Disability, Sexuality and Violence: from Mumbai to Honolulu

While working for www.sexualityanddisability.org I learnt many things about women with disabilities and the way the world viewed their sexualities.

In my chat with a queer feminist from the UK, I was told that the infrastructure abroad may be better, the facilities may be better, but human behavior doesn’t differ geographically.  This was what was playing on my mind when I disembarked at the airport at Honolulu. I was sure that the two days following my arrival would put my mind to rest. Attending the 28th Pacific Rim International Conference  on disability and diversity was an opportunity for me to present the scenario in India, and to gain a global perspective on the work we were doing.

The Hawaii convention center was buzzing with eager voices of around eleven hundred participants, comprising persons with disabilities, activists, film makers, organizations, parents, teachers, etc. with so many sessions –impairment-specific, cause-specific, workshops, and films, all taking place at the same time. The schedule made me wish that I could clone myself to be everywhere at once! Finally I focused on the sessions which touched on the intersection between disability and sexuality.

My presentation was scheduled for day two of the conference, and the sessions leading up to it only boosted my confidence in the work we had done and its global importance. Let me begin with my presentation and then I can draw parallels with the other speakers and projects.

Our Website

Point of View in collaboration with CREA created an online resource on disability, sexuality and violence, which contains information, personal narratives and practical tips to empower not only women with disabilities, but their families, caregivers, educationalists, healthcare workers and organizations working within the field. The site comprises information on issues broadly related to body , sexuality, relationships and  violence, and seeks to challenge and nuance ideas related to beauty, self esteem, sexual orientation, and the various constructions of the female disabled body.  The site also exposes and seeks to undercut the stigma and stereotypes of women with disabilities forming sexual or romantic relationships, and addresses violence faced by women as a consequences of these prejudices, including sexual harassment, domestic, institutional and other forms of violence.

The highlight of this website is that it is fully accessible (according to the W3 consortium guidelines) for persons across disabilities. Also, the content caters to all age groups, across disabilities, persons with different sexual orientations, and provides both general and nuanced information for women with different disabilities.

While our primary research included predominantly Indian women, our secondary research included women from all over the world. Thus we had hoped that the website would have a global resonance. I was assured of this as I attended the other sessions.


Parallels with Other Speakers

Session 1:  Supporting persons with disabilities in relationships

By HSRI- Human Services Research Institute, South Carolina

HSRI actually wanted to conduct a research on people with disabilities and their sexual relationships. Owing to the conservative nature of the state, they had to modify their research. They thus began with talking about different relationships, like a family member or friend, and then went on to partners or sexual relationships. Basically, amongst the many points that they made the most important one was that being in a relationship is an emotional and psychological need of any person, which is also the case for a person with a disability. They also shared cases where women with disabilities have had full, healthy, and satisfying romantic relationship.

Session 2:   Habitat Haven collaborative project

The founder of the project from Canada was a woman in a wheelchair who had faced multiple and varied types of domestic violence in the forms of both physical and sexual abuse. Her colleague shared her story, and it was so evident that the hesitations and helplessness of a woman with disability in the face of violence is not country-specific. She eventually stood up for herself, but till that point, over a decade had passed. This reinforced my belief that women not only need to know how to fight violence, but they need to begin by recognizing it, and understanding that violence is not an inherent part of living with a disability.

Session 3:  The Cerebral Palsy Group.org

The speaker Robert Watson was himself a man with cerebral palsy. He spoke about various interesting facts, but one example that he shared was enough to justify our website’s pages on sex and sexuality. He mentioned his friend who had cerebral palsy, and whose partner had spastic muscles. They faced immense difficulty in having sex, and had no one to consult except Robert. I was glad to share the details of our website with him, which contains information and tips on the practicalities of sex for people with different impairments.

Session 4: Silent Spirits (Sex abuse and exploitation prevention)

This session was conducted by a well known activist in USA, Savenia Falquist. She spoke about the sexual abuse of women and children with disabilities. It amazed me to see that the statistics of sexual abuse of women with disabilities are almost the same worldwide. This speaks volumes about human attitudes towards women with disabilities. Even the information she shared about pedophiles and the abuse techniques employed by them were common with that which had surfaced in our research in India. This reaffirmed the need for the child sex abuse and sexual assault pages on our website for not only an Indian audience, but for audiences worldwide.

All the activists I met and discussions I attended cemented my trust in the global usefulness of our website. At the end of the conference, I was pleased to have contributed much and received much more. This was indeed a journey well accomplished.

By Nidhi Garima Goyal

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