Painting created collaboratively by participants in Upstream Arts' “The Art of Relationships”

Painting created collaboratively by participants in “The Art of Relationships,” 2014


“The conversation around sex and relationships has not happened in these individuals’ lives and is not currently happening; and as a result, people are making inappropriate and unsafe choices. We have a need for programming that begins this dialogue and creates a space for discussion and learning. Upstream Arts’ use of the arts makes learning experiential, less abstract, and relatable to real life choices and situations.” – Michelle Dickerson, Vice President of Program Services, Midwest Special Services

Last month, we shared a little bit about our newest program, “The Art of Relationships.” The impact of this program is proving enormous, and we’ve seen huge interest from our colleagues in continuing the work in a variety of settings. This month, we wanted to share a little more context for why we’re pursuing this focus and what kind of impact it’s having.

Since our inception, Upstream Arts has partnered with Adult Day Programs – facilities where adults with disabilities can receive training in daily living skills, social skills, recreational skills, and pre-vocational skills. Our programs in these settings use interaction with and through the arts to develop soft skills needed to obtain and maintain employment and to participate in communities. We partner with some of the largest Adult Day Programs in the Twin Cities—including Lifeworks, Opportunity Partners, and Midwest Special Services—to engage adults with disabilities across the metro area.

Recently, our colleagues at Opportunity Partners expressed an interest in creating a program exclusively for women with disabilities to discuss topics specific to relationships and sexual health. We connected them with our friend Katie Thune, a local educator who provides trainings on relationships and sexuality for individuals with and without disabilities. In the process, we began to discuss how our three entities could draw on our differing areas of expertise to develop a new model of a sex education and relationships course for women with disabilities.


Painting created collaboratively by participants in Upstream Arts' “The Art of Relationships”

Painting created collaboratively by participants in “The Art of Relationships,” 2014


Women with disabilities face significant disparities in access to information and education around sex and reproductive health. They often are excluded from instruction about sex education, healthy relationships, sexual abuse, and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. One reason is the incorrect belief that women with disabilities—especially those with developmental or cognitive disabilities—are childlike or asexual, do not have relationships or sex, and therefore don’t need education around these topics. Other barriers include discomfort of care providers and families with disability and discussing these topics; educational materials and information that is not universally designed or available in alternative formats (large print, audio); and curriculum that does not address a diversity of learning styles.

In fact, women with disabilities are no less likely to have relationships or be sexually active—and keeping women with disabilities uninformed has a clear negative impact. Multiple national and international studies have found that women with disabilities have significantly increased risk for sexual and domestic abuse, unprotected sex, STIs, HIV, unintended pregnancy, and poor reproductive health outcomes. As many as 83% of women with developmental disabilities have been sexually abused. On the flip side, increased understanding of reproductive health, safety, boundaries, and relationships help women with disabilities develop a sense of control over their wellbeing and increases their ability to live safely and independently.

In 2013, Minnesota issued its Olmstead plan, a comprehensive plan to ensure that people with disabilities are living, learning, working, and enjoying life in the most integrated setting. With the plan has come a move away from receiving services and working on site at Adult Day Centers to an increased focus on individuals with disabilities working and living independently in community based settings. While this increased integration will bring benefits, it also demands individuals have the education and skills to not only be work-ready but also “community-ready.” Given the increased risk of sexual abuse women with disabilities already face, women specifically must have the knowledge and skills to identify unhealthy relationships and avoid unsafe situations as they navigate community life. A clear partial solution to this glaring problem is to actively educate women with disabilities about sexuality and healthy relationships, so that they are able to advocate and care for themselves. The education and information imparted has to take into account the intersectionality of being a women and living with disabilities, and must be universally designed and shared in ways that are accessible.


Poem/Song created by participants in Upstream Arts' “The Art of Relationships”

Poem/Song created by participants in “The Art of Relationships,” 2014


So this past year, we worked with Katie Thune to develop “The Art of Relationships” – an arts-infused course on relationships and sex education exclusively for women with disabilities – and piloted it with Opportunity Partners. “The Art of Relationships” combines Upstream Arts’ arts-based teaching strategies with Katie Thune’s SAFE (Safety around Families/Environments) course on sexuality and relationships for individuals with disabilities, to present a course that is interactive, universally designed, and tailored to the specific needs of women with disabilities. During each session, Katie teaches and facilitates discussions on sexual health, reproduction, and relationships. Teams of Upstream Arts teaching artists then lead arts-based activities that explore the topics experientially, so that learning can be practiced, generalized, and internalized. Poetry activities allow participants to express themselves and explore identity in terms of their relationships and sexuality. Movement and dance activities explore boundaries, body image, and personal space. Role-playing and scenario work allow participants to “rehearse” real life situations, like how to say “no” or avoid unsafe interactions.

We have been astounded at the program’s success – not only in passing on vital information, but also in building a safe and supportive environment where women could express themselves, share stories, ask questions, and practice self-advocacy. Over the course of the pilot, we were made keenly aware of the need for this work as women shared stories of past abuse and as we watched them gain greater understanding of what a healthy relationship is and is not. A staff member from Opportunity Partners told us, “This kind of programming is critical for individuals who have barriers to learning through regular channels. For many people, acting things out is a much stronger way to absorb knowledge.” We saw women come out of their shells and grow more self-confident. One participant wrote on her evaluation: “I learned that a healthy relationship is listening to yourself and your body.” Another wrote, “I learned that it is ok to say ‘no,’ no matter how uncomfortable you are.”

We look forward to bringing “The Art of Relationships” to more women with disabilities in the coming year.

If you are interested in learning more about our programs, bringing Upstream Arts to your organization, or making participation in Upstream Arts possible for more women with disabilities, please give us a call at (612) 331-4584, explore the links at the top of this page, or click here to donate now. We would be honored to partner with you.