Real Talk Podcast: Sex Education for People with Intellectual Disabilities

February 15, 2023
real talk with susan and kristina podcast

In this episode of Real Talk, KJK Student Defense Attorneys Susan Stone and Kristina Supler are joined by Katherine McLaughlin, the Founder, CEO and Director of Training at Elevatus.  Elevatus provides training for People With Intellectual Disabilities in Sex Education.  The conversation revolves around people with intellectual disabilities in three main areas: the importance of sex education, how sex education plays a role in parenting, why educators and trainers with intellectual disabilities make the best trainers for others with disabilities.

Links Mentioned In the Show:

Elevatus Website

A Change to Parent Website


Show Notes:

  • (02:14) What is Elevates and What is the Curriculum
  • (03:48)  How a Life-Changing Accident Lead to Elevatus
  • (07:41)  People with Intellectual Disabilities and Sex
  • (09:19)  Teaching How to Deal with Sexual Feelings
  • (10:44)  Is there a Minimum IQ For People to Access Elevatus’ Curriculum?
  • (13:04)  Different Types of Sex Education Training for Education, Parents and Staff
  • (14:37)  How do Values Fit Into Sexual Education
  • (16:54)  Restrictions on Abortion: How Does This Fit Into Sexual Education?
  • (17:55)  What if People With Intellectual Disabilities Want to Become Parents?
  • (20:31)  How People with Intellectual Disabilities Can Talk With Their Protective Parents
  • (21:49)  What is AASECT?  How can it Help People with Intellectual Disabilities?
  • (23:04) “Nothing About Us Without Us” – How this Phrase Has Created A Movement



Susan Stone: We deal every day with students with disabilities and we talk a lot to those clients about sex. Obviously, most of the time that’s how they find us. They were accused of sexual misconduct and. . What we find when we talk to our clients is that despite their disability, they are, those students are the same in their desire for companionship and sexual experiences.

Susan Stone: What we also find when we talk to educators, Especially for K through 12 is that this population is often overlooked when it comes to sex education and there are specific challenges with students with disabilities in getting the education that they need. 

Kristina Supler: That’s right, Susan, and we’re so pleased to be joined today because this is such an interesting. issue that comes up in so many of our cases, whether they’re campus Title IX cases, special education cases, even some of our criminal cases. We’re dealing with people in the this population and this lack of sex education is a recurring theme. So we’re really pleased to be joined by today’s guest, Katherine McLaughlin, who is the founder, c e o, and lead trainer for Elevatus Training..

Kristina Supler: As a national expert on sexuality and intellectual and developmental disabilities, she trains professionals, parents, and individuals to become sexual self-advocates. She’s the author of Sexuality Education for People with Developmental Disabilities Curriculum, and as a person in a wheelchair, Katherine is disabled herself and has her own experiences that I’m sure undoubtedly inform her work.

Susan Stone: So welcome Katherine. 

Katherine McLaughlin: Thank you. Great to be here. 

Susan Stone: So that was a big intro to talk about elevatus, and now it’s time to break it down for our listeners. So let’s start really broad. Tell us about Elevatus in your curriculum. 

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah, so we are a, basically an education service. So we have many different kinds of training, some in person, some online, as well as curriculum and tools that people can use to teach about sexuality education.

Susan Stone: What does that mean? Help us, I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Help me when you say tools, can you Yeah. Specific, yeah. Help us understand. 

Katherine McLaughlin: Absolutely. Yeah. So the, for example, the sexuality education curriculum that I developed years ago with a group of self-advocates, so people with intellectual developmental disabilities.

Katherine McLaughlin: And there’s 22 lessons in that curriculum, and it really helps people, go through, there’s a script, there’s handouts, because that’s the, that’s the hard thing is it, it, it’s hard enough to talk about this topic. But then you have to go find pictures and tools. And so how can we make it easier for people by, by creating these tools that they can then use to have these classes or discussions?

