[Above: Su Sivarajah uses role play to teach her students about saying no to enticement from strangers. ]
By SARAH CHEW and LEE YEN MUN
People with learning disabilities are very vulnerable to sexual abuse and lost in regards to sexuality. Still, many are denied empowerment through education.
IT was only last month when an elderly man was caught raping his 14-year-old mentally disabled neighbour for four months in Pekan Nenas.
In an earlier case a week earlier, it was the other way round when a Form Three boy was caught raping a rubber tapper's mentally-challenged wife.
Would they have had a chance to escape if they knew how to refuse and speak up for themselves?
An even bigger question is whether they knew what sex and ethics are about to recognise they have been abused - highly unlikely, thanks to societal fears of that three letter word, which represses the rights of the learning disabled.
Protect And Save The Children Association director Madeleine Yong says children with learning difficulties are most vulnerable to sexual abuse, largely because of their limited social environment with strict routines devised by teachers, caregivers and medical personnel.
"They become desensitized to the norms of adult behaviour, it is difficult for children to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate touching.
"When children do not understand what's happening to them, they are unlikely to say 'No' to inappropriate behaviour and lack the confidence and assertiveness needed to complain," she says.
It becomes even worse if the sexual offenders are the caregivers themselves, on whom they depend on.
Women's Centre for Change (WCC) programme director Prema Devaraj points out that according to police statistics in 2007, two or more disabled persons have been raped every month in the last four years and 70% of such rapes involved the intellectually impaired.
And though it may appear straightforward to tell a normal child to not talk to strangers, teaching simple safety tips to mentally challenged children is a totally different ball game.
"Down Syndrome children like to sit with their legs open wide," says Juliana Chang Abdullah, whose eight-year-old daughter Nur Sabrina Mohammad Hussin has Down Syndrome.
She currently sends her daughter to Pusat Jagaan Horizon.
"So since coming to the centre, she has learnt to sit properly and that boys are not supposed to touch girls."
Principal and co-founder of the centre Su Sivarajah says she has to physically demonstrate appropriate actions and re-teach countless times until the thoughts stick in the children's minds.
"We tell them that when people touch them in the wrong places, they have to beat the offender's hand and say 'No!'" Su says.
"And if strangers invite the children to follow them and entice them with a sweet, the children have to say 'No!' and run away."
Yong believes there is still a jarring problem when it comes to after-abuse support.
Not only will these children have to deal with caregivers who may not believe them, their case may never see the light of day if they are not able to articulate their experience.
Lawyer Helen Chin, whose son has autistic features, says the country's laws currently does not cater specifically to cases of sexual aggression against those with learning disabilities.
She adds that sentences should be heavier for those who sexually harrassed the learning disabled group.
"My compassion goes out to these victims. Here they are trying to cope with life and on top of that, they get caught in this situation (sexual abuse). The trauma is worse for this group of children."
These days the term 'sex education' includes not just biological aspects but also elements of personal safety and values linked to socialising and relationships.
Malaysian Christian Association for Relief (Malaysian Care) coordinator for services with people with special needs Pang Jee Ching discusses a range of topics from feelings and self-esteem to friendship and finally sexual relationships in special modules.
"Helping them to understand healthy relationships is more important than just sex," she says.
"Many of them say they want to get married, but they don't understand what it is, so I have to explain to them the responsibilities involved."
Her batch of current participants, mostly in their early 20s, are learning about friendships and how to strike up conversations with others.
|An example of illustrations used in the sex and safety education for the learning disabled to teach safe and unsafe touches.
"I like coming to class," quips Kelly Lai, 18. "I can learn about feelings and self-esteem. I can meet friends."
Would she mind if her parents visit the class? Kelly and her three friends shake their heads vigorously, saying "scared parents scold"!
Pang reveals this is the time they discover the 'boyfriend, girlfriend' idea- which many parents cannot cope with, especially if their child has been sheltered from outside society all along.
"They are very talkative here as opposed to back home," she says.
"For some of them, this is the only place they meet friends. If the parents always scold and nag them, they won't go to their parents when they have problems."
Many see sex education as not just empowering the mentally disabled to protect themselves, but also to live life normally and to carry themselves in society.
Some of the things that Su teaches the children at her centre are simple things most of us take for granted - when and where to undress, closing the toilet door before relieving oneself, and who and where to touch.
