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Welcome initiatives that shine a light on need for sexuality education for disabled people

"How do I communicate about personal safety to my child?"

"How do I train my child to be careful?"

"How do I recognise that my child is being harassed or molested?"

These are concerns that parents of children with disabilities are increasingly voicing openly, given the rising number of sexual assaults being reported, especially against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

To address these concerns and towards creating greater frankness about such issues, the Special Child Assistance Network (SCAN), a Chennai-based support group of parents of children with disabilities, held a workshop in the city over the weekend.

Called Workshop on Personal Safety and Sexuality, it was for parents, special educators and teachers. No children were present.

There is increased awareness among parents and schools about the need for communication and training on this issue. Some of the key takeaways were to teach personal safety early, difference between safe and unsafe touch, who can touch, what is private and what can be shown in public, etc. - Gopi Ramakrishnan, Co-founder, Special Child Assistance Network (SCAN)

It's an issue that few parents like to talk about, especially in India. That is changing and a sign of that lies in the fact that the venue of the workshop had to be changed, given the overwhelming demand.

Among those present was Gayathri Sridhar, a special educator and parent to a child with a disability. "I was happy to see that a large number of fathers were present, which in my experience as a special educator is rare. Few men are willing to talk about they went through their adolescence, even with their wives."

Sridhar says such workshops will help parents open up about sexuality-related issues with their kids, which is much needed. "I see so many parents struggling to talk about these matters, especially with boys. Many things that are completely natural tend to get dismissed as bad behaviours. Such workshops will help with a greater opening up".

Many important questions were answered by the expert conducting the session, Dr Shaibya Saldanha, a gynaecologist, practitioner and co-founder of Enfold Trust in Bengaluru.

"The workshop talked about sexuality education as age-appropriate and not to teach the child that sex is bad or immoral", says Ramakrishnan. "That if a child is too obsessed with sex or his or her body, the parents should find creative ways to distract and engage them in other activities".

The lack of information about such critical life skills can have harmful consequences, says Abha Khetarpal, President, Cross the Hurdles. Khetarpal is a counsellor for people with disabilities and a disability rights activist. She has been giving free online counselling to disabled people since 2011.

Khetarpal recently launched a self-paced online course on comprehensive sexuality education for teens with disabilities, adults with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities and special educators.

"In India, people with disabilities are regarded as non-sexual and this has also led to the neglect of sexual health", she points out. During her extensive interactions with disabled women, Khetarpal observed that they have negligible knowledge of sexual health and hygiene.

"I found there was a lot of suppression, something also the case for people without disabilities. I took a year to prepare the online course and put it together after studying the best practices".

Khetarpal's online course can be accessed at https://www.onlinecourses.crossthehurdles.org. The lessons are in audio so that visually impaired people can also follow. The course is in two parts - for teens and adults.

"People below the age of 18 who log in will be directed to the portion for teenagers. The course is for free", says Khetarpal.

For too long now, critical issues to do with sexuality and personal safety have been taboo and that too at serious cost. Such steps are a welcome sign of the changing attitudes.

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