Addressing Issues of Sexuality with Students Who are Visually Impaired

Jeff Migliozzi on the importance of sexuality education for individuals with vision impairments including those with additional disabilities.

Jeff Migliozzi encourages parents and educators to be frank and explicit when talking about sex education to individuals with vision impairment, including those with additional disabilities. He also discusses the importance of explicitly teaching many of the concepts related to sexuality education that sighted children learn incidentally as they observe the world around them. 

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Presented by Jeff Migliozzi

Length of time to complete: approximately 30 minutes

  1. Introduction
  2. The Importance of Language in Early Sex Education
  3. Puberty and Sexual Development
  4. The Social and Sexual Implications of Personal Appearance
  5. Strategies for Parents and Teachers
  6. Preventing Exploitation Through Sex Education

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

Addressing Issues of Sexuality with Students Who are Visually Impaired with Jeff Migliozzi. MIGLIOZZI: So, everybody needs sex ed. What’s unique about our students is that before they even enter a class, whether it’s a preschool class, a kindergarten class, or a high school class, or a human sexuality course in college, the sighted student has a ton of information that they’ve received from basically the time they were born and started observing the world.

And I talk about vision as being a torrent of information. Our brains are being flooded with images constantly reinforced, or observing the world. And vision allows you to observe the world from a safe distance, so you can be detached.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see a young man in a baseball uniform throwing a ball from a pitcher’s mound. We then see a batter swinging and making contact with the ball.

MIGLIOZZI: You can watch the baseball game before you ever pick up a bat and a ball. You can see where the players are on the field, what the object is, what they’re doing. And then you can begin to think about whether you want to participate, and then you can go from there. You don’t have to be right in it, nobody has to teach it to you, you can observe it.

Well, the same thing is true about sexual development. When when young people are excited, they can watch and they can see, for example, what parts of the body are always covered, what parts are optional. You go to the beach and you can see that some people wear a one-piece bathing suit, and other people wear bikinis, but there are certain parts that are always covered.

NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see a beach crowded with many people, some in bathing suits, some in t-shirts and shorts. The next clip shows two young women together at the shore. Both of the girls wear bikinis.

MIGLIOZZI: That’s information about the human body, the sex organs, the size, the shape, the location, those important concepts that are just sort of ingrained, they’re natural, you observe them. Our students don’t get that information, they don’t have that opportunity, so the only way they’re going to learn it is to have that information taught to them directly. So before they can even enter a curriculum and enter a class, they need to know the basics, they need to know the background.

CHAPTER 2: The Importance of Language in Early Sex Education

MIGLIOZZI: One of the things that I tell parents of children who are blind is the fact that we have to be very frank, that we have to be very direct, because they’re not going to pick up that information incidentally. And that’s some of the stuff we talked about already — just explaining about the body parts, explaining how they work, explaining what they look like, explaining where they are exactly so that they understand the opposite sex and how it works. So we have to be more explicit early on, and so it’s good when parents can use proper language and use the correct names and give examples when they can.

MOTHER: Take a good look at yourself in the mirror. What do you see?

A young boy who is blind sits in his mother's lap as she reads him a children's book about our bodies.NARRATOR: A young boy who is blind sits in his mother’s lap as she reads him a children’s book about our bodies.

MIGLIOZZI: I think the first thing we need to do, I would go back to the point about what parts of the body are always covered and really start with that. And first of all, explain to our students that there’s a reason why these parts are always covered, and what those organs are, and give them proper names so they understand what they are, so that they understand that the penis and the vagina are normal parts of the body just like the hands, the elbow, or the nose are parts of the body.

Give them the actual names, so then we can talk about the fact about why they’re covered, and how they work. Again, if you’re talking about young children, you’re going to be very simple about that. But as you go along, now you’ve established a language and then you can talk about it. And then when they start hearing slang expressions, you can start introducing them.

One of the things I like to say is that it’s very important to teach the student who’s blind the same language that everybody else is using, because knowledge is power, and knowledge about one’s body means that you have control over one’s body. And so we want them to know that this is what people are talking about.

