally published in the Los Angeles Times Daily Pilot on Friday, June 16, 2023.

There’s more to sex education than the birds and the bees. Even those armed with the grade-school basics often have to learn about relationships, boundaries and navigating the intricacies of desire and disappointment through trial and error.

But for some individuals living with intellectual or developmental disabilities, access to real-world information about sexually transmitted infections, birth control, consent and the perils of online dating may be scarce.

The lack of exposure to potentially life-saving information about their own bodies and rights can put teens and young adults at a disadvantage, especially when they may be leaving the family home for the first time and living independently.

To help reverse that trend Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties has created a curriculum to arm individuals with disabilities with the tools they need to make informed decisions and have a say in their own lives.

Equal Voices” is a six-session course led by a health educator that provides a comprehensive sex education adapted to meet their needs and levels of understanding. Through informal discussions, a facilitator can learn more about what students know, don’t know and want to know. Since last July, the classes have reached nearly 600 people with adaptive needs.

“This population faces a lot of difficulties and a lot of obstacles when it comes to STIs. They also have higher rates of STIs and higher rates of abuse,” said Jordan Herrera, a Planned Parenthood health educator who facilitates “Equal Voices” classes.

“The curriculum is not given to them, so they don’t have the tools to form healthy relationships. And sometimes, they can’t handle the information.”

Herrera on Friday began a new series of classes with clients served by College Living Experience, a Costa Mesa nonprofit that offers a post-secondary program for students and adults ages 18 to 30 who need additional support with academic, social and independent living skills.

The first session, “Healthy Relationships and Consent,” was designed to lay a foundation for the rest of the classes to come, which include puberty and anatomy, pregnancy and birth control and how to stay safe on social media.

Herrera asked participants to define a “relationship” then asked them what’s important in a relationship and what’s not OK, a segue that allowed for a frank discussion on boundaries and how to communicate them to a potential partner.

“We have different limits and rules we can set for ourselves in relationships, so maybe we can tell our partner, I’m comfortable with this, but I’m not comfortable with this,” she told students.

By the end of the roughly one-hour session, the group had defined some of their own personal boundaries, contemplated the importance of consent and how to identify different kinds of relationship abuse.

Rashaun Council, a 24-year-old Cal State Fullerton student who’s suffered impairment since a hit in a football game in 2013 led to the discovery of a subdural hematoma that required brain surgery.

During his recovery, he relearned how to walk, talk and write. But these days, he’s living in an apartment in Costa Mesa with a roommate and starting to think about dating.

“I haven’t dated anyone yet, but hopefully in the future I’ll find someone special,” he said Friday.

Although he received some basic sex ed lessons in middle school, not much wisdom was imparted, as most of the students told jokes and cracked up during class. Council said he was looking forward to learning more about dating and determining who might be a good partner.

Emily Hopper, 20, contracted MRSA at age 1 and lost several fingers and both legs. Today, the double amputee moves deftly on prosthetic legs, and has dreams of becoming a comedic actor.

She took the bus from Los Angeles to attend the start of the “Equal Voices” sessions because aside from what she’s seen on television and the internet (some of which, she admits, freaked her out), she hasn’t received much formal sex education.

“No one ever gave me a sex ed class. My parents mostly explained it to me,” she said, explaining her interest in relationships. “I just want to feel more loved. I get a lot of love from my parents, my friends and everyone in my family. I just want someone to bond with.”

College Living Experience program director Ivy Marshall said many parents work toward helping their children achieve independence without realizing the full range of skills they will need to master to do that safely.

“Sex education becomes a topic that is untouched and underdeveloped,” Marshall said. “[But] living independently involves connection and hugging and dating.”

That’s something that resonates with Council, whose desire for a partner is strong.

“There are people who are happy being alone, but not me,” he said Friday. “I need a mate or someone to talk to.”



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