Susan Stone: You know, I just have to. Remark. I have a really good friend who’s starting a curriculum on cooking. Mm-hmm. and is doing pictures and videos and using computer software imaging to even explain things like how to make a peanut butter jelly sandwich. How to make a tuna fish salad sandwich. So I can only imagine how complicated it is to make a curriculum around sex 

Susan Stone: education.

Kristina Supler: Yeah. Katherine, I have to ask cuz I’m, I’m quite curious what brought you to this work. 

Katherine McLaughlin: Hmm. Yeah. Well, as you mentioned in my intro, I, in my twenties experienced an, an accident and started using a wheelchair. I have a spinal cord injury, so I just having that experience and. . I was really the same person the day before the accident as I was the day after, but yet I was being treated differently.

Katherine McLaughlin: And so I started to become more aware about disability and how people treat people with disability. So that was happening and at the same time, I was working for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and special educators and. Developmental disability agencies reached out to me saying, can you help us with this?

Katherine McLaughlin: So both of those things happened at the same time. And so I just started working with this population and, and has taken off some from there. 

Kristina Supler: When, when you say this population, I mean, disability can be a very broad term at ranging from perhaps someone with a spinal cord injury or blindness autism.

Kristina Supler: So what disabilities does your curriculum cover or who’s your sort of target? 

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah. So, um, there’s so many different terms. But I would say people who with neurodiversity, uh, so it could be someone with autism but it could also be someone with down syndrome. But it’s usually intellectual developmental disability.

Katherine McLaughlin: Sometimes there’s physical as well. But this is a population that needs very concrete, like you were saying around cooking. Very concrete. Skills and, and descriptions and to really understand. So apps, taking abstract concepts and breaking them down and making them very concrete. 

Susan Stone: Does it cover students with blindness?

Susan Stone: Do you have a curriculum in braille or. Other physical disabilities. 

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah, it’s not intended for that population. But we do have some people that might need the curriculum in large print. We haven’t had anyone requested in braille yet, so we haven’t done that. But we have had quite a few people who have attended who are deaf.

Katherine McLaughlin: And so we have interpreters on our training, you know, on Zoom with us. . So, I mean, I think what you’re bringing up is this idea of access and how do we, you know, people with disabilities, whether they’re blind or deaf or they have an intellectual disability, are, are, don’t have the same access that other people do.

Katherine McLaughlin: And it could be to buildings or it could be to education. And so I’m really trying to eliminate those barriers. And you know, to be honest, I was, I am very interested in physical disability and sexuality, but there was less interest in. I mean, I’m not sure that people with physical disabilities have less interest, but as far as as a culture, we tend to look at things as problems, right?

Katherine McLaughlin: So we’re not proactive about anything. So, people with intellectual disabilities might be, um, charged with a sex crime or might do something publicly, you know, that you’re supposed to do in private. And so it tended to be a population where people were looking for help. Where people with physical, I think people are interested, but there’s less of an urgency maybe around that.

Susan Stone: Yeah. Urgency or. Yeah, I would like to say that you don’t, Kristina and I have worked on a lot of cases where on criminal cases. Mm-hmm. , where there have been intellectual disabilities. But you’re right, we have not worked on a case where it was more of a physical disability, like a spinal cord injury.

Susan Stone: Right. But let’s take the spinal cord injury, let’s talk about it. . Mm-hmm. , tell us about your curriculum in terms of what are the sexual needs of that population and what do you communicate with them? Do you go as granular as physicians in sex, how to have sex? 

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah, so, so this, the po, the population I’m focused on is not spinal cord injury.

Katherine McLaughlin: That’s what I have . But the ones I’m talking to are people with intellectual disabilities. So we do talk about what is sex, different kinds of sex, and what does that mean? A big piece that I work on with this population is bodily autonomy as well. Like it’s your body and your life and you get to decide what’s right for you.

Katherine McLaughlin: So not only is it talking about sex and, but it’s also like you get to decide what you want in your life or don’t want in your life as well. But yeah, it’s not like a how to, but it’s more of a, these are the different types of sexual acts that people do with, with one. Well, but 

Susan Stone: I’m gonna challenge you a little bit on this because I think that there are a lot of, um, students in that population, or young people who are confused.

