Women with disability have the same need for love and intimacy as ‘normal’ women do but it is a subject seldom recognised in our society, writes Ranjita Biswas
I watched them dance…I wondered if there would ever be a man in my life. Would a man see beyond my body? Would I ever be needed by a man emotionally or would I always be regarded as a burden for someone to take care of?”
---Malini Chib in her autobiographical book, One Little Finger (SAGE).
Chib suffers from cerebral palsy that makes body movement and speech extremely difficult. But her cry of loneliness as her ‘able- bodied’ friends enjoy a party and dance with their male partners is not a lone one. There are many women who are passed by where sexuality is concerned. In fact, it is almost an unspoken, unuttered word. True, Chib has surmounted her disability, is a double MA, holds a job, uses a communicator or voice-box much like the one physicist Stephen Hawkins does. She is also a rights activist for disabled persons. But it has been an uphill task for an intelligent mind trapped in a body which needs help to move around.
Chib gives a moving account of her growing up years, the fantastic support from her parents, relatives and friends, using her one little finger for this 50,000 words book. Her book is full of positive vibes though there are ample examples of difficulties she has faced to be mobile, especially in India.
Chib does give way to her inner trauma occasionally. Her need for love from the opposite sex and the sadness at disappointments appear in pages towards the end of the book. As she said, at the launch of her book, “People think us as ‘asexual.’ As if we cannot or do not have these feelings, something any so-called normal woman can have.”
This small little observation brings to notice something seldom talked about in our society or families with disabled women.
Anita Ghai of Delhi, teacher and disability rights activist, agrees, “In our society sexuality, especially of women, is tied up with marriage. Physical disability is seen as a major hindrance though disabled persons do get married occasionally. However, meeting people, socially interacting with the opposite sex are major hindrances.”
Ghai admits that the image of a disabled woman is also such that her needs for movement, care-giving, and treatment take precedence and somehow obliterate her other physical needs. Then there is a question of attitude. She illustrates it from her own personal experience.
“In north India [elsewhere too] where I grew up, young male cousins of girls though allowed to mix are not permitted by elders to sleep in the same room with male cousins. But I did not have any such restriction. It never occurred to me why until a friend later pointed out that as a disabled woman I was completely de-sexualised.” In short, she was not regarded as a ‘threat’ for aberrations to create problems or whispers of a family scandal. In her book (Dis)Embodied Form: Issues of Disabled Women (2003), Ghai talks about many of these issues.
But, as many women with disability would vouchsafe, born as a human being, the needs of a women with disability is the same as a ‘normal’ woman’s. Australian film Dance Me to My Song (1998) where protagonist Julia, confined to a wheelchair suffering from cerebral palsy, falls in love with her neighbour, compassionate Eddie, reflects the mental dilemma, and longing for love and sex, in a beautiful way. In fact, the star of the film who also co-wrote the script, Heather Rose is afflicted with cerebral palsy herself and shows deep understanding of the character, though she says the film is not autobiographical. When the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, 1998, in the competition section, it evoked a standing ovation.
Delhi-based TARSHI, (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), an NGO, published a report Sexuality and Disability in the Indian Context (2010) where it introduces the research-paper by saying that “To most people, sexuality and disability seem to be unconnected terrains. However, the reality is that people with disabilities can also be sexual beings with sexual fantasies, feelings and aspirations like anyone else.”
The report further elaborates that they are unable to express their sexuality fully not so much because of a disability but, among other reasons, because of “negative societal attitudes.”
This attitude is not confined to the so-called layman. It can also extend to professionals in the medical field as well. Ghai recalls a rather amusing incident (actually disturbing) when she wanted to have a Pap Smear test done.
This is a test middle-aged women, particularly menopausal women, are advised to take to detect cancerous and pre-cancerous cell changes in the cervix; early detection of symptom, if any, can avoid/treat cervical cancer. “The gynaecologist was surprised at my request. ‘But why do you need it?’ she asked.” A disabled woman and sex are somehow not co-related, it seems.
Due to the same attitude, women with disability are not given attention to their reproductive rights, needs or need for information. These days many conferences take place around the world, as well as in India, on women’s issues. Unless specifically centred on the subject of disability, this aspect of women’s need or problems are hardly discussed one discovers while leafing through the agenda.
This is not a problem with women alone. But due to our patriarchal attitude, the problem is more, Ghai points out. Chib observes, echoing feminist writers, that being disabled and a woman, is a double disadvantage. “A disabled man …is viewed as a wounded male while a disabled woman is not able to fulfil the cultural expectations. She suffers again due to the cultural stereotypes associated with women being caregivers,” she writes.
The good thing is that today people are talking more on these issues. Even those afflicted with disability, as Malini Chib does, are not afraid to talk frankly of their needs and wants. Changes in society come slowly, but they do if people talk, Ghai says. (TWF)