People with an intellectual disability often lack an understanding of social rules. And that puts them at higher risk of financial, physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
There are ways to help, made stronger when families and educators work together.
That’s the message social worker Theresa Fears brought to Walla Walla recently at the invitation of Walla Walla Public Schools and Walla Walla Valley Disability Network.
Fears works for The ARC of Spokane, part of the national ARC — once known as the Association of Retarded Citizens — founded nearly 70 years ago. Now the nonprofit organization has 700 chapters around the country to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The organization is known for its advocacy work and for changing public perception of children with those disabilities.
As her Walla Walla audience tucked into a provided dinner of enchiladas, rice and beans, Fears expounded on the grim statistics.
Research shows the population of people are four to 10 times at higher risk for sexual abuse, and that among people age 12 to 15, those with disabilities had a rate of violent victimization at least twice that as people without disabilities. Adult men and women with cognitive disabilities face serious risk of sexual assault and violence at much higher rates than nondisabled people.
Data shows more than a third of sex abuse perpetrators are friends, acquaintances and co-workers; 32 percent are relatives; 27 percent are disability professionals; and 8 percent are strangers.
Fears, who travels around the region for her job, works to help vulnerable teens and young adults understand how to avoid those abuses.
Her focus for the past 12 years has been training teachers and others in her self-designed curriculum, “Healthy Relationships: The secret sauce for a good life.”
It’s a free, eight-week, abuse-prevention course, created to be used in schools and aimed at students receiving special education services.
The need for such a curriculum became apparent to the social worker when she served on a committee that evaluated sex-abuse prevention materials, Fears told her audience.
“I was disappointed that none were good for students with special needs.”
To give those teens a shot at real life, parents and teachers have to help them navigate social rules about relationships — all kinds of relationships, from family to friends to employers to strangers, Fears said.
Social norms are not so visible to kids with disabilities. Often they get separated from their neurotypical classmates almost as soon as they enter school. That, she noted, prevents special education students from getting to know the ‘“rules of the road,” including the difference in types of relationships.
The resulting can spell confusion and trouble, even putting people in unsafe relationships, Fears pointed out.
But with informed coaching, young people with disabilities can understand how to be professional at work, to make and keep friends and to avoid harmful people, she said.
The “Healthy Relationships” workbook uses illustrations to help students understand the difference between friends, acquaintances and romantic partners.
Fears offered the group an example: An acquaintance may be friendly, but if you only see them at work or they are with you as part of their job, those folks are not friends, she said.
This knowledge is helpful in teaching people with intellectual disabilities to be good employees, Fears said.
“‘Why are you at work? To do a job, not to meet dates. Not to socialize.’”
And what does a good social life look like, she queried her audience.
“‘If you live in Spokane and you meet someone online in California, that is not a real relationship.’”
Healthy relationships have to include respect, trust and mutual choices. They cannot include control, disrespect or dishonesty, Fears told the group.
Her curriculum also has games like “Body Parts Bingo,” to teach students anatomically-correct names. Should sex abuse occur, it gives the girl or boy with cognitive disabilities more credibility with police if they have practiced words like “penis” and “breast,” Fears said.
None of what her program teaches is considered sex education, nor is that the goal, she noted.
“I’m not going to touch that. When I roll in, I can’t know where a student is developmentally for sex ed. That needs to be explicit, it needs to start early … and parents have to back it up.”
Relationship education, on the other hand, supports success in the workplace, promotes stable relationships and decreases the possibility of abuse. Those are things every parent want for every child, Fears said.
“Seven-eighths of this class is healthy, healthy, healthy. One-eighth is about recognizing dangerous relationships and getting help.”
Her years of investment in “Healthy Relationships” is paying off, Fears said Thursday.
“I’m OK that it took time to build momentum, giving me time for research and development. There are enough pieces in place to do some serious good.”