Sexuality includes our entire sense of self as male or female. It affects how we think, how we feel, how we act, and how we relate to others. How we feel about our sexual selves is part of our total sense of self-esteem and how we feel about ourselves influences all aspects of our lives. People who have a healthy sense of sexuality are comfortable with their own bodies. They can give and receive affection, form loving relationships, and enjoy sexual expression. Such people can make thoughtful and responsible decisions regarding their sex lives. Helping children grow up to be sexually healthy adults is a big responsibility and a wonderful opportunity.
As a parent, you are your child's first and most important sexuality educator. You may not have thought about it, but you constantly teach your child about sexuality. The way you speak to, touch, feed, dress, and care for your child shows your attitudes toward the human body and sexuality. The kinds of play and behaviour you encourage, the household chores you assign, and the words you use, tell your child about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Many of these things that you do, send messages about sexuality. The way you live your own life as a sexual person provides your child with a model to follow.
Common Concerns of Parents
Many parents have concerns about the sexuality education of their children. They worry about the messages that their children receive from television, movies, advertisements, books, and friends. They wonder when and how much information to give their children at various ages.
Parents want to protect their children, particularly their teenage children, from the negative consequences of early sexual activity such as unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and sexual coercion. Many parents are uncomfortable with sexual language and find it difficult to discuss this part of life with their children. They may have been raised in homes where sex was not mentioned and so have never learned from their own parents how to talk about the subject. Nevertheless, children tell us that they prefer to get their information about sexuality from their parents.
"The Parent Kit," available from Planned Parenthood Nova Scotia, is an excellent resource to help parents develop the skills they need to talk comfortably about sexuality to their toddlers, children, and teens. Many excellent books and videos are available at bookstores and libraries, including the library at the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority (APSEA). Planned Parenthood, the Nova Scotia Department of Health, and Health Canada have produced pamphlets giving information on all aspects of sexuality. Feeling informed gives parents the confidence to answer their children's questions. Talking about sexuality with children works best when you begin early and continue to keep the lines of communication open.
The Effect of Visual Impairment on the Development of Sexual Understanding
This guide has been written to address the special concerns of parents of children who are visually impaired. Children with visual impairments follow the same pattern of sexual development as sighted children and they need to receive the same information about sexuality. Vision plays a major role in concept development and so your child may need help to fully understand about sexuality. The earlier the age at which children lose their vision, the greater the extent of vision loss, and the presence of other handicapping conditions affect the amount of extra help needed. Every child is unique and parents are the best judges of their children's needs.
Sighted children learn a great deal about sexuality through casual observation. Children with visual impairments cannot see the differences between boys' and girls' bodies, various body shapes and sizes, and pregnancy changes. They cannot observe these and other developmental changes over the life cycle. They may have limited knowledge of gender roles and fashions, male-female attractiveness factors, toileting practices, and appropriate displays of affection. Parents of children with visual impairments must teach them about these topics.
Many parents worry about telling their children too much, too soon, so they wait for their children to ask questions about sex. They believe that these questions show that their child is ready for the information. Many times the questions asked by children are the result of something they have seen. Children with visual impairments are less likely to ask such questions about sexuality until long after they should have the information. Experts in child development assure us that children are unharmed by early sexual information. They tell us that children only absorb what they can understand at the time and ignore information they are not ready to understand. This explains why children often ask the same question again, often with time having elapsed between each asking, before they seem satisfied with the answer.
Children who are visually impaired have limited access to the information their friends receive from television, movies, books, and magazines. Sometimes you may think that is just as well. However, when you describe the sexual action on the screen or read descriptive passages to your child, you create the opportunity to talk about your beliefs and values surrounding the particular activity in question. Many parents who are, at first, hesitant to talk about sex and, in particular, to use explicit sexual language, say they become more comfortable with practice. Other parents recommend starting to talk to children about sexual matters early, when less embarrassment is likely.
North American taboos against touching add yet another dilemma. The most efficient way for children without sight to learn is through the sense of touch. They learn best when allowed to explore and manipulate real objects. When this is not possible, models of objects accompanied by careful verbal explanations are the next best alternative. Children who are visually impaired often develop misconceptions about human anatomy. They may understand the characteristics of their own sex, but be completely unaware of those of the opposite sex. Letting young children explore their own bodies and those of others in natural family settings while bathing or dressing will inform children of the differences between the boys and girls. Experts tell us that tactile exploration by children who are visually impaired is no more sexually stimulating than seeing people nude is to sighted children. Of course, actual touching of bodies becomes less appropriate as the child grows older. Anatomically approximate dolls, models, mannequins and even sculptures may help older children understand human anatomy.
Sexuality Education Begins at Birth
The Development of Trust
New babies are completely dependent upon their parents for survival. When parents meet their infants' needs in loving and consistent ways, their babies develop a sense of trust. That trust is the basis for future loving relationships, so important to human happiness. Babies who receive lots of warm cuddling and touching find it easier to be close to other people when they grow up. Babies who are visually impaired need even more direct contact to feel loved, wanted, and worthwhile. Touch is the first way that you and your baby will communicate. Breast-fed babies receive lots of skin contact. Should you choose not to breast-feed, you can still hold, stroke, and talk to your baby during feedings to show your love.
