Indian NGO teaches people with disabilities they can be sexual too

Students at a school for blind and visually impaired women touch a model of a penis. Credit: @dis_sexuality on Twitter.
Students at a school for blind and visually impaired women touch a model of a penis. Credit: @dis_sexuality on Twitter.

There’s a serious lack of media representation of people with disabilities having sex. It isn’t spoken about, it is rarely portrayed in film and it doesn’t feature in your typical sexual education programme. So if you are disabled, where do you get your information about sex from? And how do you find out about your own sexuality? Since 2015, the pioneering Indian NGO Point of View has been running a programme called ‘Sexuality and Disability’, which aims to educate women with disabilities about their bodies, their sexuality, and their rights.

Around 15 percent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability, according to the World Health Organisation. But people with disabilities are left out of the conversation when it comes to discussions about sex, a consequence of society’s general ignorance about disability and sexuality. A 2013 study on this phenomenon, The Sexualisation Report, wrote, “Most often, in mainstream culture, people with disabilities are seen as simply asexual.”

In India, the Mumbai-based organisation Point of View has set up a programme called Sexuality and Disability that seeks to dispel some of the myths around people with disabilities and sex.

Nidhi Goyal is the programme director. She spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team about why a project like this is so sorely needed.

“Sex education is unusual in schools in India – and it doesn’t exist for people with disabilities”

Sex education in India is not systematic. It’s still unusual in schools. There’s certainly been a growing awareness of child abuse, and there’s a campaign called ‘good touch or bad touch’. Children are taught that if someone touches your private area it’s ‘bad touch’. It’s an easy way to teach children, but it does make them associate sexuality with ‘bad touch’.

This kind of education does not exist for disabled people. It’s at a very nascent stage. When you talk about young people anyway, no one is having conversations with youth with disabilities. At least youth without disabilities get some information: from the internet, from the media, from their peers. But youth with disabilities just don’t have that. Informal information is missing and so systematic formal intervention is extremely urgent.

A workshop about to begin in Kolkata. Credit: Point of View Facebook page

A question of rights

When we started work on this area in 2011 there was no way that women with disabilities had any rights or say. The women’s rights movement had left out women with disabilities. The disabled rights movement was not focusing on women’s issues. So we had this situation where women with disabilities were slipping through the cracks.

We started off by creating an online resource: a single platform that discussed the whole spectrum of sexual rights and sexuality for women with disabilities. It has had a global resonance. We’ve had people reach out to us from Africa, China and elsewhere to say that they were translating parts of the website for their own local audiences.

"We want them to realise that they are sexual beings too”

The NGO expanded their online platform to doing workshops on sexuality in 2015, tailoring them to a variety of different disabilities. Since then, trainers from Point of View have reached out to over 1,300 women with disabilities across India, working with young women from 14 years old up to adulthood. The NGO has done workshops across five different states in the country, in nine different cities, and in five different languages. Goyal explained what a typical one-day workshop would cover.

First of all, accessibility and inclusion are at the heart of our work. We use plastic models of body parts to help people who are visually impaired. We use sign language interpreters, videos, charts and images. Accessibility is not just about the space being wheelchair-accessible, it’s also about the content.

We talk about bodies, the reproductive process, puberty, masturbation, sex, pleasure, knowing your body. We explain things like what an erection is. We take these things for granted because we see them. But if you say ‘erect’ to a blind person, they will just think erect; they won’t think ‘hard’. Why would they? This is why having body parts in 3D is really important. We explain things like female genitalia is between the legs, whereas male genitalia is in front. We go through the basics, assuming that their knowledge is nil. We talk about contraception and they learn how to put condoms on.

Information is power

The whole point of this is to establish with them that they are sexual beings too. Information is power. The whole world has been telling them that they are asexual. All of this knowledge, all of these practical insights are to help them realise that it is their choice. It’s about establishing these basic ideas of knowing your body, knowing your desire, and understanding consent.

We also talk about relationships. This comprises everything from gender and orientation, to queer rights, and partner choices. This is very important – I don’t think I’ve been in a single session where the participants haven’t focused on the disability of the partner. There’s this idea that people with disabilities are not allowed to have a choice: the whole idea of having a partner is about care and needing someone to look after them. It’s not about who they like or who they choose. That message gets internalised from a young age.

So then we talk about harassment and abuse. We have to work with them towards identifying abuse.

I was teaching at a special school in Mumbai, a school for blind girls, and I asked them if they’d ever experienced street harassment and they said, “No, never”. I pushed them on it [Editor’s note: Goyal is herself disabled; she is blind], and I asked them: “There was a complex crossing to get here, how do you cross the street usually?” They admitted that they are helped across by other pedestrians.

“And hasn’t anybody tried to touch you inappropriately when you were trying to cross the street?”

They responded, “But that’s not sexual harassment, that’s just because we’re disabled”.

They have this idea that everything that goes wrong in your life is because of your disability, and this includes emotional abuse and domestic violence.