Twenty-five-year old Nidhi Goyal’s male friend comes from a conservative family, and it is commonly known among their peers that none of his women friends are allowed inside the family home, for fear of upsetting his prospective arranged marriage. But when Nidhi jokingly asked to come over and taste his mother’s cooking, she was immediately welcomed. Surprised, she asked why an exception was being made to the rule. His response was, “But it’s you. You’re fine, obviously.” Today Nidhi says, ‘I’ll never forget that moment. Because what he actually meant was, “You’re blind, so obviously I can’t marry you. You’re not a threat.’
In a society that runs on shaadi-powered steam, people with disabilities are systematically excluded from being seen as prospective marriage candidates. Perceived as asexual, childlike, and unable to fulfil the ‘duties’ of marriage (including breadwinning, cooking and child-rearing) — an inaccurate but powerful misconception about what disability does and does not prevent you from doing — people with disabilities face stigma and rejection when it comes to forming relationships.
In an attempt to respond to this societal prejudice, over the past decade state governments across the country have created schemes for ‘normal persons’ to marry disabled partners in instances where the income level of the couple is below a certain amount. On 4 July, the government of Goa announced an increase in the award from its previous sum of 25,000 to 50,000, matching the schemes offered by governments in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. States including Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu offer similar schemes, with some states offering different ‘awards’ for different disabilities. This recent development in Goa has created a renewed debate around these schemes, which have been met with little appreciation across the disability sector.
Goyal, who is a Mumbai-based gender and disability rights activist, says “As a disabled individual I can tell you, this is very demeaning: that to marry me you need perks, like some promotional offer for an object. It’s a distraction from the responsibility of the government to create an inclusive environment where people with disabilities, whether married or not, can live a full and dignified life.” In this way, the marriage-award schemes further endorse a system that looks at disability through the lens of charity rather than empowerment.
Goyal goes on to say, “If the intention of the state is to provide for my security and future, the money should go to the disabled person, not the couple, because this is left open to a lot of abuse.” Furthermore, the award money remains the same and must be shared if both partners are disabled, which some activists believe further indicates the idea of compensating able bodied people for their ‘sacrifice’, rather than providing disabled people with support.
Others, however, see implementation as the fundamental problem with the schemes. Nambu Rajan, State Secretary for the Tamil Nadu Association for the Rights of All Types of Differently Abled and Caregivers, says, “If it was running properly, of course it would be a good scheme… [But] there are insufficient [monetary] allocations to the disability department, so cases where people have applied and not received money have been pending for the last 7 years.” In addition to this, there is poor promotion of the schemes across the states in which they exist. A simple Google-search is enough to indicate just how hard it is to learn of these opportunities outside of sporadic newspaper articles or charts and tables deeply embedded inside NGO websites.
Kolkata-based disability rights activist Shampa Sengupta says, “Somewhere there [through these schemes] the state is underlining that disabled people are not marriageable, and several activists feel like this is a state-sponsored dowry system.” And irrespective of whether people support such schemes or not, the consensus appears to be that without genuine efforts to alter societal perceptions of disability, barriers to forming relationships cannot be removed through monetary relief alone.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Govt patronises in attempt to help the disabled’ in The Sunday Guardian on 13 July 2013