Susan Stone: They don’t know what it means to masturbate, where to masturbate. How to 

Katherine McLaughlin: masturbate. Mm-hmm. , when to masturbate, when to masturbate. We’ve had a case, we’ve had 

Kristina Supler: many cases involving masturbation gone wrong, let’s put it that way. 

Katherine McLaughlin: And 

Susan Stone: we find that sex education will talk a lot about bodily autonomy, but it neglects the big issue.

Susan Stone: I’m having these feelings, which every human has. How? How do I satisfy that? 

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah, yeah. Well, well, first thing is not everyone has sexual feelings, which. , you know, kind of a new thing for us to think about that there are people that really do feel asexual. And I’m not talking about people with disabilities, just the general population.

Katherine McLaughlin: So some people don’t. But I do teach. Yeah. But I do teach, um, what are sexual feelings? What are those feelings? Now I. . I do get into detail and I say, okay, so if you have those sexual feelings, what are your choices around those sexual feelings? So first you can try to stuff ’em and ignore ’em, and most people say that doesn’t work.

Katherine McLaughlin: You can acknowledge that you feel those sexual feelings for someone. Just keep it to yourself, keep it private. or you can masturbate, which is touching your sexual parts, but you have to do it in a private place and really concrete about what private means. Or you could be sexual with another person.

Katherine McLaughlin: That also would have to be in private and you’d have to get consent from the other person. am I talking specifically how you touch this or that? Not necessarily. But there we have lots of resources too that people can learn more about. Like for example, masturbation. There’s a video that people can watch to learn how to masturbate that have intellectual developmental disabilities.

Katherine McLaughlin: It’s not something I would show in a class, but it’s a resource that I would tell someone about, or I, you know, parents have said to me, can I, do you have access to that so I can show it to my son or my daughter, or so I do think we’re getting to some of those deeper issues, like you’re talking about beyond bodily autonomy.

Katherine McLaughlin: But yeah, so maybe that, I don’t know if that, if that satisfies your curiosity. 

Susan Stone: Well, this is real talk, so we gotta get real with each other. It real, keep it real. Is there a minimum IQ you need to have to access your curriculum? 

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah, so I don’t really base it on IQ as much as maybe certain skills or if somebody were there to assist the person.

Katherine McLaughlin: Prompt them, guide them you know, as a support for learning. Then that’s the group. But that we also took the curriculum, the 22 lessons, and we created commu communication boards and cards so that people who are non-speaking. Are also able to participate in the class. I find that people who are non-speaking can do thumbs up and thumbs down, but they’re not engaged in the same kind of way.

Katherine McLaughlin: So we worked with a special educator and she created these tools now we’re taking all the lessons and we’re making them for people who might have more significant disabilities and adapting them for that population as well. So I think in the beginning I was starting out, no one with a disability or an intellectual disability is receiving sexuality education.

Katherine McLaughlin: So here we go. Let’s start with a group that can have discussions and, you know, learn at a. Certain way now we’re gonna add these communication boards and cards, and now we’re gonna learn for people that might not be able to graph some of those concepts so that everyone has access because people with more profound disabilities are at higher, much higher risk of being taken advantage of as well, because they’re dependent on people for care.

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah. 

Kristina Supler: So that’s very interesting. I, I, Theme you’ve mentioned of access and providing access. Let’s face it, talking about sex is often difficult for a lot of people. Susan and I in our law practice, we end up talking about sex inevitably every single day. It’s, it’s every day. It’s part and parcel with our work, and I’m, I’m sure the same is true for you.

Kristina Supler: So yeah, it, it’s something that we’re very comfortable doing. But I know parents in particular, With even neurotypical children struggle with the sex talks, and I say talks plural because I think there should probably be more than one. Let’s face it. So my question for you is tell us about how you create the curriculum to, uh, Help train parents to have conversations with their children and other individuals 

Susan Stone: with disabilities?

