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Thu24Apr2014

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Disability emerges from its social seclusion

By Richa Kaul Padte

There are slow but sure changes in attitudes around disability and relationships. Shaadi.com has an option to disclose your impairment, and Happily Ever After provides a platform for disabled people to meet and interact

disabled relationships

The Happily Ever After team at their first event to help disabled people find love

Seeking: Fair, slim, well-educated working girl for software engineer, Mumbai.

Seeking: Tall, fair Khatri girl within 26 years of ages. Photos required.

Seeking: Well-qualified bride (BCOM) from reputed Rajput family for NRI boy working in US.

The shaadi­-drive is everywhere. We live in a society constructed around the framework of marriage, and the Big Indian Wedding is on everyone’s mind. And even for those not yet looking to get shaadi-shuda, Bollywood’s grand narratives and romances still script our desires for friendship, for relationships, and for love. Within the context of a country and culture that places a high premium on men, the focus of marriage is not so much on the ideal man – since practically all men are considered to be ideal – but on the ideal woman. The fair, beautiful, educated-but-not-too-talkative, multi-cuisine cook, future mother-of-his-children kind of woman. Not too dark. Not too independent. Not too assertive. But in the yeas and nays of who does and does not fit the bill of ‘ideal’, one category of women remains so far down the ‘nay’ route it doesn’t even feature in the listings: women with disabilities. While this prejudice does very much exist for their male counterparts too, the percentage of men with disabilities who find both long-term and short-term partners is far higher than the numbers for women. Influenced by beauty standards and their presumed inabilities to satisfy the expectations of married women – in terms of household ‘duties’, the couple’s sex life and having children – the ways in which women with disabilities navigate desire and relationships is highly complicated, each step of the way.

Adolescence is a time fraught with anxiety, hormonal changes, and the continuous fear of humiliation and shame. Young people begin to navigate inter-personal relationships on their own terms, and friendships formed between teenagers can be intimate and reassuring, but also cause for distress and worry. As classmates who unquestioningly played with one another previously now branch off into groups and cliques, the ability to socialise and interact with others defines these formative years.

Malini Chib, a woman living with cerebral palsy, writes about her initial experiences at St Xavier’s College in her autobiography One Little Finger, ‘The most important activity in college was socialising. It was the first time I had mingled with people my own age. Would people understand me? Would they feel embarrassed talking to me? Were they coming up to me just because I was disabled?... I soon found out, painfully, that my vocal expression was not quick enough to be included in a dynamic interactive group situation. This was another agonizing experience. No effort was made by those who could speak. My speech became my biggest barrier…I eventually realized that I must be determined to fight. I would show them that, except for my body, I was just like them. I was not going to give up.’

For young women living with physical impairments, the social stigma of their bodies can be especially cruel as they navigate new environments. Many girls with disabilities are schooled at home or in special schools – which are believed to be the ‘safest’ options for them – and are subsequently unprepared for interactions in a wider, and most likely prejudiced, society. ‘Being just like everyone else’ is a struggle, but one that young disabled women are fighting on a daily basis. However, social stigma compounded with institutional prejudice against disability means that it is a fight they must often fight alone.

Similarly, the experience of sexual desire for others is often further complicated and painful for young adults living with disabilities. In a world of young romance and dating that most often follows the scripts of popular movies, shows, and songs, the sheer un-scriptedness of any impairments into these singular, always able-bodied trajectories of romance is acutely disabling. This not only affects the self-esteem and confidence of women with disabilities to form romantic or sexual relationships, but influences a wider discourse that asexualises disabled people in the minds of nondisabled people, deeming them outside the ‘marriage-material’ category.

Women with disabilities who have homosexual desires or relationships face a double discrimination, where their sexualities are seen to be doubly deviant. There is little information available in India about the experiences of queer disabled women, but stories of women from different parts of the world point to the ways in which sexuality is expected to fit into a heteronormative, able-bodied, and largely ‘regular’ category. In a social and cultural context where the sexuality of all women is a taboo subject, it is near-impossible for queer disabled women to find spaces in which to share their stories and express their desires without the fear of judgement or humiliation.

