“Radha (name changed) is asymptomatic, has a speech impairment, and attends computer classes. She communicated to a social worker in the transit care home, of a mutual attraction that was forged with another man in class. They consider themselves as a couple and meet often in other places (beach, tea shops). She sought information on safe sex, while we also made her aware of various nuances of consent, and mutual satisfaction.”
This is a story that Lakshmi Ravikanth from The Banyan, a mental health NGO in Chennai, shared with us for our newly-released working paper ‘Sexuality and Disability in the Indian Context, 2018’.
What is the need for such a paper? The reality is that sexuality – a term that encompasses ‘sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction’ – is as much a core aspect and concern in the lives of people with disabilities as it is in people without. Sexuality is not seen as an ‘important enough concern’ for people with disabilities when there are other ‘pressing’ concerns such as education, employment or accessibility. While these are important, no doubt, sexuality is so intertwined in our everyday lives and identities that it is impossible to remove its traces: women with disabilities are far less likely to be out and about compared to men, for instance, and this affects their education and employment prospects.
Radha in the above story was lucky that she had access to someone who could give her non-judgmental and accurate information related to sexuality, rather than dismissing her concerns. Unfortunately, for most of the millions of people in India with disabilities, this is far from reality.
People with disabilities are unfairly placed at either end of a dichotomy when it comes to sexuality. Merry Baruah from Action for Autism says, “Interestingly, often it is more the parents and professionals who need to be guided: there is a perception that individuals with disabilities are ‘over-sexed’ and can pose a ‘danger’ to others! On the other hand, they might view the person as a sexless individual with no sexual needs.” The result of such assumptions is that people with disabilities are considered as unable to make decisions for themselves and are disconnected from sexuality and their own sexual selves.
TARSHI’s latest working paper explores these intersections between sexuality and disability and the socio-economic-political environment related to these two topics. It is an update of the first working paper on this topic, which was released in 2010. The working paper is full of rich anecdotes and experiences shared by activists, researchers and organisations working on disability, and with people with disabilities, their families and their caregivers.
In the eight years since the first working paper, we have seen an encouraging increase in the conversation around this topic. There are new laws, such as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 and the Mental Healthcare Act 2017. Although far from perfect, these laws have made a beginning in incorporating sexuality-related aspects for people with disabilities.
Films and discussions on online portals are bringing out strong connections between sexuality and disability. Nidhi Goyal, activist, trainer and researcher working in the field of disability rights and gender justice, gives an example: “As a film, “Margarita With A Straw” was significant in opening up/pushing conversations on sexuality and disability. It directly challenged the hierarchy of needs that is assumed for people with disabilities which leads to focus on one aspect at the expense of another, unlike in the case of persons without disabilities.”
Society is slowly warming up to the idea that services need to be inclusive of people with disabilities. Nipun Malhotra, a disability activist and self-advocate, got online restaurant listing company Zomato to list restaurants that are wheelchair and disabled friendly. Inclov, which describes itself as ‘the world’s first matchmaking app focusing on people with disability, and with health disorders to find love’, is accessible to persons across diverse impairments, as well as for persons without disabilities. As mentioned on their website, Inclov also organises offline opportunities for meeting, an initiative called Social Spaces, ‘to bring people with and without disability to come and meet in-person.’
While we appreciate the positive aspects, we also need to recognise the work that needs to be done. For one, comprehensive sexuality education is often ignored. Nidhi Goyal, who conducts workshops on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for people with disabilities, says, “There is a huge gap in knowledge about bodies, sexuality etc. across age groups of people with disabilities. So for our workshops, we not only reach out to special schools but also disability rights organisations. This is the easiest way to access persons with disabilities, in an environment that is accessible to them, and the environment they trust –particularly for girls/women with disabilities. But many disability rights organisations act as gatekeepers to information as well. There is a strict policing on the topics that we can cover – so sometimes they want us to cover menstruation and hygiene but not the reproductive process; in others, they are keen on HIV information but not on body literacy.”
By highlighting personal experiences that reflect the wonderful work that is happening, as well as the gaps that need to be plugged, this working paper is a useful resource for research and advocacy by people working on disability-related issues. It can be read by parents, caregivers and service providers in say, health and education, who are working with people with disabilities. It provides relevant information and ideas for organisations working on sexuality or disability, and institutes of care.
Sexuality is an integral part of the lives of people with disabilities, and denying this connection is denying a basic human right of people with disabilities. We hope this paper contributes to a growing awareness around this topic.