Feeding, bath, and play times provide wonderful opportunities to communicate and interact with a new baby. Many parents of babies who are visually impaired worry that it will be harder to "get to know" a baby who cannot see. Babies with visual impairments show their parents that they like or do not like what their parents are doing in subtle ways. The baby who is visually impaired pays close attention to what you say or do by sitting or laying quietly with little or no movement. Your baby may also turn her or his face or body towards you, open eyes or mouth wide, and lean against you to let you know that he or she likes what you are doing. She or he may turn or lean away from you or begin to fuss when tired of the game. "Dancing Cheek To Cheek" is an excellent booklet that teaches parents of visually impaired infants how to get to know their baby.
Use of a baby carrier (the soft kind without the aluminum frame permits the closest contact) allows you to be in physical contact with your baby as you go about daily activities. At the same time, the baby experiences your body movements and the smells and sounds of whatever you might be doing. In a carrier, the baby is handy for you to share small tastes of foods you may be preparing or to grasp objects you might want to give. Inuit parents have raised happy infants this way for centuries!
As your baby begins to talk, she or he will want to know the names of things. It's fun to play games that name body parts like finding little toes as you pull off a sock or hiding hands inside a mitten. Be sure to teach "penis," "vulva," and "anus" along with "eyes," "nose," and "mouth." When you do not name the genitals, your child learns that there must be something "bad" or unmentionable about those parts of their body. It is best to use the correct words for body parts and functions. Names like "wee-wee" for the penis may sound cute when your child is very young; however, other people may not understand these words and other children may ridicule your child if she or he uses childish words later on. Your positive attitude toward your child's body and its functions will help your youngster develop a healthy attitude about her or his body and sexuality.
You can begin to help your child become aware of his or her body at a very early age. Traditional songs and body touching games like the three below are a delightful way to begin. APSEA has many booklets that contain excellent suggestions for activities for you and your child (see "Resources for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments").
Games to Play with Babies
Body-touching games can be most comfortably and safely played by sitting on the floor, with back supported and knees bent. Cradle the baby in the "V" formed by your legs and abdomen.
This Little Piggy
This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home,
This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none,
This little piggy went "wee, wee, wee," all the way home.
(Touch each toe in succession as each phrase is said using a lilting, rhythmic tone. On the last line run up babies' leg with fingers to gently tickle the tummy.)
'Round and 'Round the Garden
'Round and 'round the garden, like a teddy bear,
One step, two steps, tickle under there!
(Trace a circle shape in the child's open hand while reciting the first line; accompany the second with "finger steps" up the arm to tickle gently underneath.)
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can,
Pat it and roll it, and mark it with "B,"
And toss it in the oven for baby and me!
(Clap the child's hands together for first two lines, speeding up at "fast." Then pat knees, roll arms together, trace a "B" in the baby's palm, and toss arms over his head for the last line.)
Sexuality Education for Pre-School Children
Development of Gender Awareness
By the time children are two or three years old they can usually identify themselves as male or female. Awareness of the differences between boys and girls and men and women develops gradually, largely through observation. What children see prompts them to ask questions. When they receive the answers to their questions, they form a more thorough understanding of what it means to be male or female.
Children who are visually impaired usually need help in forming these concepts. Your child, for example, should be encouraged to explore her or his own body and to learn the correct names for all body parts. Have your child locate opposite-gender body parts on the opposite gender parent or on anatomically accurate dolls, whichever you feel more comfortable with. Natural settings are best. Differences in anatomy can be discussed while toileting, bathing, or showering with your child or when siblings bath or dress together. You can let the child "help" change a baby's diaper. If there are no younger siblings in the family, perhaps you could explain your child's need to learn about gender differences to a friend who has a baby.
Be sure that your child can correctly identify her or himself, family members, and friends as male or female. Discuss the characteristics that help discriminate between the sexes. Include names, voices (in adults), physical differences between boys and girls and men and women, scent, and gender specific articles of clothing. Gender differences may be more vague today but some still exist. Talk about sex-linked words such as "aunt," "uncle," "brother," and "sister," to be sure that your child understands the sexual connection. It is important to remember that children who are visually impaired often use words correctly without any real understanding of their meaning. Questions like, "How do you know that Uncle John is a man?" or "How will we know if our new baby is a boy or a girl?" may help you determine how much your child understands and will help you find out what information you need to teach.
You can help your child form gender concepts during art activities such as body tracing. Have your child lie on a large piece of paper while you trace around her or his body. Add details such as facial features, hair, finger and toenails, the navel, nipples, and genitals using felt markers if they are visible to your child. When the child cannot see, use sturdy paper to cut out the body shape. Glue on tactile details such as buttons or felt pieces for eyes, nose, and mouth, yam hair, pumpkin seeds for nails, snaps for nipples and so on. You can use one long balloon (stuffed with cotton batting) and one round balloon (put in two marbles for testes) to make the penis and scrotum and use yam to show the outline of the vulva. Another day, you can make a figure of the opposite sex for comparison. Your child can locate the different body parts on these figures as you name them.
To increase children's understanding of clothing worn by children and adults of both sexes, have your child help fold and sort the laundry. You can help your child form separate piles for each family member. As you work, you can point out differences in textures and sizes in men and women's clothing. Explain that some items are gender specific, such as bras, slips, undershirts, and jock straps. Show little girls the purpose of the fly in men and boys' underwear. They can put a finger through the opening to see how a penis fits through. Little boys can learn that only women need to wear bras because only women have breasts.
