Love and sex for the disabled

Pioneering courses teach developmentally disabled how to have healthy sexual relationships

Mark Bazza, who has cerebral palsy, teaches the “Me and You” class at Chico’s We Care a Lot Foundation.

Mark Bazza, who has cerebral palsy, teaches the “Me and You” class at Chico’s We Care a Lot Foundation.

Photo By Vic Cantu

When we think of healthy sexual relationships, we usually think of average men and women. But what about those who since childhood or birth have been mentally or physically disabled?

Until recently, the sexual and relationship needs of developmentally disabled adults were universally ignored or, worse, trampled upon. Keeping them ignorant about healthy intimacy has led to their being sexually abused at the highest rate of all demographic groups. Studies have shown that 90 percent of the developmentally disabled are sexually abused at some point in their lives.

Now, thanks to the groundbreaking work of organizations like Chico’s We Care a Lot Foundation, this group is getting desperately needed help.

“Up until the 1950s it was illegal for the developmentally disabled to have sex,” explained We Care’s supervisor, Rebecca Finn. “In fact, they could be subjected to sterilization through force or trickery right up until 1982.”

We Care a Lot teaches two courses: a nine-week series on sex education called “Respect Yourself,” and a five-week series called “Me and You” on healthy relationships. Anyone who has acquired a permanent mental, physical, social or sexual disability before the age of 18 is eligible for the course.

Finn points out that, under this definition, many famous figures would qualify as developmentally disabled, such as Leonardo DiCaprio (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and Albert Einstein (Asperger’s syndrome).

Most of Finn’s clients are members of the Redding-based Far Northern Regional Center, though open classes are also held. The FNRC covers nine counties and is part of Regional Centers, a state-funded organization that provides support and services to the developmentally disabled.

One shining graduate of the classes is “Jeannie” (not her real name), from Paradise, who had been sexually abused by multiple offenders. This left her emotionally broken and steadfastly opposed to romantic relationships. She liked the “Me and You” course enough to take it three times, after which she actually came to desire a healthy, romantic relationship. When last contacted, Jeannie was happily married and about to celebrate her first wedding anniversary.

The two-hour weekly classes are proving so successful in part because they are taught by two adults who are themselves developmentally disabled: Angela Agostino, 44, who has a learning disability, and Mark Bazza, 48, who has cerebral palsy. Clients are far more comfortable and open to learning from fellow clients, said Finn, a Chico State graduate in recreational therapy. She organizes the class materials, such as information binders given to each student, and facilitates the technologies used such as computers and PowerPoint presentations.

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Emotions during the interactive classes run from surprise about healthy sex and relationships to sadness upon hearing tales of horrific abuse. But Finn, Agostino and Bazza agree that humor is also a major component as the clients learn slang terms and forms of sexuality about which they were totally unaware.

During one of Bazza’s lessons about intercourse, a male client caused uproarious laughter when he spoke up while using his index finger and thumb from one hand to form a circle and pushing the index finger from the other through the circle, exclaiming, “Oh, I know what that is! That’s when the hoo-hoo goes into the ha-ha!”

Agostino and Bazza teach “Me and You” to co-ed classes, focusing on the do’s and don’ts of healthy relationships and the motivations behind them. They stress the difference between relationships that are simply friendships or practical in nature, such as those with Far Northern staff or bus drivers, and those that are romantic. The class also teaches clients that their bodies are private and that no one should have access to them without their permission.

After taking the “Me and You” course, one male client realized he was being abused at his care home and contacted his social worker, who relocated him.

Demand from other disability groups for seminars and information about these pioneering courses has spread like wildfire throughout the United States and even Canada. Last August Bazza and two other members of We Care a Lot were invited to give presentations at a national disability symposium in Baltimore, Md.

The other course, “Respect Yourself,” is similar to sex-education classes taught in schools, but also includes instruction on healthy intimacy and self-esteem. It is taught separately by gender, with Bazza teaching the men and Agostino the women. A major focus is the prevention of sexual mistreatment. Finn notes that often everyone in a class admits to having been sexually abused.

“If we know what is right or good about sex, then it will be easier to detect when something is wrong or off about sex,” Bazza said.

A female graduate of “Respect Yourself” realized that her partner of three years had been abusing her physically, mentally and financially and got out.

“It opened my eyes about what’s good and bad in a relationship,” she said.

She’s now in a healthy new relationship and teaches other adults to avoid ill treatment through We Care a Lot’s “Abuse Prevention Team” program in Butte and Shasta counties.

Both courses are vital to the health and protection of our most vulnerable citizens, said Finn. But she worries that they may become endangered again: “With all the state budget cuts, we’re desperate to get the word out for public support.”