Any discussion on the sexuality of disabled people is likely to be thwarted if we accept the medical discourse on it as it is. With its focus on the individual, it tends to look at disabled people as ‘damaged’, who must be cured to fit the ‘ideal’ or normative body type. It ignores that society’s norms play a huge role in disabling people. A disability rights organisation from UK, the Union of The Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), first laid down the distinction between impairment and disability in 1976. While impairment was defined as the lack of “part or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body”, disability is defined as “the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments, and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities.” Thus it is largely the society which creates a disabled person by making itself inaccessible to people with impairment. This empowering social model led WHO too to change its idea of disability. Today, its definition of disability is closer to that proposed by UPIAS and includes those with intellectual disabilities.
Denial Of Sexuality Is Disabling
Among several disabling norms and practices, the denial of their sexuality is something that further marginalises them from the society. A disabled person is often thought of as asexual or, failing to conform to social standards of beauty, considered an unworthy match in relationships.
This perception of asexuality does not mean that they are immune to sexual violence, abuse, or harassment. A UN factsheet on persons with disabilities says the following: “Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse. A small 2004 survey in Orissa, India, found that virtually all of the women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home, 25 per cent of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and 6 per cent of women with disabilities forcibly sterilized.”
How Are The Disabled More Vulnerable?
There are several reasons that cause this vulnerability. Sexuality, already a taboo subject, is not discussed with the disabled at all. This results in an inadequate awareness about the concept of sexuality and consent. Protecting one’s own self against sexual abuse or violence becomes even more difficult in the absence of enabling conditions that would allow persons with disabilities to report or even understand such crimes. Limitations in mobility arising either out of architecture or dependence on other people further exacerbates the problem as perpetrators think that they can escape without being caught. Sometimes, this dependence- again arising out of conditions that do not allow a disabled person to function without help- results in abuse by the very person on whom a disabled person is dependent.
Is Hysterectomy ‘A Solution’?
Instead of creating an environment where this abuse can be prevented, parents and care givers often resort to hysterectomy, further limiting the sexuality of the disabled woman. Similarly, hysterectomy is touted as a ‘solution’ to problems relating to menstrual hygiene. It involves the removal of the uterus and studies show that women may experience “reduced sexual sensation” after the surgery, although one can experience orgasm. A working paper published by TARSHI in 2010 on ‘Sexuality And Disability In The Indian Context’ says, “In all circumstances, it is important that the intention behind the intervention be clear and the women’s and girls’ rights to bodily integrity, personal autonomy, dignity and her right to sexual and reproductive health be kept paramount. Women’s rights cannot be sacrificed at the altar of excuses about hygiene or the failure to provide a secure environment where they will be safe from rape.”
The problems that disabled people face thus is more due to social norms than any ‘defect’ of their own. Sexuality is an important part of the problem, as they are often viewed and taught to behave as asexuals. While the taboo on sexuality remains, disabilities will continue to exist despite medical advancement that proposes to ‘rectify’ the disabled.