Finding Out about Babies
Children normally begin asking questions about sex at around three or four years of age. They are especially interested in babies and where they come from. Parents should answer these questions simply and accurately. At first, tell children that babies grow in a special place in the mother's body and that it takes a mother and a father to make a baby. You might explain, if your child seems interested, that an egg in the mother's body joins with a sperm from the father and that the baby then grows in the mother's uterus. It is important not to use terms like "seed" for sperm (the child may worry that eating seeds in fruits and vegetables could cause a baby to grow). Also do not use "tummy" when talking about the uterus (children sometimes think that the baby is being showered with food whenever the mother eats). If your child is curious about how the egg and the sperm get together, you can go on to explain, "Daddy's sperm are made in his testicles and come out through his penis. Mommy's vagina is an opening to her uterus, where her egg is. When Daddy puts his penis in Mommy's vagina, the sperm go up inside and join with the egg." Because these ideas are difficult for children to understand, parents usually need to tell them this story often. You can add more details, as your child seems ready.
If you are expecting a new baby, you have a wonderful opportunity to share with your child the joy and anticipation of a new family member as well as the physical changes taking place in your body. Children who are visually impaired love to feel the swelling of their mother's abdomen and the movement of the baby inside. If you do not anticipate having more children, perhaps a trusted family friend would be willing to share her pregnancy with your child. Children rarely tire of hearing the story of their own birth, told in a loving way. There are many children's books written about babies and birth that you and your child can read together. Some of these books are available in twin-vision format from the library at APSEA. You might also consider breeding your family pet to stimulate questions about conception and birth.
Good and Bad Touch
Children need to be touched, cuddled, and held to feel loved and valued. When you show your child your love, you are also teaching her or him how to love and value others. Children learn appropriate ways to display affection to non-family members mainly by watching others. Your child cannot pick up these cues and you will want to talk with them about whom it is OK to kiss, hug, or touch.
This is a good time to discuss "good" and "bad" touch. Your child is likely to receive touching not normally experienced by children who can see. Necessary tactile teaching methods such as hand-over-hand and traveling sighted-guide may make your child less sensitive to feelings about inappropriate touch. Be sure that your child understands that she or he has the right to refuse any touching that is unwanted. Respect that right yourself, and insist others will do so as well.
To help your child learn which touches are and are not appropriate, you can play the "What If?" game. Ask, "What would you do if someone asked you to touch his penis?" or "What would you do if someone asked you to go into their house for cookies?" Talk about what your child should do if these things happen. Play the "no" game to give your child practice in refusing requests. Take turns asking each other to do favours Oust pretend), while the other says "no" in different ways. When it is your turn to say "no," you can model assertive ways to refuse requests.
You can also read books written especially for young children about self-protection and personal rights regarding her or his body.
One kind of touch that concerns many parents is masturbation. Most children will masturbate for pleasure; in fact, masturbation is a normal sexual activity throughout the life cycle. Children who are visually impaired do not masturbate more than other children, but parents are often more aware of the activity because of closer supervision, the child's inability to determine a parents whereabouts, and the effect this activity may have on others. Children may also turn to their own bodies for stimulation if they are less able to interact with their environment. Children who are interested and involved in the world around them are less likely to masturbate. You may want to remind your child that although it is okay to masturbate, it is not okay to do so in public. This is a good opportunity to teach about public and private places--a difficult concept for children who cannot see. Your child needs to understand "when" as well as "where" privacy can be ensured.
Sexuality Education for School-Aged Children
Getting the Facts
School-aged children are curious about sexual matters. It's important to let them know that you want to answer any questions they might have. Children of this age gather facts about sexuality from school, friends, television, movies, books and magazines, as well as from home. Children who are visually impaired do not have the same easy access to these sources of information, as do their friends. It is wise to ensure that your child's understanding about sexuality is on a par with that of her or his friends. Children are quick to reject those playmates whom they deem to be less sophisticated than themselves. To help your child develop understanding about sexual matters, you can read books about sexuality together. You can provide your child with books in a format that she or he can read independently. The library at APSEA has many such books available. Also you can describe displays of affection that take place on the screen when you are watching television or movies with your child. This is a good opportunity to reinforce the kinds of behaviour that your family considers to be appropriate in various settings and also comment on those you consider to be inappropriate.
Children who are visually impaired have difficulty learning about socially acceptable demonstrations of affection and sexual expression. People send many non-verbal messages such as facial expressions, body postures, and gestures that let others know when they approve or disapprove of certain behaviours and whether they welcome gestures of affection. These cues are not available to children with visual impairments. Talk to your child about the ways that sighted people let each other know when they do or do not want to be hugged or kissed and how they might show that they do or do not like certain kinds of behaviour. Teach your child when, where, and how to express affection for others and explain the effect of inappropriate displays on other people. Enlist the help of relatives, friends, and people who are unknown to your child to give her or him opportunities to practice interacting with different people in different situations. Ask these "helpers" to comment when they do and do not like certain behaviour. Statements such as "My what a nice 'hello' hug for Aunt Sue!" and "I'd love to shake your hand, but I don't usually hug little girls I've just met--would you like to shake hands?"
Between the ages of five and eight, children generally become modest and will request privacy in toileting, bathing, and dressing. You may have to teach your child that people like to be alone for these and other activities (such as masturbation). Help your child ensure that she or he is "in private" by teaching her or him to close bathroom and bedroom doors, and to knock before opening closed doors. You may need to gently remind your child many times before this skill will be learned as she or he does not have the visual reminders available to sighted children.
