Let’s Talk About Sex Education – Wait, Hold On, That’s Uncomfortable

By Lisa Wadors, posted on

Sex education is a staple in schools across the country, with many schools providing some form of sex or health education for students as young as kindergarten. While the curriculum varies among states and schools, teachers typically use photos and videos to demonstrate human anatomy. While such demonstrations may work for sighted students, those with visual impairments are commonly excluded or find the materials inaccessible. As a result, 61% of blind or low vision adults say their vision status had a negative impact on the way they were able to participate in sex education.

The Benetech team first heard about visually impaired students lacking access to sex education from Dr. Gaylen Kapperman, Professor Emeritus of the Special Education and Vision Program at Northern Illinois University. Dr. Kapperman, along with his colleague, Dr. Stacy Kelly, found through numerous studies that students with visual impairments are misinformed about sex and that there is a need to create and provide health education that meets the needs of visually impaired students.

a closeup of a 3D printing machine

The Benetech team was already evaluating ways to make existing educational experiences more customizable and less expensive. As such, it seemed like a natural fit to create and distribute low-cost anatomical models to be used in classrooms and one-on-one with students. We partnered with Dr. Kapperman and Dr. Kelly to design and test anatomically correct 3D sex models.

It’s important to note that this wasn’t a novel idea. Other organizations have pursued similar solutions, but their products are very expensive. Each model sells for up to $450, a prohibitive price for schools with only one or two children who are blind each year. Given school budgetary constraints, we knew it would be critical to keep the 3D printed models as affordable as possible. Teachers could access the files to print models themselves or order pre-printed models at a reduced cost. Benetech could offer this solution because we’re a nonprofit.

We interviewed and surveyed educators before designing and printing the 3D models. All indicated that low-cost models could be the optimal solution to supporting sex education for students with vision issues. Based on this feedback, we worked with Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco to design, print and distribute models to a group of carefully selected teachers of the visually impaired. Despite our ultimate goal of only providing the 3D printing files, the teachers would receive the models instead of having to print them themselves. Before distribution, Dr. Kapperman and his team tested the models with blind adults to verify that they were, in fact, accurate representations of the male and female anatomy. The results pointed to a successful deployment.

We kicked off the pilot program with five teachers at separate schools who were instructed to use the models in their curriculum for three months to see if student engagement and comprehension increased. An additional teacher joined the study after she reached out to Dr. Kapperman to ask to be included.

Upon completion of the pilot, four of the five teachers thought that the models could work for their students, but all said they would prefer to purchase the models from companies that specialize in health education. Their main reason was that 3D printing human genitals in the teacher’s lounge could cause some concern. The second reason is that there is still a lot of stigma around having these objects in the classroom, and established health education companies would be seen as credible sources, thereby lessening the stigma. Additionally, none of the teachers wished to be interviewed about their experiences with the models out of fear of social condemnation. The inability to interview the teachers was detrimental to proceeding with the project.

The additional teacher that asked to be part of the study sent the models back upon receipt. The supervisor of the vision program mandated that for the blind students, “access to instructional materials should be limited to the materials which the sighted youngsters have access to” and that the materials can’t be manipulated in any fashion. This rationale went against everything that we were hoping to provide—accessible models for those who could not access what their peers were using.

Based on the inability to interview the teachers who did use the models and the extensive back and forth with the additional school, the project members concluded that “it appears that there abounds an abundance of fear of social condemnation which may result in the less than adequate provision of meaningful sex education instruction for blind youngsters.”

Was this project a failure? Does stigma about sex education outweigh the benefits of providing equitable educational opportunities to students with disabilities? If not low-cost models, then what? We still believe that low-cost models can be an option when presented with a strong curriculum. However, we are uncertain how we will be able to convince educators that the benefits outweigh feelings of discomfort about the subject.

Dr. Kapperman and his team will continue to present to full rooms of educators about their work, but at Benetech, we need to rethink our strategy. Maybe there is a market in the health education field, maybe even internationally. Either way, we will continue to think about ways we can use technology to provide educational opportunities for all students with disabilities.