Knowing the Signs: Young Deaf People Need Sex Ed, Too | #SexEdForAll Series
By Paris Rangel and Eleni Pacheco
Parents can have the biggest influence on their children’s decisions around sex and relationships. Young people look to their trusted adults to share the values and expectations around sex in order to feel connected, safe, and empowered. But for the estimated 7,000 young Deaf or hard-of-hearing people in Texas, this communication is lacking - and not just because sex is taboo. In the Deaf community, schools have the potential to bridge the gaps between what’s simply rumored to be true and what actually is, solving sexual health disparities.
Sharing a common language is something most of us take for granted. More than 90% of parents with Deaf children do not know American Sign Language, which is the main means of communication in the Deaf community. Of course, this poses a huge barrier to receiving parental guidance on just about everything - sex and relationships included. For Deaf youth in foster care, this barrier is amplified.
As much as any other young person, young Deaf people deserve sexual health information and support. If they aren’t able to talk to their parents and caregivers, how are they learning about sex? Healthy Futures’ own foster youth program coordinator and ASL interpreter, Paris Rangel, asked the Deaf community in the RGV. This blog shares a bit of what she learned.
Navigating the hearing world
Much of the communication between young Deaf people and their parents consists of “home gestures.” Home gestures are unique and imaginative signs most often invented by Deaf children seeking to communicate with their hearing parents. They can be effective in connecting over simple concrete needs or shared actions - less so in navigating complex or abstract ideas that help process things like sexual health information.
Take, for example, Angel’s* experience learning about her period. Her mom shared some important information that supported Angel practically but not emotionally. She shares:
It’s also important to note that young people are often the creator of the language used for family communication. For most teens, however - Deaf or not - being forthcoming about personal topics like sex is not particularly high on their to-do list. In many families, parents and caregivers often have to initiate “The Talk.” Of course, some Deaf youth have parents that do just that, learning ASL and taking a more active role in their children’s development. In one interview, Cynthia* credits her capacity to teach her child about sex to her own mother’s efforts and values around communication.
For others, however, adult role models and authority figures within the Deaf community step in to provide what guidance they can. While this can prove supportive for some, limiting community authorities and resources around sex can leave young Deaf people vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. One heartbreaking testimony highlighted this issue, motivating Paris to ask more questions that explore potential solutions.
Resoundingly, interviewees are calling upon public schools to ensure #SexEdForAll.
School-based sex ed can have widespread impacts
The Texas Foster Youth Health Initiative approaches #SexEdForAll by considering the whole environment in which young people make decisions about sex and relationships. Through this lens, we place young people at the center of a multitude of supports. Immediately surrounding them are their personal relationships - like parents and peers. While we strongly advocate that those close to Deaf youth learn ASL and talk about sex, this too can require multitudes of support through individual services.
On a larger scale, schools have the potential to reach entire populations from various backgrounds - to include Deaf youth and youth in care.
While a few interviewees mentioned receiving some sex education at school, most of what they learned centered on anatomy and physiology. This can clarify miscommunication and misinformation that young Deaf people receive, whether from family members who don’t share a common language or from Deaf peers who are also likely missing pieces of the puzzle. Ariel*, for example, was grateful that her school taught her that kissing, in fact, does not cause pregnancy - a myth she’d learned from her parents who knew ASL but were uncomfortable talking about sex.
Still, information about puberty and reproduction doesn’t protect young Deaf people from the violence that they are at risk of experiencing as a linguistically marginalized population. Education around consent and healthy relationships is just as necessary to youth empowerment as contraceptive or STI information. Resource referrals provided by school-based sex ed can expand access to safety and support for young Deaf people (especially those in care) who may only learn to recognize abuse after they’ve experienced it.
There's still a lot of work to do to fully include the Deaf community in #SexEdForAll. Healthy Futures efforts include providing and advocating for access to this information at all levels. With champions like Paris, TFYHI is committed to boosting community capacity to fill the gaps left by families who can’t share the information young people need - be it because of language, taboo, or anything in between.
* Names of interviewees have been changed in the interest of privacy and confidentiality
Paris Rangel, Rio Grande Valley Project Coordinator, has enjoyed working in the Deaf community as an ASL interpreter for more than seven years. Joining the Healthy Futures team in 2020, she has quickly developed a passion for sharing sexual health information with people with disabilities. Personally, Paris loves being a toddler mama, shopping, spending time with her family and friends. She also serves in the Deaf Ministry at her local church.
Thanks for reading our 2021 #SexEdForAll Month blog series. In case you missed it, check out the first three blogs: History of Sex Ed Timeline, Youth in Sex Education Policy, and Community College Sex Ed Solutions.