“To be sexual is to be human.”
[Editor’s note - When we first began discussing the possibility of Homegrown, Richa Kaul Padte, the founder of an Indian website www.sexualityanddisability.org, was part of many of our initial discussions. Ever since, we’ve been keen to put out an article with the same focus together and this is where Sonali Gupta, a writer who happens to be afflicted with physical disabilities herself, came in. She offered to speak about the issue from a personal perspective as well as interview the founders of the revolutionary website in an effort to gain more insights. Ironically, its publishing coincided with the film festival success of Shonali Bose’s ‘Margarita With A Straw.’ We’re thrilled to see such a topic receiving both the spotlight and acclaim it deserves in a film format. We urge our readers not to give this one a miss, because it’s likely to open your eyes to a world that hasn’t been considered for far too long.]
My conversations with Indian patients, however, allowed me to see just how isolated from society disabled people were. Basic social norms were unknown to them. Most didn’t have a social life at all, particularly women. “What about friends?” I asked a spirited spinal cord injury patient. “No one wants to be friends with someone in a wheelchair. Especially girls. It’s even harder because more is expected from us. I can’t tie a sari around myself and so they wonder, ‘how will you manage in life?’
“People feel sad or strange when they see me so they just don’t see me.” Her statement hit hard—disabled Indian women in particular were becoming invisible. For my clinic friend, tying a sari around herself defined her femininity and independence. I wondered if she ever knew flirtation or the gut-wrenching feelings of heartbreak. Did she understand her sexuality at all? She wasn’t devoid of sexual feelings simply because of a wheelchair. But her interactions with the world outside of the circus dictated otherwise.
Why is so little attention given to disabled sexuality? Disability-centric talks are generally linked with legislative rights, accessibility and employability. Disabled sexuality has in turn become a non-issue of sorts, an idea that is rarely understood and more often than not, never discussed. How can the sexuality of 70 million disabled Indians (nearly half that number women) be ignored? Enter the website that does it all, complete with an epic series of wheelchair kamasutra graphics: www.sexualityanddisability.org.
Published by social-media based women’s rights platform Point of View, sexualityanddisability.org views women with disabilities as sexual beings no different from any other women. I sat down with the websites’ co-founder, Richa Padte, to learn more about this unique initiative, its focus on women and the importance getting young Indians involved in the matter. What began as a mere discussion at a conference in Nepal turned into a comprehensive, resourceful and accessible platform for the disabled as well as those closely connected to them--partners, doctors, families, friends, etc. Richa explains, “The idea for the site came about when my colleagues and I were at a conference in Nepal addressing the needs of marginalized women, including sex workers and disabled women. When we asked disabled women what issues they needed addressed, many of them said sexuality. Women wanted answers to basic questions.”
Although mostly centred on women, passages on the site include straightforward answers to these basic questions/real-life problems both disabled men and women face. With topics ranging from having sex and masturbation, to coping with badgering mother in laws and sexual abuse, sexualityanddisability.org encourage its audience to focus less on the given disability and more on creating a fulfilling life. Gaurav (name changed), a wheelchair-bound 25-year-old Bombay-native, stumbled across the site through a Google search. “I don’t have many friends and it’s hard for me to go out and meet people,” he said. “I was still curious about things so I googled ‘how to have sex when disabled.’
I was immediately drawn to the website because it shared such direct information on what to do! Reading through the website has made me more confident in myself.
I believe I am not the only one suffering from these problems and I can live a full life.”
Gaurav’s self-confidence was on full display when he told me about going out with old friends and having a renewed sense of socializing. If gender-neutral content helps young men like Gaurav get answers, why shift the focus to women? “Here’s my explanation,” says Richa. “Men with disabilities face a lot of shit too. Except as women, our sexualities are already demonized, irrespective of whether we’re disabled or not. So in a sense, ALL women having sex comes with stigma. And with women with disabilities, there’s a double stigma; a double trespass.”
A country with a huge population of women, India has tagged disabled women as having a status that’s even lower somehow than the disgraced Indian women; a second-class citizen faced with a double discrimination.
The websites content encompasses insights from the professional world as well as experiences from disabled individuals. “I spoke to groups of disabled women from conferences and the like about what topics they were most curious about,” says Richa. “We used textbook advice from The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability but aside from that there wasn’t much written text available on the topic. It was a collaborative effort on everyone involved from counsellors to psychologist and members of the community to share professional insights and personal experiences, including the site’s co-author Nidhi Goyal who is visually impaired.” Highlighting familiar problems of acceptance and attachment make some of the content applicable to all, allowing for moments where physical or mental handicaps fade away; anonymous stories describing woes of wifedom or over-doting family members allow readers to exclaim, “Me too!” Condition-specific questions offer practical and direct solutions for otherwise delicate dilemmas of sex positioning and more. The tone of the website is less obvious. “Part of understanding the realities of disabled sexuality comes with addressing darker issues the women face. Thanks to constant reminding on my colleagues part, a lot of focus was given on not being overly positive but actually helping these women by addressing their concerns and answering questions,” it states.
I recently introduced the website to a young female friend of mine who has acid burns and is blind. She was initially shy about discussing her feelings on the site but once comfortable, she grew serious. “It’s just not right. I too, am a human being.” As I watched her open up about her desire to get married and have “boy problems like the other girls her age”, I understood just how much she longed to have a sexual identity. Richa describes, “Marriage is an important part of Indian inclusivity. Men often marry women that don’t have disabilities so disabled women become asexualized overtime. Growing up with a disability shields the women, robbing them of basic social interactions and going through the motions of everyday life”. Understanding the sexual needs of a disabled woman is to understand her as an individual. Her individual needs and desires as a woman.
Sexualityanddisability.org announces to women with disabilities that feeling sexual and wanting a life partner isn’t a cause for embarrassment or an unattainable goal. It’s a way to voice real-life concerns of women with disabilities and to help take them out of their controlled spaces of shame and silence, bringing to light the excessive prejudices faced daily. When asked about whether the taboos for the disabled would ever disappear, Richa replied, “I’m hopeful. The more we make society understand how cast out these woman are, only then can we hope to see real change transpire. If enough people are talking about it, that is more important.”
I must be honest and admit that in the process of learning more about sexuality and disability, I had to confront my own prejudices, some I didn’t even know I had. Even as someone who has a disability those prejudices existed; I have them; we all have them whether we admit it to or not. Preconceived notions are hard to change but we can always learn to look at life in a different way, one we possibly never knew existed. Maybe we don’t have to runaway to the circus after all to feel wanted, to feel like we belong. Inclusivity isn’t something we discover from outside our immediate environment but within it—in the decency of our neighbors and the smile of a perfect stranger.
Words: Sonali Gupta