"Autistic children are sensitive to touch, and when they grow up, their hormones start to change. So maybe they will feel 'sedap' when touched," explains Su.
"And if they're not taught what is right or wrong, they may simply touch others and end up getting beaten or raped. They also may masturbate at the wrong place and wrong time," she says.
"So you need to teach them from young, about six to 10 years old, because that's the time they like to touch their private parts.
"When parents ask me what to do, I tell them to keep their children's hands occupied by putting their hands on the table when eating or reading, let them hold a toy or hold their hands.
An example of illustrations used in the sex and safety education for the learning disabled to teach safe and unsafe touches.
Parents need to equip themselves with the knowledge as well, Su adds, because these are things that schools would probably not teach.
Chin stressed the importance of sex education to children with learning disabilities.
"As a mother, I took it upon myself to educate my child personally. I borrowed books from the library and taught my son the essentials of sexuality in pictorial forms, which is more friendly and understandable," said Chin.
Even concepts like public spaces and private spaces have to be taught directly. Su gives an example of how children with learning disabilities need such knowledge.
"There was once we took our children for an outing and one of the teenage girls was having her period. Because she probably felt 'itchy', she suddenly pulled down her panties and ripped out her pad!" Su laughs. "Oh my god, we were so embarrassed, but you can't blame her."
Currently, there isn't a sex education curriculum either for mainstream or special education schools in Malaysia.
The most that special education students learn about sex and socialising would be through Biology and Moral Education, subjects also studied by the regular students, according to the Education Ministry's Special Education Division director Bong Muk Shin.
"Our society is still conservative. If we mention sex education, they will think we are teaching students to have sex," he says.
"But if such a curriculum would prevent children from being abused and sweet-talked, it would be good."
His concern is that if sex education were to be taught to the disabled, whether physically or mentally, the students would not be able to grasp the complexity or "become curious and start touching each other".
Yong, having worked with NGOs and the learning disabled, thinks otherwise.
"They too have sexual urges. So what do you think they would be doing?" she questions.
"If healthy sexual curiosity is repressed, adolescents have no opportunity to satisfy their sexual urge and this further increases the potential for sexual offences and victimisation,"
"Children with disabilities are not asexual. If we fail to provide them with knowledge about their bodies, they acquire inappropriate information from others."
Bong cautions that should sex education be introduced for special children, experts need to adapt the curriculum to children of different needs, and to be culturally sensitive.
Nevertheless, NGOs have seen the need for such a curriculum and have gone on to develop their own.
The 'Keep Me Safe' curriculum authored by Yong and Metilda John of Dignity and Services is very blunt and comprehensive, covering even aspects of coping with masturbation and wet dreams.
The curriculum, which is still in progress, makes use of real photos, role play, and games to teach relationships and sexuality.
This is necessary, seeing that the finer nuances of cultural norms and societal rules are not completely obvious to those with learning disabilities.
"When dealing with children with learning difficulties, facilitators need to be aware of the extent of the learning disability which can range from mild to severe," says Prema.
"Some children may have difficulty with abstract thinking or in relating ideas to their own experiences."
Yong also reveals that there needs to be reinforcement at home, not only for proper socialisation purposes but also to increase sexual abuse prevention.
"The programme needs to be integrated in their real life natural environment," she says.
"Parents need to understand the programme and incorporate the same messages at home. Without parent involvement, children do not trust their parents to protect them from unwanted touching."
It helps if teachers and parents are not blushing everytime the word 'sex' or names of private parts pop up.
And parents agree that it definitely helps if special education teachers have the heart and expertise.
Parent Leong Mui Lan recalls how a teacher once told her that not much teaching is done in special education classes, as teachers 'just look after them'.
Since Leong placed her daughter, Chew Ka Yen, who has mild autism, in Pusat Jagaan Horizon, she has been learning all the UPSR subjects and is currently at Year Four syllabus - an achievement for the 11-year-old.
"Before this, Ka Yen can't communicate with people. But now, if she wants anything, she can say it," says Leong.
It goes to show that mentally handicapped children can be trained, albeit with a lot of patience, as Su points out.
In fact, many can comprehend more than we think. This is evident in the halting words of Chin's son; "It...is...everyone's...duty...to...know...about...sex."
--The Star/Asia News Network
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