Many feel that disabled people should be ‘paired off’ with other disabled people. In some cases, this may be the best option. For example, the hearing-impaired community forms one of the most socially isolated and excluded groups in the country. Without the resources or facilities for personal translators, communication is the greatest barrier, and for those who are privileged to have learned sign-language, often the only way to foster meaningful relationships with others is by using it. Dr Geeta Rao, a counsellor at the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Impaired (Mumbai) shares this view, and believes that until more people from the hearing world actively learn sign language, forming any type of inter-personal relationship outside of the deaf community is incredibly daunting, if not impossible. However, the majority of people with other physical or mental disabilities that do not hinder their communication are easily capable of forming personal -- including sexual -- relationships with both disabled and nondisabled partners. Society’s prejudice of ‘disabled fits with disabled’ only serves the needs of nondisabled (or, as many in the disability community refer to us, Temporarily Able Bodied (TAB)) people in further cementing the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ divide, and pushing disability deeper into its own secluded realm.

Within a cultural context that positions marriage as a highly important – if not absolutely crucial – step in the lives of a young person and their family, marriage markets are steeped in similar stereotypes. The notion of the ‘good daughter-in-law’ invariably excludes women with disabilities, who are assumed unable to fulfil the multiple duties of a wife as cook-mother-lover extraordinare. While many women with disabilities can do all the things that able-bodied women achieve – sometimes with a little extra help or attention – the stigma around having a disabled daughter-in-law speaks volumes about the unrealistic and oppressive pressures placed on any woman getting married – irrespective of disability. For those who are unable (or assumed unable) to fill these traditional and constraining roles, marriage is off the cards. Furthermore, parents of disabled women often fear that after a lifetime of protecting their daughters, allowing them to leave their homes and enter married life will be more than they can handle.  

A polio-affected woman from India shares her experiences: ‘When people approached my mother for my marriage, she kept saying no. She was worried how will I manage, what will I do, how will I live in a new house. Then finally I found someone, and my determination made her realise that I was ready, and she agreed…My [new] family and relatives were happy to have me. They never said that we don't want a daughter-in-law who is challenged. On the contrary, they said, "Great, you both can be together and support each other, and take care of each other." And that's what we have been doing.'

With an increasing visibility of people with impairments in public spaces and social realms, we can see slow-but-sure changes in attitudes around disability and marriage. Shaadi.com now has an option on your personal profile you can tick if you have an impairment you wish to disclose, an opportunity to describe the impairment, how it affects (or doesn’t affect) your day-to-day life, and so on. Furthermore, new and bold initiatives are being taken from both within and outside the disabled community to help more people with disabilities form relationships in non-traditional ways.

Happily Ever After is a Mumbai-based initiative organised by nondisabled people that has been highly successful even in its nascent stages. Providing a platform for disabled people and their friends and family to meet and interact, this blog talks about their first event: ‘On 23 September 2012, 35 people with disabilities gathered at the Executive Enclave banquets in Mumbai for the first Happily Ever After event. The ratio of men and women was nearly fifty-fifty and the youngest participant was 25 years old, and the oldest close to 50 years old. Most of the participants were either visually impaired or had a motor impairment, and one participant belonged to the hearing-impaired community… Many participants interacted with more than one potential prospect. A few participants chose to interact with others who had the same disability as them, while a few cross-disability matches were sparked as well.’ As initiatives like these begin to take root in different places, and more people with disabilities enter public life, we can hope to witness a true change in wider attitudes and prejudices surrounding disabled people in relationships. And the next time we think about the ‘ideal’ partner for ourselves or put a ‘Seeking’ ad in the newspaper, able-bodiedness will no longer be an assumed prerequisite.

(Richa Kaul Padte is a freelance writer and feminist activist living between Bombay and Goa. She was the co-author and project coordinator of www.sexualityanddisability.org, an online initiative by Point of View and CREA)

Infochange News & Features, November 2012