“Sexuality is a part of who we are,” asserts BHMA Clinician Mary Marchesani, LMHC, “and that doesn’t change because someone has a disability.” Encompassing our thoughts and values, sexuality is integral to our personality––influencing how we approach the world, form connections, and construct our self-image, she explains. Marchesani, who in the spring of 2018 became a sexuality educator through Massachusetts’ Department of Developmental Service’s Teaching People to Lead Sexually Healthy Lives training, believes strongly in providing individuals with disabilities a platform to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to have fulfilling relationships and navigate them independently. With our Men’s and Women’s Health classes held each semester, Marchesani offers a safe space that encourages intrigue, exploration, and discovery of key themes, while continuing to build a practical understanding of adult health and sexuality.
Channeling her enthusiasm for the subject matter, during group discussions Marchesani aims to engage individuals in the conversation, remove any associated stigma, and highlight the validity of their thoughts and feelings. Weekly lessons, which are rooted in student interests and adjusted to meet the pace of the group, are mainly sourced from an evidence-informed curriculum and supplemented with additional resources meant to appeal to different learning styles. Marchesani starts each semester teaching the basics like communication, hygiene, and the difference between public and private, and routinely checks for comprehension with short reviews at the beginning and end of class. Gradually the class progresses toward more nuanced topics––those that are not black and white, but gray. Using videos, role playing scenarios, and written activities, they cover everything from attraction and different types of relationships, to decision making and barriers that people with disabilities face. As the semester goes on, students often transform into active class participants––sharing their opinions and asking questions freely; Marchesani cites this increase in confidence as one of the most rewarding aspects of the course.
With their holistic, student-centered approach, our Men’s and Women’s Health classes fit within the Health & Wellness Department’s broader mission of promoting the physical, social, and emotional well-being of our students. Its impact also extends beyond this; as Marchesani writes, “when we give our individuals access to meaningful health and sexuality instruction, we are helping them learn a variety of important life skills.” At the center of this notion is the curriculum’s emphasis on self-advocacy. Lessons and activities are designed to educate students about their human rights and empower them to act in support of their goals and values. Setting boundaries, saying no, and recognizing and preventing abuse are just a few of the ways in which individuals are taught to advocate for themselves. This core life skill, which is also woven throughout our vocational and residential programming, allows individuals with disabilities to exert control over their emotions, bodies, and relationships. It underscores the main goal of teaching students about adult health and sexuality––arming them with the knowledge they need to live with greater independence.