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Wallach said oftentimes students with disabilities aren’t included in sex education classrooms.

JMU’s Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services received a $2.87 Million, three year grant from the U.S. Office of Population Affairs for its SexEdVA program in July. This will fund the Disability-inclusive Sexual Health Network, or DSHN, with the goal of improving sexual health education for students with disabilities.

In July, the Virginia General Assembly amended the Code of Virginia by adding a section requiring the Department of Education to “establish guidelines for individualized education program (IEP) teams to utilize when developing IEPs for children with disabilities” so that they “consider the need for age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate instruction related to sexual health.” 

IIHHS Research and Public Health Associate Director Kim Hartzler-Weakley said she’s noticed a need in the sexuality education field for youth with disabilities in her 17 years working at the Institute.

“It was kind of a missing piece — it’s a really neglected population,” Hartzler-Weakley said. “They’re sexual beings too.”

DSHN’s four-person team was hired in September, including communications coordinator Gracee Wallach. She said DSHN is SexEdVA’s first non-direct service program that’s focusing on disability as a priority. The network is having an open call for partners where organizations in Virginia can reach out to develop their own disability-inclusive sexual health interventions.

Wallach said oftentimes students with disabilities aren’t included in sex education classrooms for a variety of reasons. There’s a stigma that people with disabilities are asexual, Wallach said, and the programming that does exist for those with disabilities is mostly centered around abuse prevention.

Although this is an important component of sexuality education, Wallach said the conversation needs to move from seeing people with disabilities as “potential objects of violence” to people who have agency over their bodies.

“For so many sexual health educators, they don’t consider disability and accessibility when they’re creating their curricula,” Wallach said. “For so many folks in the disability community, sexuality and sex are not a part of the conversations that they’re having.”

Wallach became interested in improving this field, she said, because she had a poor sex education experience growing up. However, once she learned what sex education was supposed to be like, she said she became excited about the possibility of growth.

“Knowing the possibilities of providing our next generation with that kind of information is radical,” Wallach said. “This can promote peace and liberation and make us feel comfortable in our bodies. What’s more important in life than just feeling comfortable being who you are?”

DSHN’s innovation and impact coordinator Kayla McKean said she looks for partners to join the network and assists them in developing, testing and refining their interventions. She said people with disabilities have been left out of the sex education conversation because it’s easier for educators not to adapt to their needs.

“We have these dated thoughts and beliefs that youth with disabilities are supposed to be protected and maybe guarded from things that we might consider adult topics,” McKean said. “I think it, unfortunately, was an easy out not to address it, but in the same hand I think it’s something that takes thought and consideration … It requires a very intentional process that might seem a little intimidating.”

Hartzler-Weakley said organizations already working with people with disabilities can collaborate with DSHN to utilize SexEdVA’s expertise in sexual health education. Wallach said organizations don’t have to have sexual health experience to become a partner in the network. She said they’re already working with the Shenandoah Valley Autism Partnership to try to bring sexual health education to the organization’s teen nights. The Partnership for People with Disabilities at VCU is also collaborating with DSHN, Hartzler-Weakley said, to expand its disability-inclusive health advocacy for adults to include youth and additional components related to sexual health topics.

DSHN has an external evaluator on its team who, Wallach said, will track the progress of each of the interventions and evaluate what’s working and what’s not. She said this will speak to the effectiveness of the program and will allow DSHN to provide evidence-based strategies to others. Hartzler-Weakley said she’d love to see this project incite change in statewide and even national policies.

“With the work that we do, we’re always trying to be as inclusive as possible, and this is an area where we haven’t been doing focus work,” Hartzler-Weakley said. “This is really a chance to do better to serve all young people in making sure that there are interventions and programs for every young person.”

Contact Kamryn Koch at kochkr@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.