Deafness and sexual health

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How hearing impairment can affect the reproductive decisions young people make

What is the connection between socks, cling film and crisp packets? They are all things that young deaf students have said they could use as a condom. Research shows that these students have an alarming gap in their knowledge around sex, particularly when compared with their hearing counterparts. Deaf pupils, and indeed others with SEN, are not gaining adequate information in the areas of puberty, appropriate behaviour, consent and readiness, contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – meaning that their reproductive decisions cannot be safe, informed and healthy.

Understanding our body, and what it needs to work well, is crucial to ensuring that we lead healthy lives. Imagine missing out on all that vital information or, worse still, only accessing bits of it. Specialist provision is essential to improving the health of young deaf people, ensuring that as their bodies change they are given the right support and information in a way that they can access.

The research, carried out by Deafax (EARS Campaign, 2012), revealed higher than average levels of STIs, pregnancy and inappropriate behaviour within the deaf community. It showed that:

  • 35 per cent of deaf people did not receive any sex education at school
  • 65 per cent said that sex education was inaccessible
  • 36 per cent learnt through direct sexual experience.

Case studies of deaf people and health professionals regarding their experiences uncovered some shocking scenarios. One teenage deaf mother said:

“I didn’t know anything about sex, contraception or relationships when I left school. There was never anyone to ask who could explain properly to me in sign language. I didn’t know how many sexual partners were ‘normal’. When I left school and left home, I was raped by a man. Then I had lots of men coming to my flat and asking me for sex, I just thought that it was what I was supposed to do.”

How can we make a difference?

Deafness raises many misconceptions and stereotypical attitudes. Without the provision of specialist information, some health professionals and teachers feel at a loss regarding how best to convey information around this difficult subject. Where schools do deliver information about sex and relationships, deaf pupils are often caught out by receiving the information third hand, through a communication support worker.

Without having specialist training on the standardised signs for sex-related discussion, the communication support worker will often not know the correct signs for the topic. As signs of this nature are very visual, the communicator can also become embarrassed. This is a difficult topic for most teachers and pupils alike; add in communication pressures and it becomes even harder.

Deafness itself is not a learning difficulty; learning difficulties arise when deaf children cannot access information and communication. Social and practical barriers, rather than inherent inability, prevent deaf young people from gathering the facts and information to make informed choices. We know that if deaf people receive suitable deaf-friendly training and support, they are every bit as capable as hearing people and have the same range of ability.

Sex education needs to be empowering, using methods that meet these young people’s cultural and linguistic needs. Inadequate provision leads to misinformation, high-risk situations and unnecessary worry. De-marginalising young deaf people is central to creating a new generation of confident, informed young people who can take responsibility for their own health.

Further information

Jessica Parsons is from Deafax, a charity providing practical support to the deaf community:
www.deafax.org

 

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