When they use these words, this is what they’re talking about. You need to know both expressions, and you need to know when to use the more clinical term and when to use the slang and talk about how people are affected by those words just so they’re on the same page as everybody else. And I think so much of special education really is about putting our students on the same page as everybody else, so we start with language.

CHAPTER 3: Puberty and Sexual Development

MIGLIOZZI: We deal with young people, which means their bodies are changing constantly. And one of the nice things, again, about having vision is that when you’re in the locker room with your buddies and you’re changing, you have an opportunity to look around and kind of see where you are in your development compared to those around you.

“Am I late? Am I early? Why is this hair here? Do other people have hair there?”

And the same for young women, it gives them the same sense of, “Am I developing as quickly as somebody else? What’s going on with my body? Why all of a sudden are my breasts growing, or other people’s breasts growing?”

You just don’t have that opportunity to look at yourself and say, “Where do I fit in with everybody else?” And so you again feel isolated. “Am I strange, or am I normal? Am I developing properly, or am I behind?”

These are just fears that teenagers have anyway — I think we all remember being teenagers and having all kinds of anxiety about our appearance and what’s going on with our bodies — but imagine if we don’t have the ability to compare ourselves to our peers.

NARRATOR: We see a video clip of several teenaged girls who appear to be at a pajama party. One of the girls sits on the floor and allows her hair to be brushed by a friend who is sitting behind her on the couch.

MIGLIOZZI: The models that we use for teaching students who are blind tend to fall into two parts, or two categories. One is the rag doll type, which were initially developed for children and developed, unfortunately, really for children who may have been abused sexually so that they can show on these models, on these rag dolls, where they were touched and this kind of thing. And so they’re not realistic at all.

So there may be a hole with a little piece of felt around it and that’s supposed to be a vagina. They’re often sort of on the stomach so they look more like belly buttons than they do like vaginas, which can be very confusing to somebody who’s trying to learn about them. The penis, the testicles are often just a piece of material that just sort of hangs down, that doesn’t have any real shape to it, doesn’t have any real feel to it that feels anywhere normal. But it’s meant to represent a part of the body, and that’s all it’s meant to do. But they can be useful in terms of at least giving some sense of very broad sort of ballpark.

Two Teach-A-Bodies rag dolls are shown. The female doll wears a dress, and the male, pants and a shirt.NARRATOR: Two Teach-A-Bodies rag dolls are shown. The female doll wears a dress, and the male, pants and a shirt. Next, we see the female wearing a white bra and panties, and the male in white underwear. Finally, the dolls are unclothed. A bit of brown fabric outlines the pubic area of both dolls.

MIGLIOZZI: So those are one kind of models. And the other kind of models we have are these bigger, disembodied body parts. So we might have a model of the vulva, a model of an erect penis. They’re bigger, they’re good in terms of being able to point out various parts and explaining what they are and describing them and explaining how they work, and we have an erect penis and we have a flaccid penis and so we can talk about those things. But they don’t feel like skin.

They don’t have anything really human about them except the shape and what they’re supposed to suggest. And so they’re helpful, but they’re not ideal. Surprisingly, we have not been able to find what I would love to have, which is sort of an anatomically correct Ken and Barbie doll that you can bend and move and you can shape and you can show exactly how two people’s bodies interact, what intercourse truly is, how it all works.

CHAPTER 4: The Social and Sexual Implication of Personal Appearance

MIGLIOZZI: One of the things I like to say about the eyes, the eyes are not a primary sex organ, but they certainly are a secondary one. There’s a reason why there are so many nude paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, because the body’s beautiful, human beings respond to that.

NARRATOR: We see a painting of a nude woman, followed by a depiction of a nude male figure, and finally, a reclining female nude. All three of the figures are pictures of paintings that are part of a museum collection.

MIGLIOZZI: It’s part of being human, and if you’re blind, if you’re a person who’s blind, you don’t have that same sense. It doesn’t mean you don’t have those same feelings, because you do, but you don’t have that same sense of how it looks and how it appears in the world.

