New Delhi: When it comes to sexuality and disability, attitudes in India are not different. Most people prefer to sweep both issues under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist.
The wall becomes even higher when it comes to women with disabilities.
“They are regarded as non-sexual beings,” said Vani Viswanathan from non-profit TARSHI.
Ms Viswanathan points to the case of a woman who went to visit her mother at a mental hospital in Kolkata in 2008, and found that all the female inmates had been kept naked in the ward. Another shocking incident was reported in 2013 from Pune where hysterectomies were forcibly conducted on 11 mentally unstable women.
“Essentially, there are two specific approaches when it comes to the sexuality of people with disabilities. One seeks to control their behaviour, and the other looks at managing biological aspects, like periods,” Ms Vishwanathan added.
Even in Sri Lanka, which is the first country in South Asia to consider making sign language one of the official languages, the sexual and reproductive needs of people with disabilities remains a topic of taboo.
“We faced major resistance when we tried to raise the links between sexuality and disability,” said Dakshitha Wickremarathne, young researcher and development practitioner from Sri Lanka, who spoke at the plenary session on the second day of the 11th World Adolescent Congress.
Even the sign language used in Sri Lanka is limited when it comes to sexual and reproductive terms. “The sign language term used for ‘intercourse’, for instance, indicates something obscene so imagine how hard it makes it for deaf youth to get justice from the police,” said Mr Wickremarathne.
Once the bill making sign language official comes through, disability rights activists plan to build the sign language glossary and use it in schools for the hearing impaired people to teach them sexual and reproductive health.
In 2016, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in India, which is considered a major step in recognising the rights of the people with disabilities to lead lives of equality and dignity. The Act addresses gaps in the field of education, training and rehabilitation, which is much needed. But what remains unacknowledged is their desire for intimacy and emotional connection.
“They are looked at as childlike, as people with far bigger problems, so sexuality is hardly a priority,” said Ms Viswanathan. This is a perception common even among service providers who work with the community, say experts in the field of disability rights.
TARSHI works extensively with service providers across India to address this gap through a rights-based approach. “We tell them that it is more than just about sex. It’s about their rights to love and to enjoy their sexuality,” said Ms Viswanathan.
However, to enable people with disabilities enjoy and sustain relationships requires a change in the outlook towards disability – to not view them through the prism of sympathy or pity, but through a viewpoint that celebrates differences and diversity.