Susan Stone: Or is it a separate curriculum that Elevatus, can ha you can spy or purchase? 

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah, so it is a separate curriculum. So we have a three day training that has three curriculum. One is the sexuality education, one that I’ve been talking. One is for leading parent workshops and one is for training other staff because it does seem like you have to have all these pieces in place.

Katherine McLaughlin: Or you’re gonna get these mixed messages from parents, you know, and compared to the class. So how do we train everyone to be able to address this? And in the parent training, it’s a lot around, you know, just what’s typical human sexual development. How do you answer questions that your child might have?

Katherine McLaughlin: How do you bring up the conversation? How do you address sexual behaviors as well? Like some of the, the issues you’re talking about, but from the parent perspective. So they’re in a restaurant, they go to use the restroom, they come out and their child is. masturbating in public, right? What do you do so that you’re not shaming the child, but you also are, are teaching them about public and private at the same time?

Katherine McLaughlin: Um, so it helps parents answer questions, respond to behaviors and then the staff training, it’s a lot of that as well. But for staff, there’s more of a focus on. What are your values around sexuality? And it’s okay to have values. It’s important to have values, but in your professional role, you have to set them aside because a lot of staff don’t have the skills to talk about this.

Katherine McLaughlin: And all they have is their values. So they rely on values to teach versus information and skills. And so you mean I just 

Susan Stone: wanna challenge you Yeah. Values or. . 

Katherine McLaughlin: It’s kind of both. Yeah, so for example so we have a list of s scenarios and staff look at that and it’s how are you, you know, is it okay for a 16 year old to have sexual intercourse?

Katherine McLaughlin: Is it okay for, uh, Uh, person with a penis to refuse to use condoms. Is it okay for someone to have three abortions? Right? So those kinds of topics, and it’s okay to have, um, uncomfortable feelings, gut feelings for yourself personally. You wouldn’t do that or that. But when we’re in a professional role, we have to learn to set those aside and be there for the individual because it’s not our, it’s not our role to share our values.

Katherine McLaughlin: So that’s another piece of it is just getting clear about what yours are, cuz then you’re less likely. For them to come up, you know, or you’re at least more aware of what your values are. And then if someone says, I’m 16 and I wanna have sex, that we don’t say, oh my God, you’re too young. Yes or 

Kristina Supler: no, don’t, you know, put a stamp of approval on it or, you know, dismiss it as something that’s wrong, inappropriate, whatever it might be.

Kristina Supler: But 

Susan Stone: Katherine, have you changed the curriculum at all with the abortion issue in some states now? Putting. Deep restrictions on access. And I can’t imagine, have you dealt with people who tell you or report pregnancies with people who, uh, women who are girls who are severely intellectually disabled?

Kristina Supler: I, I, I think it’s such a challenging landscape to navigate, to begin with. And then if you are a member of the, you know, if you have a disability and in navigating it can be. So difficult. 

Susan Stone: Yeah, we don’t talk about this. Everybody’s talking about abortion as it relates to unpr unplanned pregnancies for typical women, and we talk about how you can always access the next day, plan B or emergency contraception.

Susan Stone: Well, what do we do when someone who’s severely disabled probably doesn’t even know? About, I I, right? My, all of a sudden I’m thinking about this topic and this issue and my mind is going p 

Katherine McLaughlin: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Because if you’re not, if you don’t have sexuality education you might have to rely on things like abortion if you’re not ready to have a child.

Katherine McLaughlin: Right. And so you can’t even prevent it, um, when you don’t have the information. And then some of the laws are really connected to is it okay for the life of the mother or inces or rape? And if there’s a higher rate of sexual abuse for this population? And they’re not allowed to in their state access abortion.

Katherine McLaughlin: It’s back to access, but I haven’t heard anything specifically yet cuz I feel like it’s just starting to unfold. But to me it just, i i, it makes me wanna do more sexuality education, so at least people have the tools to make decisions before something happens that they can’t terminate a pregnancy because of their state.