I’m a teacher of the visually impaired, that’s one of my degrees — we call them TVIs — and a lot of people here at Perkins are TVIs, teachers of the visually impaired. And I think that sometimes, because we’re so excited and interested in adapting for the blind, that we sometimes forget what sight allows us to do, what sight allows human beings to do naturally.

We’re so quick to say, “Oh, we can adjust for that, we can teach them how to do that by feeling or touch.” And we sometimes forget that there’s a whole world out there that people respond to visually that doesn’t require language, that doesn’t require even deep understanding — you see something and you respond to it.

It’s the visual world — images, paintings, pictures, these archetypes, the cave drawings that we’ve seen of primitive man. This is all very visual. So I think that one of the things we have to do is explain to our students what the visual world is, the fact that people can look at you and they’re going to make certain assumptions about you based on the way you look — on the way you dress, the way you’re standing, the way your posture is, whether you’re paying attention or not — they’re going to have certain assumptions, and so we really need them to understand that because they don’t know that.

A group of teenagers, both boys and girls, conversing as they walk down a sidewalk. NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see a group of teenagers, both boys and girls, conversing as they walk down a sidewalk. Next, we see a teenaged girl and boy tossing a frisbee to one another.

MIGLIOZZI: They don’t experience it, so we have to give them a sense of it. And then we can kind of build upon that, and we can grow and use that. But in the beginning, they just need to be aware. So much of it is just being aware that that’s how the world operates. And so we spend a lot of time talking about the visual world, just so they have a sense about it. And then we can talk about dress, and we can talk about posture, we can talk about who stands close and who doesn’t, and kissing on the cheek versus kissing on the lips versus a hug versus a handshake.

NARRATOR: A young couple stands side by side. We can see that they are holding hands and exchanging smiles. We then see a young couple sitting close together on a beach. The boy leans in to kiss the girl on her cheek.

MIGLIOZZI: I mean, these are all varying degrees of posture, and you really just need to understand what they mean, so we really have to get that basic with them.

CHAPTER 5: Strategies for Parents and Teachers

MIGLIOZZI:Encourage them just in general interactions, when they’re watching TV, when they’re watching movies, when they’re out in public, when they’re talking about things they’ve seen and done, to put in as much information as they can about the people, how they’re dressed, how they’re acting.

You know, I was very fortunate that my mother is a very, very visual person. She constantly commented about the world around her — how people were dressed, how they looked, what she liked, what she didn’t like.

Two men in business suits hold a conversation while walking on the sidewalk. NARRATOR: A street-level shot shows a sidewalk crowded with feet of pedestrians in a variety of footwear. As the shot changes, we see a woman in a dress exiting an office building. Two men in business suits hold a conversation while walking on the sidewalk.

MIGLIOZZI: She was giving me just a huge amount of information about how clothes are worn and what gets revealed and what gets seen and what doesn’t get seen. And I told the story that I was a little kid, I was about five years old, in the backseat of my parents’ car, we’re driving around in New York City, just looking at the lights and Fifth Avenue and everything, and my mother lets out this shriek, and I say, “What’s the matter?” And she was looking out the window and she happened to look up into an apartment window and there was a woman standing naked in the window. And my mother was like, “My god, she was completely nude! She’s got no clothes on!” That was the first time I realized, just by her saying that, the first time I realized that you could see through a window and that somebody could notice what you’re doing.

Up until that point, windows were things you opened or closed depending on the heat and the weather and whether you wanted air or not, you wanted to yell out to somebody. But until she told me that, I didn’t realize that, “Oh, my God, if you’re naked in a window, people can see you.” And then over time I learned that if the lights are on, it’s even easier, and if it’s light out and the lights are off, it’s not so easy, and I sort of learned that as I went along. But that was the first time I ever had that piece of information.

What I would recommend to parents is that they comment on the world. If you’re watching a movie — especially nowadays, because it’s so easy to pause, even a TV show, you can pause it with TiVo and all that — just give them the background, explain that, you know, if there’s a hot girl coming in and the guy’s acting all goofy because she looks really sexy, well, explain what she looks like as much as you can.