It is common for children of this age to seek friendships with members of their own sex and to show strong interest in sex role stereotypes. Your child is continuing to sort out what it means to be a boy or a girl, a man or a woman. Gender role expectations are changing in society today. Many parents want their boys and girls to grow up free to follow their personal interests and to pursue any career of their choice. Language is a good place to start. Use words like "firefighter" and "police officer" to replace "fireman" and "policeman." Encourage your child to play with toys and engage in activities that were traditionally considered appropriate for the opposite sex. Make sure that household chores are not assigned according to sex and that family rules are the same for both sons and daughters. Children learn gender roles more by watching and imitating their parents than by any other way. Children who are visually impaired may have limited or distorted ideas about sex roles. Discuss the traditional roles of men and women, how those roles are changing today, and the implications of those changes. When choosing children's books, look for those that do not support gender-role stereotypes. Pick books that use language that includes both sexes. Recently, many books have been written that feature both sexes in adventurous and powerful roles as well as nurturing and supportive ones.
The friendships of childhood allow children to develop the social skills they will need to form and maintain meaningful relationships. It is also true that good social skills are needed in order to make friends. Children who are visually impaired can master the skills they need to make and keep friends. Again, many social skills are learned through imitation of others by sighted children whereas these skills must be taught to children who are visually impaired. Whenever possible, expect your child to behave according to the same standards that are typically expected of children in her or his age group. Children who are visually impaired must learn to face the person speaking or being spoken to. Consistently position your child so that you are facing each other when you speak. If the head drops or turns away, stop talking and wait quietly until your child turns back towards you. Tell your child that you do not know whether she or he is listening or talking to you when she or he looks away.
Mannerisms such as rocking and eye-poking will make it more difficult for your child to be accepted by peers. These behaviours are less likely to become a problem when children are actively involved with their environment. Children should be told honestly that certain behaviours are socially unacceptable. It is much easier to learn these lessons in the secure surroundings of home than it is elsewhere. Be positive; seek opportunities to let your child know when she or he has done something correctly. This approach will encourage your child to continue the desired behaviour and will enhance self-esteem. Constant reminders of poor behaviour are likely to have the opposite effect.
Many parents have found it helpful to discuss social development with their child's classroom teacher. Often, simple changes in classroom seating arrangements and routines can make a big difference in how well a child with a visual impairment is able to participate in the social life of the classroom. Many special education teachers feel that cooperative classroom settings favour the full inclusion of children with special needs. You may want to seek out teachers who stress a cooperative learning approach for your child. At Individual Education Program (1EP) meetings, let the school know that you consider social development an important goal for your child.
How children learn to feel about themselves influences their happiness, their accomplishments, and their ambitions. High self-esteem results when children know they are unconditionally loved and accepted, especially by their parents. They also need to believe themselves to be competent people. Children who arc visually impaired may think that they are less attractive and less capable than sighted children. Many children who are visually impaired assume the worst about their appearance because they cannot see in a mirror. Tell your child how she or he "looks" to others. If she or he has useful vision, purchase a magnifying mirror to allow your child to gain a more realistic idea of her or his facial features. Children who are visually impaired do not see the mistakes made by others and may believe that sighted people never make mistakes. Your child may feel that her or his achievements are less worthy than those of others and may become discouraged from trying. Let your child know when you or someone else has made a mistake. Say, "Oh dear, look at the mess I made while pouring the milk! I'll have to clean that up, won't I?"
Parents want their children to develop competence and independence, but they also want to protect them from harm and failure. This desire to protect may be even stronger when the child has a disability. Try to set realistic expectations and encourage your child by letting her or him know that you believe in her or his abilities. Set tasks that you are sure your child can master so that she or he experiences many successes. Instead of sheltering your child from failure, teach that mistakes are simply a part of learning. Whenever possible, your child should learn the same skills of independence as those typically learned by other children of their age. Give your child choices such as, "Which shirt would you like to wear to school today--the one with the pockets or the turtle-necked one?" Children who learn to make decisions early in life are better able to make sound choices later when peer pressure becomes an issue. High self-esteem is closely linked to responsible sexual decision-making.
Children may enter puberty any time between the ages of nine and fourteen. Girls experience changes an average of two years before boys. There is some evidence that girls who are totally blind may begin to develop approximately one year earlier than those with sight or light perception. Your child needs to know well ahead of time what changes are likely to occur and why they do. Reassure your child well in advance that these changes are a completely normal part of growing up. Talk about the different shapes and sizes of breasts and penises, emphasizing that all are attractive and that there is no best size or shape. You can request permission to have your child touch sculptures at your local art gallery--most galleries are receptive once your child's special needs are explained. Store mannequins can sometimes be purchased for a reasonable price although they are much less realistic. The Judith Franing Company produces 18 inch, anatomically correct rag dolls called "Effie Dolls." The pregnant female doll in this set can be used to show your child the birth process and to explain menstruation. Let your son or daughter handle sanitary pads and tampons as you explain their use. Your daughter needs to learn about personal hygiene, keeping track of her menstrual cycle, and how to use sanitary pads and tampons. Your son needs to understand what they are for and how they work.
If your child is anticipating a short-term placement at APSEA, you can request that sessions on sexuality be included in her or his program. The resource center has available lifelike anatomical models (produced by the Jim Jackson Company) of the male and female human reproductive systems. The collection also contains the female reproductive system in cross-section, including the embryo and fetus at different stages of development. These models permit tactile examination of internal and external sexual organs to help children better understand reproductive anatomy (both their own and that of the opposite sex), conception, pregnancy, and childbirth.
There are many books about puberty that you can share with your child. "The Growing Up" video series produced by the National Film Board of Canada contains three animated films including one on puberty changes, one on reproduction, and one on feelings. These videos are designed for families to watch together and feature young children's questions about sex and sexuality. Many children who are visually impaired attribute all of their problems to their visual condition. It is important that they have opportunities to learn that some difficulties are common to all children and are simply a part of growing up.
