Srinidhi Raghavan, a disabled feminist, writer, researcher and trainer, works on rights issues in the area of disability, sexuality, leadership, and technology, focusing particularly on women, adolescents and children. Her experience and expertise lies in training, programme development, monitoring and evaluation, and she co-leads programmes at Rising Flame, an India-based disability rights organisation. She writes a monthly column on Bodiesminds that centres gender and disability in the Indian context for Firstpost. In this interview with Shikha Aleya, Srinidhi discusses a variety of issues ranging from relationships, sexuality, the erasure of disabled people, to the fact that “…someone who needs care is also capable of providing care … someone who needs support in their lives can also have other things to offer in the relationship”.
Shikha Aleya (SA): Hi Srinidhi, and thank you for speaking to us for this issue of In Plainspeak on Disability and Sexuality. Please give us an overview based on your experiences and reflections on this theme.
Srinidhi Raghavan (SR): Hi Shikha, thank you for asking me to do this interview. When I think about disability and sexuality, I think of the vastness that both these terms contain. The spectrum, the diversity, the depths that exist within each word. Disability in itself is so wide ranging; sexuality has so many nooks and corners that we, as a society and community, are slowly discovering, putting together, and freeing up to interpret differently. A lot of people think when these two terms are brought together that we are speaking about disabled people having sex. And we are! But it is so much more than that. In many ways conversations around disability and sexuality are about discovering how bodies of all kinds belong and occupy space in this world. And how bodies of all kinds can enjoy this engagement.
In my experience of working on disability and sexuality, I have found that a lot of information on and about sexuality remains or is still heavily directed at non-disabled people. The ideas around attraction, non-verbal communication, date nights, sex, and relationships can all be skewed because of who they are directed towards. Including disabled people in the conversation means that how we see and perceive so many things changes. Does dating look the same? What facets are new in relationships when one person or both are disabled? How do disabled people describe attraction or romance?
For example, let’s take touch. For many disabled people, touch is an essential part of how they are supported in the world. Touch also forms a part of how we express intimacy. