In a 2019 event by Outlook magazine, Deepa Malik gave a speech about the dual taboos that cling to menstruators with disabilities. Deepa Malik is the first Indian woman athlete to win a medal in the Paralympic games; she is paralyzed from her chest.
During her speech, she talks about the concerned yet, judgmental whispers that spoke with precariousness about her future, and also that of her paralyzed daughter. She points out that people raised questions and doubts about how a disabled girl would manage her menstruation without depending on someone and penalized them with “aisi bacchi jo khud kuch bhi na kar sake toh mar he jaaye toh theek hai.” (it’s better for a girl who cannot do anything by herself to die)
People with disabilities – mental and physical – are generally put into a box, their whole identities subsumed within their disabilities by society. It gets worse for people existing at the intersections of a disability and gender — ‘how on earth will they manage their periods?’ Instead of finding better amenities for disabled menstruators, society engages in some antiquated gossip and stops at that.
Maharogi Sewa Samiti, an NGO, conducted a survey in Maharashtra to understand some issues faced by menstruators with disabilities. A conundrum they came across: how can menstruation be explained to a neurodivergent 16-year-old person with the brain of a 2-year-old?
Another instance would be menstruators with cerebral palsy who struggle to maintain their menstrual hygiene, as their mental disability affects their muscle coordination and muscle strength. In scenarios where people have physical disabilities such as a visual impairment, many may find difficulties with the placement of their pads and figuring out when they are full and need to be changed; or people in a wheelchair may need to depend on someone to help them during their periods due to limited movement.
Menstruators with disabilities may also face multiple challenges while using menstrual products. Sanitary napkins may be ham-handed for some; tampons and menstrual cups become invasive if one is not able to use them by themselves; menstrual cups may also be tricky to insert considering the fettered movement abilities of some; period underwears are workable but come with the problem of regularly washing them. Most people make-do with one of these menstrual products available, but none of these products are better suited to accommodate the hindrances posed by their disorders.
Menstruators with disabilities who are further disadvantaged by period poverty encounter an avalanche of issues during menstruation. In India, many parents opt to sterilize or conduct forcible hysterectomies on their girl children with disabilities to evade the difficult task of maintaining their menstrual hygiene.
Because of a lack of education, most parents are not aware of or even made aware of the side-effects of such procedures. This goes against their basic human and menstrual rights.
People with physical impairments and no support may have to drag themselves to the toilet in an unclean and unsanitary environment. If the WASH facilities are far away, it further makes the accessibility difficult.
These are a few ruptures that make menstruation a strenuous task for menstruators with disabilities. However, these experiences aren’t set in stone across the bandwidth of disorders or any single disorder; because each person may have different experiences; for instance, a blind person may be perfectly capable of wearing a sanitary napkin but might face some other issues.
While the focus on menstrual hygiene management (MHM) has become increasingly prevalent in the WASH sector, the discourse is usually devoid of the special attention that needs to be given to people with disabilities. A 2016 census revealed that there are 2.68 crore disabled people in India.
The predicament of PWDs is often absent from initiatives dedicated to Menstruation – reducing their accessibility to menstrual aids. People trained to work with people with disabilities aren’t specifically trained to deal with their health issues like Menstruation.
Also, the availability of helpers may not be perpetual, posing risks to a PWD’s hygiene. We need to come up with disabled-friendly sanitation facilities and menstrual products. PWDs need to be directly involved in discussions addressing the issue of Menstruation – offering them a voice and more visibility.
A clarion call to reduce the plight of menstruators with disabilities will not just make Menstruation more inclusive but also help uplift an otherwise marginalized community.