Susan Stone: Have you dealt with situations where young couples come to you or education about they want to be parents and whether they’re capable of being parents?a

Katherine McLaughlin: Oh, that’s a great question. Yeah. So there’s a group now. And it’s the website is And it is for people with intellectual developmental disabilities that are wanting to become parents or our parents and many of the self-advocates work and give advice to other parents that have, they have children themselves.

Katherine McLaughlin: And what they’ve done is some research. They provided support for people with intellectual developmental disabilities in being parents, and they found that they were less likely to lose their children because they had the support. And the, it’s the same thing as sexuality, right? If you don’t have the education, you’re not gonna be as successful.

Katherine McLaughlin: And so this is a new group, so I know, I mean, I’ve been doing this work for a long time. There wasn’t anything for people with intellectual developmental disabilities around parent and learning about parent education or very little, and so a lot of them did lose their children. . 

Kristina Supler: Ah, Katherine, you talk a lot about sexual self-advocacy, so tell us more about what that, what does that really mean?

Susan Stone: Yes. Especially in, in, now we’re talking about maybe people with disabilities wanna be mommies and daddies. Mm-hmm. . So what. 

Katherine McLaughlin: Right. So sexual self. So if you think of self-advocacy just on its own, you know, it’s speaking up to change your story, um, support others you know, make decisions, problem solve. So if we add sexuality or sex to that or, um, sexual.

Katherine McLaughlin: Then we’re talking about things within relationships as well as about relationships. So I, it’s two parts for people with disabilities because the general population, we assume that most people will be in some kind of sexual romantic relationship at some point, right? Parents and. teenagers might disagree on when, but we sort of assume that, but for people with disabilities, they have to speak up for their right.

Katherine McLaughlin: Their right and their desire to be in relationships. I mean, you started it off saying a population 

Kristina Supler: that’s particularly vulnerable to abuse as well, 

Katherine McLaughlin: correct. . Mm-hmm. . Yes, yes, yes. So, yeah. But, so speaking up that you wanna be in a relationship and then speaking up if someone is saying, asking you to do something that you don’t wanna do and you feel uncomfortable being able to speak up.

Katherine McLaughlin: So not only, it’s sort of two parts, right? It’s within relationships. And then it’s just about relationships. So how do you, 

Susan Stone: as a parent, you wanna protect? Could it even be self-advocacy saying, I want a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a partner just like everyone else. You need to let me be like everyone else.

Susan Stone: Yes, 

Katherine McLaughlin: yes, yes. Because what happens is a lot of self-advocates say when people deny or restrict. They work around them and so they sneak right, like, like most of us would do if we were restricted from doing things we wanted to do. We sneak. and then if something bad happens, we can’t go to that person. So wouldn’t we want to be involved in helping them sort all this out?

Katherine McLaughlin: Rather than trying to control or restrict, and many self-advocates say to their parents, let me make mistakes. I know it’s hard, but let me make mistakes because it then I’m, I’m alive and I’m growing and I’m changing. 

Susan Stone: We, um, love certificates. Kristine and I are, have a certificate in restorative justice, positive discipline, crisis communication.

Susan Stone: You name it. You 

Kristina Supler: name it. We’ve done it. 

Susan Stone: We’ve learned about it. We are lifelong learners and we’re always looking to add different tools to make. , better people, better parents, better lawyers, just to enrich our knowledge. Mm-hmm. , and I noticed you are a certifi. Sexuality educator by A A S E C T AASECT. If I butchered that, help me tell us about the organization, what it stands for, and about your certification.

Susan Stone: Heck, maybe we need to do that too. 

Katherine McLaughlin: You might, you know, 

Kristina Supler: I’m hearing next year’s 

Katherine McLaughlin: certificate. . I, I can feel it. Yes. So AASECT is, American Association for Sexuality, educators, counselors, and therapists. And in order to get certified by AASECT, you have to teach a certain number of hours for an educator or, or council, a certain number of hours for a counselor or therapist.