Use the film as a third party, use a social situation as a third party so you’re not talking to them about their bodies or your body, you’re talking about the woman on TV or the guy on TV. So you can use a third party to kind of explain what’s going on, just to give them information. You’ll be surprised how much of that information stays with the child, because the child is eager to know these things, the brain is eager to absorb the information.

We have eyes for a reason — so that information can be transmitted quickly to the brain—and if we don’t get that input, it doesn’t mean that the brain goes to sleep; the brain still wants the information, you just have to find an alternative route to get that information to them. So there’s lots of ways. It’s not all just about talking about sex.

There’s a lot of ways that parents can help children understand about social situations and the way people act just by describing what’s on a movie together. And one thing I always say to parents: I had this situation once where a parent said to me, they were watching a movie with their 16-year-old daughter and there was a sex scene going on. And there was all this ooh-ing and ahh-ing and all these noises, and the girl said, “What’s going on?” And the mother said, “Oh, they’re just happy.”

Now, that very well may be true, but it wasn’t… you know, happiness and those noises, that’s not the right exact match. And the mother felt bad, and I reassured her that it’s all about learning, but I did say, “If you don’t think that movie’s appropriate for your 16-year-old sighted child, then it’s not appropriate for your 16-year-old blind child. Don’t use their blindness as a way of getting around an uncomfortable situation.”

CHAPTER 6: Preventing Exploitation Through Sex Education

MIGLIOZZI: Most parents of children who are blind are afraid that somebody’s going to exploit their lack of vision. And so what I say to parents is, “Don’t you exploit it.”

Don’t model for them how to be exploited. If you don’t want your child to see that or you don’t think that’s appropriate, then turn off the TV. Watch that movie later. If you are going to watch it with them and you think it’s okay, then describe to them what’s going on, give them an accurate picture as best you can.

We wouldn’t have a sex ed curriculum if it wasn’t for the fact that parents are uncomfortable teaching this to their children no matter what their condition. To me, maybe the most important thing that I can say about teaching sex ed to the blind is to point out that students who are blind rely on language to communicate information. It’s our number one way of understanding how the world works. Keep in mind that the boundaries for a student who is blind are different than those for sighted students.

People get closer to them more often. People touch them, whether it’s to help them get across the street or help them find a seat, or just help them in general.

A young girl who is blind is shown crossing the street with the assistance of a sighted adult.NARRATOR: In a video clip, we see a bright yellow sign indicating a crosswalk. Next, a young girl who is blind is shown crossing the street with the assistance of a sighted adult.

MIGLIOZZI: People want to be helpful, they want to be solicitous — usually they want to be helpful — and that can be very confusing to the child who’s blind because the question is, “Are they being nice to me because they like me, because there’s something about me that’s special or attractive, or are they doing it because they feel sorry for me and I’m really not that special?”

It gets very, very confusing, and so we’re really helping our students understand boundaries and understanding why people interact with them the way they do. And we have some students here who need help with things like toileting and in the shower and things like that. So now they’re being exposed to a whole different level of intimacy that, to a student who’s sighted, would be simply unacceptable.

Nobody’s going to watch you in the shower. But our students have that as part of their routine sometimes. And so we really have to teach those issues to them so they really understand why people invade your boundaries and what are appropriate boundaries and what things can never be touched for any reason.

NARRATOR: A boy who is blind wears a backpack and a green ball cap as he walks with a sighted guide in a school hallway. Together, the boy and the guide enter the men’s bathroom.

MIGLIOZZI: And if there’s one thing we know about our society, we’re not comfortable talking about sex. So think about the double whammy: the student who is blind needs to hear, in words, what’s going on to get the best picture, and we as a society don’t want to tell them. And that’s the problem. If we’re not willing to tell them, they’re not going to get accurate information.

And knowledge is power, and knowledge about one’s body gives them power over their body. And the child who is blind is less likely — we believe this very strongly — the child who is blind is less likely to get in trouble by getting good, accurate information from a trusted source than they are by trying to get that same information some other way.

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