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Contraception and the Disabled Teen


Updated October 16, 2011

Contraception and the Disabled Teen

Sexuality is a normal part of growing up.

Rewat Wannasuk@Dreamstime.com

Offering contraceptives to disabled teenagers may seem like an out of the ordinary idea, but it is perfectly normal. Unfortunately, many parents of disabled teenagers, and an almost equal amount of physicians, never have a talk about contraceptives with disabled teens. Outsiders may have the same impression and think ‘well, they’re disabled and there isn’t much chance of them having sex with anyone.’ What is forgotten is that disabled teenagers have the same sex drive as their able-bodied peers do, despite having a mental or physical handicap.

Considerations for Contraception

There are very different problems facing teenagers with mental disabilities, versus those with physical disabilities. Both groups are in danger of being exploited sexually, however those who are only physically disabled are at an advantage. The physically disabled (those without any mental disability) have the mental capacity to understand how to use contraceptive methods and to comprehend the consequences of having sex.

The mentally disabled, depending upon their level of disability, may not understand their sexual feelings towards others, understand the consequences of unprotected sex, and in some instances lack the fine motor skills to use a contraceptive properly. Parents who are concerned about their mentally disabled teen may want to have a child sterilized; however this can only be done with court approval in the United States.

Sterilization Concerns

It wasn’t that long ago that those who were in mental institutions were sterilized against their will. Even those who ended up in a mental hospital because they were orphans were subjected to this inhumane treatment. Today, this practice is not allowed in many countries because our knowledge about mental disabilities has been broadened; not all mental disabilities are related to genetics. Sterilization procedures are only allowed in extreme circumstances and must have court approval.

The methods of contraception have also changed, making it easier for the mentally disabled to use a contraceptive method instead of the invasive procedure of being sterilized. Devices that do not require the user to remember to use it every day, nor require fine motor skills, include inter-uterine devices, shots and skin patches. While these types of birth control methods do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases, they can help to prevent unplanned pregnancies.

Discussing Sexuality with Disabled Teens

In the case of the disabled teen who is only physically disabled, sex education most often occurs at school as part of the student’s curriculum. Parents may also talk with their children about sex when they feel the child is ready to understand the topic. A teen’s physician may also be brought into the discussion when the opportunity presents itself, such as during yearly physicals as a child begins to mature. Unfortunately, many physicians don’t bring up the subject with disabled patients. Either the physician is afraid of going against a parent’s wishes, or because they don’t believe that the teen will be sexually active any time soon.

A teen with limited life experiences may not know to bring up the subject of contraception with a physician, even if they are contemplating having sex with a partner. They may be embarrassed to discuss the topic with someone who, for the most part, is a stranger. A parent who is aware of their child becoming physically mature can be the best advocate for their teen when it comes to sexual education and contraception. They can discuss this with a physician prior to the teen’s appointment indicating their approval for a discussion on the topic.

Parents, whether they are ready to or not, must take part in educating their teen about sex, no matter what their mental or physical disability is. Relying solely on a school or family physician to educate a disabled teen about contraception doesn’t guarantee that the information will get to the teen in a timely manner. A parent may be surprised how creative a teen can be at having a sexual encounter, even if they are on school grounds or otherwise being supervised. Teens will have sex whether or not their parents educate them about it, even disabled teens.

A Pro-Active Approach

Parents need to take the lead when they realize that their disabled child is becoming physically mature. Having the “sex talk” can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of being a parent. It is always better to provide a young adult with the correct information they need prior to their first experience, rather than face the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. As with able-bodied teens, teaching abstinence is the best advice, but we must also provide them with the necessary information in the event they don’t take our advice.

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