‘I kind of floated through my sex life prior to disability. I had relationships; I had sex; I had crushes; I loved…sexual possibility seemed limitless. And then came disability.’ *
Would you date someone who can’t see?
Can sex with an amputee be sexy?
Is it really rape if the woman has a mental disability and doesn’t ‘know’ what’s going on?
And where can a disabled woman find the information, support and advice she needs to feel positive about her sexuality, stay safe from violence, and be accepted for who she really is – a woman, just like you and me?
In a South Asian socio-cultural context where the sexuality of all women is a topic shrouded in secrecy and denial, to begin to talk about the sexualities of women with disabilities is practically unheard of, and certainly not encouraged. From beauty standards that scream item-girls and ‘perfect’ bodies, to the Hindu karmic notions of ‘disability as retribution’ for past life sins, women with disabilities are by and large seen as asexual beings, and most often, not even as ‘real’ women. And with the disability rights movements’ hands full with (indeed pressing) issues of accessibility in public spaces, education and employment, matters related to sexuality are relegated to moot points. However, the denial of disabled girls’ and women’s sexual selves is harmful on many levels. Disabled women across the subcontinent are beginning to speak, write and share stories of sexual violence, degrading body image and self-worth, and the discomfort around suggestions of their forming romantic or sexual relationships. They highlight the need for conversations on and an increased awareness of their sexual rights, where first and foremost, women with disabilities are seen as ‘women’; complete human beings.
Launched on 16 April 2012 as the first website of its kind anywhere on the internet, www.sexualityanddisability.org explores largely unchartered terrain. Initiated as a collaborative venture between Point of View – a Mumbai based platform that uses media, art and culture to promote the voices of women, and CREA – a global feminist organisation, the website brings together information, personal narratives, and resources within the multifaceted arena of sexuality, disability and violence. Approaching its five broad categories – Body, Having Sex, Relationships, Having Children and Violence – through an accessible question and answer format, the content is approached through the perspectives and questions of a disabled woman: ‘My body looks and functions differently. Can anyone be attracted to me?’ ‘People think I should marry another disabled person. Should I?’ ‘What positions can I have sex in despite my disability?’ With questions (and answers) that aren’t afraid to get down to the nitty gritties of what it means to live as a disabled woman and a fully sexual being, the content has been shaped by the experiences, voices, advice, feedback and stories of disabled women across the world. ‘Nothing for the disabled without the disabled’, a key motto of the disability rights movement, has consciously framed the development of the website.
People with disabilities are all too often defined by their impairments – we see their cane, their wheelchair or their shorter leg before we see them, the person. As a cross-disability resource, www.sexualityanddisability.org has been designed specifically not to fall into this trap. There is no index that sections off content by disability, categorising the audience before they have even begun reading. Rather, each topic comprises information in the form of questions that are relevant to all women, whether or not they are disabled, with extra impairment-specific information in the answers. Weaving together the 32 topic-wise pages are numerous personal narratives and stories, which will strongly resonate with readers, and are the result of a number of interviews with women across India. www.sexualityanddisability.org also addresses those who work, live or share their lives with disabled women – families, partners, doctors, organisations – and provides them with streamlined information and resources, in an effort to create greater awareness and recognition of the sexual and reproductive rights of disabled women. An interactive section enables you to have your say, ask a question, or chat with others about related issues in a safe and non-judgemental space.
The website is also completely accessible to people across disabilities, unlike most websites worldwide, and practically all Indian websites. Developed by a Mumbai-based company Barrier Break Technologies (with a staff of over 75% disabled individuals), www.sexualityanddisability.org has been tested right from its conception for accessibility issues. From compatibility with screen-reading software for those who are visually impaired to easily signposted and labelled content for those with learning or intellectual disabilities, ensuring that women with disabilities can independently access the website has been a key element of the initiative.
Winder writes, ‘To be human is to be sexual’, and as http://www.sexualityanddisability.org carves out a small but wide-reaching space for itself on the internet, it seeks to affirm just that: the sexuality, the womanhood, the humanity of girls and women with disabilities across the globe.
‘I’m here. I’m disabled. And I do it. Yes, I do. Even in this body that you cannot imagine anyone [doing it with] and loving.’ *
*Quotations from blogger Wheelchair Dancer
This piece was originally titled ‘Our body, ourselves’ and published in the print and digital versions of The Hindu on 30 April 2012.