“Do You Notice My Gorgeous Smile or My Wheelchair First?”
“People call me a dumb flirt as I don’t notice the signs, but they don’t see how I flirt as flirting is ableist.”
(December 3 is celebrated as International Day of Persons with Disabilities since 1992. It aims to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all spheres of life. FIT is reposting stories of exceptional people who are making a mark despite their disabilities and questioning the norms the society has imposed on them.)
“Shall I tell you something funny? When I started dating, people said I salute your boyfriend! They called him brave to date someone like me!”
Politics student and paraplegic Pratishtha Deveshwar’s question was laced with playfulness but bellied a reality I had not considered. One of many unlearnings that occurred for me on a rainy Delhi evening at Disability Rights NGO, Rising Flame’s conference.
Among others were:
That Rising Flame founder’s Nidhi Goyal, an activist, a comedian, an author, visually challenged, was also possibly a dumb flirt?
“People call me a dumb flirt as I don’t notice the signs. But I say no, they don’t notice MY signs, flirting is often ableist and we need to learn to flirt differently with different people.”Nidhi Goyal, Rising Flame Founder
Then came a searing question by Kavya Mukhija, a young woman with disabilities, who navigates life in a wheelchair.
“What does consent mean to a woman with disabilities who needs to be touched to help with access - from help with changing, to handling wheelchairs?”
The #Metoo movement came like a wave crashing to the shore, waking us up and reminding us of our collective trauma and power. For the first time in a long time, we were talking about our gendered pain, picking at the scabs of sexual harassment and really unpacking the term - what did it mean, where was the line, what about recourse?
But among all these important, heartbreaking discussions we still swayed in a mostly able-bodied space. Did we hear enough voices from women with disabilities, who think of consent in much broader terms?
“Consent has been boxed into yes & no or about harassment. But we navigate it daily.”Nidhi Goyal, Founder, Rising Flame
Move Over Love: What Else Needs Consent?
Consent for me, an able-bodied woman, was a complex term but it still very much revolved primarily around romantic and sexual ideas.
Smitha Sadasivan, a woman living with multiple sclerosis (MS) told us a story about when she relapsed with MS and had to clear a loan from her bank so that she could go ahead with the surgeries (on top of it all, being disabled is expensive). Now, she says she was bed-ridden so her father went to discuss the scheme with her bank and returned to say it was done.
“I know it was for my good but my consent was required. I would have said yes, of course, but it was my surgery, my bank loan and about me, I should have been asked.”Smitha Sadasivan
Living with a disability means needing more help than able-bodied people to complete everyday tasks, but this often leads to the person being invalidated further.
“What do you love most about weddings? The food right? It’s the worst part for me. I hate the fact that there’s a delicious buffet but because someone else, usually an elder, gets my food for me it’s usually filtered, healthy nonsense. I want the yum things too!”Shreelekha Sriram
Sreelekha Sriram tells us this is far from unusual, women with disabilities, in particular, are constantly infantilised and spoken for.
“When out shopping, people ask my mom what I like. I am blind, not deaf, ask me, I’m right there!”
“Respect my individuality - I can do stuff on my own too. Like voice my needs and make bad jokes” says Kavya.
Srishti Pandey, psychology student and paraplegic, adds another layer of complexity to the discussion - guilt. "How do I manage between gratitude and guilt when they try to make space for me?” I realised this was a question I and other women ask ourselves often, but with further intersectionalities, pushing for our consent and voice becomes even harder.
How Do You Consent If You Can’t Say The Word 'No'?
So much of our conversations around consent boil down to one idea: No means no. So say no loudly and clearly women, we are implored.
But what happens when you can’t SAY no?
At the event I watched Harpreeti Reddy speak. I say watched because she was deaf and communicated via sign language and an interpreter. She spoke to us about the oft-forgotten trick of body language. We already rely on it so much but forget we need to have the same nuanced conversations about non-verbal consent too.
She asked us, an audience of able-bodied and people with disabilities:
“How do people get your attention? A tap on your shoulder?”
Harpreeti then began to deconstruct how intrusive that is, a tangible encroaching into our personal space. “I want to tell people, especially when you are talking to a deaf person, wave in front of their face to get their attention. There is no need to touch.”
Goyal herself noted that she had tapped her shoulder earlier, subtly reminding us of the diversities that blossom once we look for them.
People with disabilities are diverse, a women who is deaf has different norms for consent than other women with other disabilities.
Sex? But You’re Disabled!
Talking about consent HAS to include talks of pleasure. Consent doesn't begin at a yes, it begins at enthusiasm and pleasure-seeking and ends starkly at discomfort. We need to remodel the way we think of consent and pleasure, and then really dig deep into pleasure.
For women with disabilities, says Goyal, pleasure can be expressed in various ways. You’ve just got to be creative.
Who says you can’t have sex while in a wheelchair. Or when blind?
Besides being wildly inappropriate to ask anyone, it also belies our lack of understanding of Persons With Disabilities as people - full of feelings, desires and needs.
Goyal takes on pop culture for conflating harassment and romance, and for its portrayal of Women With Disabilities.
“A friend told me she was worried she couldn’t get married because ‘How can I walk the pheras, I’m in a wheelchair, I don’t want my husband to pick me up.’ Firstly that’s not the only way to get married and secondly, I asked her did you see Mann? I laughed and said don’t take your advice from Bollywood”Nidhi Goyal
I remember watching Margareta with a Straw with my mom in a near-empty theatre in Mumbai, being fascinated and a little uncomfortable with the powerful portrayal of a girl with CP living her life, being a ‘normal’ teen with crushes and dreams.
The whole movie was revolutionary, but for Goyal, the scene that dazzled most was one so subtle I barely remember it.
The main character, played by Kalki Koechlin, is being given a bath by her mom. She is meeting her cute guy friend and wants to wash her hair. But she can’t, her mom has to it for her.
“Why again, you just did it yesterday, you’ll ruin your hair,” the mom grumbles ("Like a typical mom,” says Goyal with a smirk). But then what’s amazing is that despite obviously not wanting to, the mom washes Kalki’s hair because SHE wants to and she should be able to get what she wants even if she can't do it herself.
The littlest thing becomes an infuriating dismissal of the self.
As a society, we are slowly wrapping our heads around the fact that women have sex for fun (see Swara Bhaskar and the outrage that followed). Going forward, we need to reimagine pleasure for all women.
“Disabled is one aspect of our identity, PWDs are full people, sexual, flirty and capable.” was the chorus from the women on the panel.
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