Shonali Bose's tour de force, Margarita With A Straw, should be an interesting starting point for a debate on the sexual rights of the differently-abled. Interesting because the protagonist--played by Kalki Koechlin--shakes off social barriers by actually doing something about her desires.
Not every person with disabilities is able to break through; social pressure to be asexual generally triumphs. There is little recognition of--or thought invested in--the sexual rights of the differently-abled. And, as with most social tragedies, it's the women who suffer the most.
According to the 2011 Census, the differently-abled account for 2.21% of the population that is approximately 26.8 million people. Of these, 11.8 million are women.
These numbers have been contested. The World Health Organization, using a broader definition of disability to include conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, estimates that 70 million Indians suffer from disabilities.
No matter which estimate you accept, the fact is that this is a sexually invisible group. In fact, their sexual rights have been systematically throttled. They have been subjected to segregation, confinement and even forced sterilisation.
Studies on this subject are alarming. A report by Disabled People's International (India) and its partners on the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in September 2013 said: "Almost 80% of women with disabilities are victims of violence and they are four times more likely than other women to suffer sexual violence."
They are looked upon as objects of pity or a burden, leading to low self-esteem and a poor body image. In a country where sex education is rare and virtually non-existent for the differently-abled, they face discrimination and humiliation from even those who should know better--doctors, for instance.
Priority 1: Awareness
Renu Addlakha, of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, wrote in 'A Training Manual for Professionals Working with Adolescents and Young People with Physical Disabilities', as reported by Livemint.com: "Sex education programmes for the disabled have by and large targeted the mentally disabled who are regarded as particularly vulnerable to sexual victimisation due to difficulties in general understanding and social judgement. But it is not only the mentally disabled who require special sex education programmes."
Indeed, it's the parents who may need to be educated as much. For instance, many believe it's a sin for children with disabilities to masturbate. They fail to understand that the physical needs of the differently-abled are the same as others'.
This is recognised by various international treaties, including ones that India is a signatory to. For instance, the Biwako Millennium Framework for an inclusive society and the United Nations Convention on Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities.
The differently-abled are keen to understand their feelings. This is backed by research conducted by the likes of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland, which found that two-thirds of people with learning disabilities want to know more about sex and relationships.
There's no reason to believe that the numbers would be different in India. That's why it's time to break the silence; the voices of the differently-abled, activists, lawyers, counsellors and academicians need to get louder and amplified by the media. That the differently-abled have a desire for love, sex and relationships needs to be asserted repeatedly.
Priority 2: A Legal Underpinning
India needs a legal framework that goes beyond job reservations and norms for buildings to be differently-abled-friendly. The government did introduce the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014, but not everyone was convinced about the sections dealing with reproductive rights.
India's track record on this front has been poor. The country passed the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Bill as late as 1995. It defines a differently-abled person as one with at least 40% of any disability, but activists said it was not enough. It was only in April 2010 that the government formed a committee to draft a new law aligned with the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The draft Bill submitted in June 2011 included in a comprehensive section on the reproductive rights of differently-abled women. However, a revised version drastically shortened that section, merely mentioning that all programmes be sensitive to gender needs.
Priority 3: Sensitisation
Incidentally, Margarita With A Straw is not the only film made on the sexuality of the differently-abled. The Sessions, an Oscar-nominated film released in 2012, was based on the true story of a man with an iron lung who loses his virginity to a sexual surrogate.
Ash King was helped by TLC Trust, a UK organisation that connects people with disabilities to sex workers. TLC's founder, sex therapist Tuppy Owens, told 'The Guardian': "Finding a sex worker who will talk, teach, accept... is a bit of a boost of confidence and self-esteem."
Perhaps this is a distant dream in India, but it's an example of the empathetic approach that is possible. That some of TLC's bookings are made by parents shows the difference an enlightened parent of caregiver can make.
Priority 4: Learn From Others
India can take a cue from the Australian state of Victoria, where all citizens--including the disabled--aged 16 or older are entitled to sexual privacy and choice.
Like in Victoria, our sex education classes must stress on:
• Teaching that the differently-abled can have fulfilling sex lives.
• Greater integration of differently-abled children in schools to sensitise others from a young age.
• Delivering information in a manner that a differently-abled person can understand.
• Giving parents information to deal with the challenges their children face.
• Underscoring that people with disabilities can be successful partners and parents..
None of this will be easy. Expect pushback, even from the more educated and affluent.
Scott Hamilton, champion figure skater, said, "The only disability in life is a bad attitude." It's precisely the disability society suffers from.
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