'I'm a disabled woman, therefore I'm not a prospect'
Sexuality and disability (.org), a website launched last week, purports to create a forum for discussion and information on the sexuality of women with disabilities � a subject that's either taboo, ridden with misconceptions, or one that finds no place in mainstream disability discourse. Bishakha Datta, executive director, Richa Kaul Padte, project coordinator and Nidhi Garima Goyal, project coordinator of Point of View (.org) tell us about the need for the site, supported by
How did you achieve the disability-neutral tone of the information provided and language used on the site?
Bishakha Datta: Disabled women are ‘women’ who are ‘disabled’. So we need to speak to the women in them as much as the disabled person in them. We didn’t want to put women with disabilities in a separate ghetto. It was a bit like walking a tightrope — we also had to ensure we didn’t talk down to women with disabilities or infantilise or patronise them in any way. That took some effort but since we were very sure this is what we wanted, we made it happen.
How were the articles that the site links to chosen?
BD: We chose many blogs where women with disabilities write, since we know their own experiences are authentic and credible. We also got links from well-known institutions. Keep in mind the larger context: this is new terrain, there isn’t that much out there. Also, we wanted authentic information, rather than fuzzy feel-good stuff.
How difficult it was to get disabled women to share their experiences on the site?
Nidhi Garima Goyal: Well, some women were very open, but others who came from a conservative background didn’t understand that we wanted to talk to them about their sexuality, not their sex life. It took a while to establish a rapport and a comfort level with the women, who eventually spoke to us, and by the end, I knew them quite intimately.
What was the thought behind the website? What direction do you hope it will take?
BD: We want to provide a one-stop platform where women with disabilities and their families, partners, friends etc can get information about this. Sexuality is a taboo topic in Indian homes anyway — sexuality and disability even more so. We expect to build an active community of women with disabilities and activists working on sexuality to move the website forward.
The definition of ‘disability’ is wide.
Richa Kaul Padte: Because there are so many different impairments — visual, verbal, hearing, intellectual, developmental, motor — obviously the issues people face are different, so we didn’t want to lump all women into the homogeneous category of ‘disabled’. But at the same time, we didn’t want to break up the content by labelling people into their disability. This was a hard balance to strike, but I think we’ve achieved it.
Is there a plan to involve men in any way since, as a lot of true stories illustrate, the support of a husband and/or partner has helped many differently-abled women have less stressful, more enriching lives?
BD: Yes, there’s a special page for partners, many of whom are men, and we hope to tie up with disability rights groups that work with women and men and do separate and joint trainings and workshops to make this a reality.
NGG: We really need to create a dialogue with men on the issue. For example, one time a male friend, who came from a conservative family where friendships with women aren’t encouraged, said, “With you it’s different.” Essentially that meant that since I’m visually impaired, I’m not a women, and therefore not a prospect.
How are differently-abled women themselves involved with the site?
BD: About five women who are differently-abled — including visually-impaired lawyer Kanchan Pamnani, and Janet Price, who’s in a wheelchair — advised us on content and accessibility. Our motto in making this site was: “Nothing for the disabled without the disabled”.
RKP: The site was made disability-friendly by Barrier Break Technologies, where over 75 per cent of the staff has a disability. So if you’re visually impaired, you can easily use a screen-reading software to access the site. Or if you have a learning disability, you can comfortably navigate the topics. So we’re not just providing information for women with disabilities, but making sure they can independently access too.
Will there be any on-the-ground activities to create dialogue?
BD: Yes — workshops, film screenings, interactive exhibits and discussions are planned in five cities — Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai — with CREA and groups working on either disability, sexuality, health, women’s issues, HIV, etc. We will also do offline workshops, etc on specific issues that are important for women with disabilities.
What is the most pressing need that disabled women face in India?
NGG: Acceptance. They need to be accepted by people, by the infrastructure, and their presence needs to be acknowledged.
BD: Women with disabilities need to be seen as women, like anyone else, and treated with empathy — not lesser human beings who only deserve sympathy or pity and a conditional access to everything that the rest of us enjoy.