Katherine McLaughlin: And you also have to learn some core knowledge as well. So it’s both. So are we out, Kristine? 

Susan Stone: What’s that? Are we out? We can’t do. 

Katherine McLaughlin: You’d have to teach a lot more, but I don’t know. That’s a really interesting question. Could you get certified by them? It takes teaching. I 

Susan Stone: would say we’re teaching on this podcast.

Kristina Supler: Well, and we’re right there you go. Working with clients in crisis every day with, you know, various. Sexuality issues that are tied into legal issues. But at any rate, I digress. ? 

Susan Stone: Yeah, it’s always about us , 

Katherine McLaughlin: right? Right. No, but I think, so first you could come to the three day training and what we have is we do an assessment at the end and people get a certificate of completion.

Katherine McLaughlin: So it’s, it’s not being a certified, cuz you haven’t necessarily applied to AASECT yet, but you would learn an awful lot about teaching, talking to parents, talking. self-advocates talking to other staff. So that might be the first step. 

Kristina Supler: And you have a saying on your website, nothing about us without us.

Kristina Supler: Tell us, tell our listeners what does that mean and who 

Susan Stone: coined 

Katherine McLaughlin: that phrase? Yeah, so it’s part of the self-advocacy movement and when I first started doing this work, I thought, Okay. I’m an educator. I’m gonna create these lessons and I’m gonna teach ’em. And I went to work with Green Mountain Self Advocates there in Vermont.

Katherine McLaughlin: And they said right out of the gate they said nothing about us without us. Which means, whoever you’re gonna teach, we need to be involved in creating the materials. And so they reviewed all the curriculum lessons and made, we made edits based on their, their input. And then they said, oh yeah, and we also wanna be one of the teacher.

Katherine McLaughlin: Of the curriculum. So it’s actually designed because of Green Mountain self-advocates and them saying nothing about us without us. It’s designed to be team taught with a self-advocate, someone with an intellectual developmental disability and a professional team. And they teach classes. So for example, there’s a project in Michigan and they have 28 teams at this point.

Katherine McLaughlin: So pretty much anywhere in Michigan you can access sexuality education. And one of the teachers is someone with an intellectual developmental disability. So it’s 

Susan Stone: nothing about us. Us without us. Exactly. Oh, light bulb 

Katherine McLaughlin: moment. Yes, yes, yes. Right. Yeah. Katherine, it’s been 

Kristina Supler: a real pleasure speaking with you today, and I think you’ve offered so much for our listeners.

Kristina Supler: I’m just wondering before we wrap this up, do you have any final tips or thoughts you wanna share with our listeners or 

Susan Stone: anything we didn’t ask you that you wish we would’ve? 

Katherine McLaughlin: Ah, yeah. I think, you know, just kind of one, one little bit of advice is, is sort of thinking about the messages that we give in our culture about sexuality.

Katherine McLaughlin: And, many of us, when we think about growing up, got like, don’t do that. Or, or do you, I don’t know if you saw the mean girls movie when the physical education teacher Oh yeah. . Oh yeah. Right. You’re gonna, if you have sex, you’ll get chlamydia and you’ll die. Like these fear-based messages and that, why do we do that?

Katherine McLaughlin: And to have people really think like, why do I give negative messages? This is supposed to be a positive part of people’s lives, and yet we’re so anxious and fearful about it. You know? What would it be like if we just switched that and said, Like people do in Denmark. This is part of people’s life. Let’s educate early.

Katherine McLaughlin: And so I just, I would say think about the messages you’re giving around sexuality and are you giving positive messages or not, and why not? 

Susan Stone: Did you hear that Everyone out there . 

Kristina Supler: Well, thank you again. It’s been a real treat chatting with you today and, uh, we’re so pleased you’re able to 

Susan Stone: join us. This has been a eye-opening conversation and I’m gonna forever think about that inclusivity in the concept about nothing, about us without us.

Susan Stone: I love that inclusivity. Thank, thank you, Katherine. Thank you. And to everyone out there, really look at that Elevatus website. There’s some good stuff out.