Sexuality Education for Adolescents
Talking with Teens about Sex
Adolescents experience many physical and emotional changes that are often confusing. As a result, they have times of self-doubt as well as self-discovery. Teens tell us that they want to learn about sex and sexual matters from their parents although they are often unsure about how to initiate conversations about sex. They are afraid that if they ask questions, their parents may conclude that they are or intend to become sexually active. Research has shown that when parents willingly discuss sexuality with their teens, their children tend to delay their first sexual intercourse, adopt attitudes similar to their parents, and are more likely to use contraception when they do become sexually active.
You can show your teen that you are an "askable" parent by starting conversations about sex yourself Use newspaper articles or news reports, TV shows, videos, or even the words to popular music as openers. Ask for, listen to, and respect your teenagers' opinions and feelings, even when they are different from your own. Don't preach, but don't hesitate to express your own opinions and feelings about values and standards of behaviour. Keep the lines of communication open. Teenagers are trying to discover who they are and what kinds of relationships they should be having with others--what you say matters to them.
Many parents worry that they do not know the answers to the questions their teens ask about sex. Libraries (including the one at APSEA) and bookstores have books that help parents talk to their teenagers about sex. Parents can to provide their teenagers with accurate information in a format they can use.
The peer group plays an essential role in helping teens move from the dependence of childhood to the independence of adulthood. Without the support of peers, most adolescents would find it too difficult to separate from their families and become independent adults. It is with peers that teens test their new feelings, ideas, social skills, and physical abilities. Because teens have to win the respect and friendship of their peers (unlike family members who are expected to love them unconditionally) these interactions give them a more realistic idea of interpersonal relationships. Eventually, as they become more comfortable with the new adult they are becoming, teens again separate, this time from their peers, to reestablish their relationship with their parents on a more adult-to-adult basis. It is an exciting process, although one that can produce many strains within the family, especially if parents have concerns about the young people with whom their teenagers are spending time. Parents cannot choose their children's friends for them, but they can provide opportunities for their teens to relate to young people whose values and beliefs are similar to those they wish for their children. Parents of teens who are visually impaired need to encourage their teens to join youth and activity groups in the community, school, and church to ensure that their teens have the positive opportunities they need to interact with peers.
Talking to teenagers who are visually impaired about sexual matters helps them understand that you accept them as, and expect them to be, sexual persons. They may not always get this message elsewhere. Many sighted people believe that people with disabilities are asexual and should not be dating. Your child needs to talk about the negative attitudes towards visual impairment and disability that they may encounter. Use role playing to teach your teen to assertively and appropriately answer the questions and concerns of dating partners and their parents. Your teenager can also learn coping strategies by talking about dating experiences with older teens who are visually impaired.
Dating provides teens with opportunities to get to know and share experiences with members of the opposite sex. This contact is important for teenagers who are visually impaired. You may not have thought about it, but when you were teaching basic social skills, manners, and appropriate behaviour, you were already preparing your child for dating. Teenagers who have had opportunities to develop hobbies and interests are more interesting dating partners. Conformity is very important to teens. Although you cannot change the fact of your child's visual impairment, you can take steps to ensure that she or he knows what styles of clothing, hair, make-up and accessories other teens in school are wearing. If you don't know what is fashionable in your area, enlist the help of a slightly older teenage friend of your daughter or son. The chances are, your teenager will be more likely to accept advice about fashions from a friend than from a parent!
Teenagers who are visually impaired are very dependent upon their friends for information about who is "cute" or "interested." Many dating behaviours are visual. Flirting, for example, is mainly accomplished through eye-gaze, facial expression, and body posture. Your teen can learn how to flirt, but it won't be possible to see the messages sent by others. Young people who are visually impaired must depend on verbal communication and the information they get from friends to tell them whether another person is interested in meeting them. Of course, they need to know about flirting in order to ask friends in the first place.
The feminist movement has resulted in a number of changes in the dating scene. Today, it is as acceptable for young women, as it is for young men, to initiate a date. You can encourage your daughter as well as your son to pursue desired friendships. Many teens prefer to go to movies, dances, sports events, and to each other's homes in groups that may or may not include "couples" and usually include unattached members. Teenagers say that they feel more comfortable and less self-conscious with this form of dating. Group dating may mean that adolescents with visual impairments will have more opportunities to date and interact with their peers.
Mobility is critical to successful dating. When teens who are visually impaired, especially young men, talk about dating it is their inability to obtain a driver's license that they mention most often. The driver's license represents independence and adulthood and its lack is sorely felt. Your teen will need to talk about her or his feelings of frustration. Help your teen plan how to manage transportation on dates. Solutions that some families have found include having a parent or older sibling provide chauffeur services, permitting the "date" to drive (her or his own or your family car), public transportation, a tandem bicycle, and double-dating (your teen can offer to pay for the gas). Of course, the family car also provides privacy. You can be sensitive to teenagers need for a private place to talk and freely express their feelings for each other by making the family room or den available.
Concerns for Safety
Many teens with visual impairments complain that they are over-protected by their parents. It is normal to worry about safety, but denying normal social activities will not protect your son or daughter. It is through social interactions that she or he learns how to deal with people and to handle different situations. Teenagers who are visually impaired should have the same rules and curfews as their sighted brothers or sisters. Excellent mobility skills are vital to dating safety. A teenager who is totally dependent upon others for travel may find her or himself in a dangerous situation if suddenly left alone for any reason. Make sure that orientation and mobility skills are included in your teenagers' IEP.
