Moving beyond labels and limitations.
More often than not, sex and sexuality are confused as terms and casually used interchangeably. While sex categorizes humans physiologically as males and females, sexuality defines the way of sexual expression, gender orientation and ways in which one chooses to relate to self and others.
Definitions of disability have evolved too via the context of models ranging from moral, medical, rehabilitation, sociocultural, to rights-based models. Disability has been viewed from multiple perspectives over the decades sensitizing the world slowly, but surely. In spite of increased awareness of the disability rights movement, health care professionals and society in general, remains to be reluctant in articulating the need to address and discuss sexuality and sexual health-related concerns of people with disabilities.
So, what I hope happens when one goes through this literary piece is considering changing their perceptions.
I would like the words ‘can’ and ‘opportunity’ to be there when one thinks of disability.
Hence, I choose the subject which is thought to be embarrassing by some and empowering by others: The subject of disability, sex, and relationships.
Personally, it has been a rare sight in practice where professionals perceive and discuss SEX positively in India, let alone clients. It is hard enough for an able-bodied’ person to openly talk about sex. Now, this taboo is further exacerbated for people with disabilities, as they experience a greater sense of guilt, alienation and sexual anxiety. Mainstream societies think that people with disabilities don’t, won’t, or can’t have sex, yet I have had enough clients to prove otherwise! Ignorance and lack of knowledge cause fear, which ultimately leads to an unpleasant association with the idea of sex and exploring sexuality. A discouraging environment and the internalization of this Taboo limits their opportunities to discover and understand their sexuality.
Sexuality in itself is a complex concept for people to understand and come to terms with. Disability brings with it added layers of struggle.
There has been a shift in the paradigm in terms of dialogues, policies, and rights about sexuality and sex. But are people with disabilities allowed to access and exercise their rights? Sadly, no. There is institutionalized violence against the disabled and it does not have to be physical, most of the time, it is in the form of poor or no representation, exclusion, and marginalization.
What I am here to advocate is for everyone- with disabilities or no disabilities, straight or queer (LGBTQIA)- to know their sexual rights, and for everybody to have an opportunity to have a filling, satisfactory, consensual and exciting relationships irrespective of their physical or mental health condition, sexual orientation, and gender.
WHAT IS THAT WE CAN DO TO BRING ABOUT THIS CHANGE?
For starters, these are a few things that can help us achieve justice towards sexual citizenship.
Ask the right questions:
Disability does not entitle one with a lack of desire, pleasure or intimacy. Start a conversation regarding sexuality in the same way one does with an able-bodied person. Questions like, “Are you asexual?”, “Can you have sex?”, or “How can you have sex if you are disabled”, alienates and deprives them of their rights to sexuality and intimacy. Positive communication is the key and foundation to all building relationships hence, clarity in the context of disability and sexuality can enable one to go a long way.
Focus on inclusivity: Sex isn’t necessarily about penetration. It can be sensual, intimate, sexual and most importantly, pleasurable and that exists for absolutely everybody. When we speak of sexual activity and sexual health, does one ever discuss how this possibility can be challenging for people with disabilities? One needs to be open to address these topics and produce them in a conducive manner to reflect inclusivity. An inclusive, comprehensive sex education that covers a future possibility of engaging in sexual activities should include people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Moreover professionally, Occupational therapists and Sex therapists can help people with disabilities explore their abilities and enable them to achieve sexual citizenship and engage them in this intimate Activity of Daily Living.
Spark a discussion: Entire human race functions on drives, be it sexual or psychological. People with disabilities are capable of doing everything that an able-bodied person can do with adequate adaptations and modifications. Acknowledging this new body, open dialogues and changing policies have brought positive changes at an institutional level, so let the conversations continue for better! All of this can enable them to articulate, demand and access their human and sexual rights and live lives free of stigma, violence, and discrimination. Sparking a discussion and advocating for all forms of sexuality positively is all that it takes.
Stigmatizing and marginalizing people with disabilities is disrespecting diversity.
While the external forces of taboo, conformity, expectations and captivity seem like insurmountable challenges, the one thing you and I can do is to actively participate in building and extending safer, inclusive spaces within our society that each one of us truly wants to be a part of. This change would reflect broader trends in the emerging field of human sexual rights and sexuality, as well as expand recognition of the centrality of sexuality in the struggle for equality.