Teenagers with visual impairments may not clearly understand what constitutes an acceptable date. You can start with books about teens and dating experiences. Talk about personal rights and sexual abuse. Role play different scenarios to give your teen practice in dealing assertively with peer pressure. Ask your teen how she or he would handle a difficult dating situation and then problem-solve for solutions. Some parents have found that classes in assertiveness training and self-defense have been useful for teenagers with a visual impairment.
Getting the Information
Teenagers want and need more detailed information about sexuality. They need to understand the basic physical concepts of sexual intercourse, conception, pregnancy, and the birth process. They also need to learn about contraception and abortion. They need to know how AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are transmitted, prevented and treated. They need to develop decision-making skills based on an understanding of personal rights and assertive behaviour. There is wide variation in school sex education programs across the Atlantic Provinces. Parents will want to know what information their children are receiving. The vast majority of parents approve of sex education in schools, but unfortunately, schools more often hear from the few parents who object. It is important to let your school know your views on this issue.
Even the most thorough sexuality education programs may not meet the needs of teenagers with visual impairments. When one young man without vision was asked about the raised line diagrams used in his sex education program, he replied "I didn't really have any idea of anatomy, I mean, 1 could label the diagrams okay. I just memorized the order they were written in and filled them in on the tests!" Many young women, even after completing sexuality programs, believe that the vagina and urethra are a single opening. The fact that teens with visual impairments are able to pass course requirements may not mean that they understand what has been taught. These misunderstandings are mostly due to their inability to see the diagrams used to teach these concepts.
Live models provide the most accurate information about the physical aspects of sexuality. However, most parents, teachers, and teens themselves would be very uncomfortable with this approach. The next best thing is the use of anatomical models such as the life-like models of reproductive anatomy produced by Jim Jackson and Company. These models are used in sexuality classes at APSEA to teach basic concepts of reproductive anatomy. You can request a short-term placement at APSEA were your teenager can study the models comfortably with a small group of teens who have similar needs.
When models are unavailable, you can use comparisons to objects that are already familiar to your teenager. For instance, you can compare the non-pregnant uterus to an empty balloon; the pregnant uterus to a water-filled balloon with the baby floating inside; the cervix to the neck of a balloon; and the scrotum to a balloon with two marbles. Childbirth can be explained by pushing a life-size baby doll through a child's turtleneck T-shirt. Squeeze the neck of the shirt opening (the cervix) closed to begin and then let it open slowly as the baby's head pushes through. Explain that the walls of the vagina can stretch in the same way to allow room for the baby to pass through. If you have an artistic flair, you might try modeling genitalia from clay. Let your teenager try to copy your models to determine whether or not the concept is understood.
A clear understanding of anatomy is necessary in order to learn about the symptoms for sexually transmitted diseases. Many of these symptoms are visual (rashes, painless chancres, and changes in the colour of vaginal discharge). It will be especially important to teach children with visual impairments about the non-visual symptoms of STD's. They need to know about high-risk activities and where to go for diagnosis and treatment. Some teenagers who are visually impaired tend to be passive. Passivity leaves people more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, abuse, and at greater risk of contracting AIDS and other STD's. Talk to your teen about your concerns for safety. Find out whether your school curriculum includes opportunities for teens to develop skills in assertive sexual decision-making. If not, you can role-play different scenarios with your teen. There are good suggestions offered in Marion Howard's book, "How to Help Your Teenager Postpone Sexual Involvement."
The best method of teaching about safer sex and contraception is to allow teenagers to examine the various devices available. Ideally, their use should be explained using the life-like models already described. Teenagers should be allowed to practice placing a condom on a penis model. These devices are available for instruction at APSEA Your local Planned Parenthood Association can also provide instruction in the use of contraceptive devices.
Teens whose visual impairment results from an inherited condition have questions about their choice to have children. If the impairment accompanies other medical concerns they may wonder if they will be able to have children at all. Parents sometimes hesitate to discuss these issues with their children for fear of adding to their many problems. However, it is almost always easier to deal with any difficulty when it is possible to discuss it openly with someone who is caring and understanding. Ask your teen if she or he has any concerns they would like to discuss. You can talk to your family doctor about genetic counselling. Encourage your daughter to ask questions about her ability to bear children. Your son may wonder if he will be able to father children. The decision to parent should be an informed one.
Staying in Touch
The most important thing is to keep talking and to remember to include sexuality issues in your communication with your teenager. Clearly state your values and beliefs about sexual standards of behaviour. The model you provide is important to your teen in sorting out her or his own values and beliefs. Listening is more meaningful than talking. Your teen needs to feel that her or his feelings and opinions are respected and worth listening to. Tell your teen that you have confidence in her or his ability to make responsible choices about sexual activities and relationships.
Children who are visually impaired have the same need for sexuality education as do sighted children, but it may be more difficult for them to get the information they need to develop their full potential as sexually healthy and responsible adults. This guide has been written to help parents of children with visual impairments ensure that their children reach these goals. A research paper entitled Sexuality Education for Children with Visual Impairments including an extensive list of references; as well, a video on the same topic has been produced, These and other resources listed in the following section, "For More Information," are available by contacting the library at APSEA. Comments and questions from parents are always welcomed.
For More Information
Note: Resources marked with an * are available from the APSEA Library. Most resources available from the APSEA Library can be obtained in large-print, audio-tape or braille formal on request.
Resources for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments
*Heart to Heart: Parents of Blind and Partially Sighted Children Talk about Their Feelings, Blind Childrens Center, 4120 Marathon Street, P.O. Box 29159,Los Angeles, California 90029-0159
*Learning to Play: Common Concerns for the Visually Impaired Child, Blind Childrens Center, 4120 Marathon Street, P.O. Box 29159, Los Angeles, California 90029-0159
*Talk to Me I and II by Blind Childrens Center, 4120 Marathon Street, P.O. Box 29159, Los Angeles, California 90029-0159
*Touch - The Language of Love, Johnson & Johnson Baby Products Company, Grandview Road, Skillman, NJ 08558
*Dancing Cheek to Cheek: Nurturing Beginning Social, May and Language Interactions, byL. Meyers and P. Lansky, Blind Childrens Center, 4120 Marathon Street, P.O. Box 29159, Los Angeles, California 90029-0159
*Move With Me: A Parents Guide to Movement Development for Visually ImpairedBabies, Blind Childrens Center, 4120 Marathon Street, P.O. Box 29159, Los Angeles, California 90029Â
*Rhymes to Develop Body Image, by Langston Hughes, APSEA
Children of All Ages
*Sex Education of the Visually Impaired Child. The Role of Parents, by C. S. Schuster, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 80(4), 675-680, 1986.
*Sexuality Education Methodology,by J. Neff, In S. Mangold (Ed.), A Teachers Guide to Special Needs of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1982.
*Nurturing High Self-Esteem in Visually Handicapped Children by S. Mangold, A Teachers Guide to Special Needs of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1982.
*Social Skills, by K. M. Heubner. In G.T. Scholl (Ed.), Foundations of Education for Blind and Visually Handicapped Children and Youth: Theory and Practice, New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1986.
*Sexuality Education for Children with Visual Impairments byJudith Davies, Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, 1995. [video, audio taped formats]
*Use the Common Senses: Childbirth Education for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons by B. Bobek, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 78(8), 350-351, 1984.
*The Adolescent Visually Impaired Female by S. Mangold and P. Mangold, Journal of visual Impairment and Blindness, 77(6),250-255, 1983.
*Sexual Well-Being. A Goal for Young Blind Women by Jan Neff, Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 77(6), 296-297, 1983.
Resources for All Parents
The New Family Book A bout Sexuality by Mary Calderone and Eric Johnson, New York: Harper and Row, 1989. Information about sexuality and sexuality teaching.
Raising a Child Conservatively in a Sexually Permissive World by Sol and Judith Gordon, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. A parents guide to sexuality teaching.
*Your Childs Self-Esteem by Jean Illsley Clarke, New York: Harper Collins Publishing Company, 1978 . Ideas to encourage children to be the best they can be. [print, taped formats]
*How to Help Your Teenager Postpone Sexual Involvement by Marion Howard, New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1991. Straightforward suggestions to help parents prepare their children to make wise choices regarding their sexuality. [print format]
Talking With Your Teenager.- A Book for Parents by Lori Zeigler-Wildflower, New York: Random House Press, 1983. This book covers strategies for successful communication, changes during puberty, and other sexuality issues.
Raising Sexually Healthy Children: A Loving Guide for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers by L. Leight, New York: Rawson Associates, 1988. A guide to sexuality education.
An Easy Guide to Loving Carefully by Lynn McKee, Winfred Kempton and Lynne Steiggall, Santa Cruz: Network Publications, 1987. This is an easy to read book about women and men's bodies, sexual health, and birth control.
*Sexuality and Your Disabled Child by Sue MacLeod, Planned Parenthood, Nova Scotia, 1985.
*Parents Can Build Children's Self-Esteem by The Parent Institute, VA, 1991.
*Talk Sex by The N.S. Department of Health, N.S.
*The Stork Didn't Bring You byBarbara J. Jones, N.S. Department of Health, N.S.
*We need to know about AIDS: A Guide for Parents on Talking with Their Children about AIDS by Health and Welfare Canada, 1991.
*Sexual Abuse and Your Child by Child Abuse Research and Education, Canada, 1990.
*Talking With Your Son about Birth Control by Kay Clark, Network Publications, CA, 1985.
*Talking With Your Daughter about Birth Control by Patricia Rain,Network Publications, CA, 1985.
*Now That I Know ... What Do I Do: Information for Parents, Family and Mends of Those WhoAre Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual by The Gay and Lesbian Association, Nova Scotia, 1993.
The Parent Kit: A Family Guide to Sexuality Education(revised edition), Planned Parenthood Association of Nova Scotia, Halifax, NS, 1991. This unique resource is designed for groups of parents to learn together to talk comfortably and confidently to their children about sex.
*The Growing Up Series,National Film Board of Canada, Ottawa, Canada, 1989. A series of three videos designed for parents to watch with their pre-adolescent children. It serves as an introduction to sexuality education. [video format]
Resources to Share with Your Children
Books for Young Children
*The Bare-Naked Book by Kathy Stinson, Willowdale: Firefly Books Ltd,, 1986. A book about bodies for very young children in large print with clear illustrations. (large print format]
Bellybuttons are Navels by Mark Schoen, Prometheus Books, 1990. A book about body parts for very young children.
Did the Sun Shine Before You Were Born? by Sol and Judith Gordon, Fayetteville: Ed-U Press, 1979. Written for children ages 3-7 years. This book talks about the family, affection, reproduction, birth and growing up.
Girls are Girls and Boys are Boys by Sol and Judith Gordon, Fayetteville: Ed-U Press, 1979. Talks about the differences and the similarities between the sexes.
*How You Were Born by Joanna Cole, New York: Mulberry Books, 1984. Written for young children with an introduction for parents. This book answers children's questions about how an egg grows to become a baby and how a baby is born. [twin-vision format]
*So That's How I Was Born by Robert Brooks, New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 130 Avenue of the Americas, 1983. Written for young children with an introduction for parents. This book provides an excellent model for answering children's early questions about sexuality. [twin-vision format]
*The Berenstain Bears New Baby by Stan & Jan Berenstain, Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 1974. A story for young children who are expecting a new baby in the family. (twinvision format]
*Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle, Toronto: George McLeod Limited, 1975. An amusing look at bodies and reproduction for children of all ages in bold print. [print, taped format]
A Better Safe Than Sorry Book by Sol and Judith Gordon, Fayetteville: Ed-U Press, 1984. A book to help young children protect themselves from sexual abuse.
*My Body is Private by Linda Girard, Martin Groves: Albert Whitman and Company, 1984. This book helps children understand their personal rights about their bodies. [twin-vision, taped form at]
*Come Sit by Me by Margaret Merrifield, Toronto: Women's Press, 1990. An educational storybook about AIDS and HIV infection for small children ages 4-8 and their caregivers. [large print format]
*Tiger Rowers by Patricia Quinlan, Dial, 1994. A little boy remembers his beloved uncle and the good times they had before his death from AIDS. Written for children 5 years and up. [print, taped formats]
*Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch, London: Frances Lincoln Limited, Apollo Works, 1991. This book tells the story of a little girl who with the help of her mother and grandmother discovers that she can do anything she wants. [twin-vision format]
*The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch, Toronto: Annick Press, 1980. In this story the tables are turned when the princess rescues the prince. [twin-vision format]
*William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotow, USA: Harper Trophy, 1972. Written for children 4-8 years. A little boy's grandmother understands why boys and girls should play with dolls. [twinvision format]
*Piggybook by Anthony Browne, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1990. A family takes another look at gender roles. [twin-vision format]
Books for Pre-Teens
*Asking About Sex and Growing Up: A Question and Answer Book for Boys and Girls by Joanna Cole, New York: William Morrow and Company ltd., 1988. This book is written for preteens in a straight-forward question and answer format. [print, braille formats]
Let's Talk About.. S-E-X by Sam Gitchel and Lori Foster, Planned Parenthood of Fresno, Suite E, 633 North Van Ness Avenue, Fresno, California, 93728, 1986. A read and discuss guide for people 9-12 and their parents.
The What's Happening to my Body Book for Boys by Linda Madams with Dane Saavedra, New York: Newmarket Press, 1984. A book about puberty for boys.
The What's Happening to my Body? A Growing Up Guide for Mothers and Daughters by Linda Madaras and Area Madaras, New York: Newmarket Press, 1983. A book about puberty for girls.
*What's Happening to Me. Answers to the World's Most Embarrassing Questions by Peter Mayle, Toronto: George McLeod Limited, 1975. An amusing look at puberty. [large print, taped format]
*Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Bloom, New York: Dell Publishing, 1970. This tells the story of a young girl entering puberty. [print, taped formats]
Books for Teenagers
*How Sex Works by Elizabeth Fenwick and Richard Walker, Toronto: Macmillan Canada, 1994. A clear, factual, and helpful guide to growing up physically, emotionally, and sexually. [print, taped formats]
*Hearing Us Out: Voices from the gay and Lesbian Community by Roger Sutton, Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1994. A moving book for and about gay and lesbian teenagers.
Degrassi Talks on Sexuality by Peter Carver (Ed.), Toronto: Boardwalk Books Inc. and Mint Publishers Inc., 1992. Teens talk about how sexual maturing brings embarrassments, crises, moments of joy and disaster as they struggle to find their sexual identity. [print, video taped format]
Degrassi Talks on Sex by Peter Carver (Ed.), Toronto: Boardwalk Books Inc. and Mint Publishers Inc., 1992. Teens talk about the challenges of sexual activity in the 1990s. [print, video taped format]
DegrassiTalks on Abuse by Peter Carver (Ed.), Toronto: Boardwalk Books Inc. and Mint Publishers Inc., 1992. Teens tell how they deal with physical, sexual and emotional abuse and survive. [print, video taped format]
*Teen Esteem by Pat Palmer, Toronto: Impact Publishing, 1989. A book to help teens understand and improve the way they see themselves. [print, taped format]
*AIDS: Everyone Needs the Facts by AIDS and Disability Action Project, Vancouver: B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, 1991. [braille, taped formats]
*The Facts of Life in the '90s Scarborough: Julius Schmid of Canada, 1991
*Date Rape by Gayle Stringer, Network Publications, CA, 1985.
*Talking With Your Parents about Birth Control by Jane Haitt Consultants, Network Publications, CA, 1983.
*I Think I Might Be Gay ... Now What Do I Do? by The Gay and Lesbian Association, Nova Scotia, 1993.
*I Think I Might Be a Lesbian...Now What Do I Do? by The Gay and Lesbian Association, Nova Scotia, 1993.
*I Think I Need More Info: Where Do I Go? by The Gay and Lesbian Association, Nova Scotia, 1993.
*I Want to be a Mother, I Have a Disability, What A re My Choices? Toronto: DAWN Ontario, 1993.
*Am I Parent Material? by Carol Baker, Santa Cruz: Network Publications.
*Start Smart: A Guide to Sexuality by Richard Borodsky and Louise Andree Saulnier, Planned Parenthood Manitoba. [taped format]
Anatomically Correct Models and Dolls
Discovery Dollsc/o Monique Felder, 167-44 145th Ave., Springfield Gardens, NY 11434, (718) 712-2057: models for sex education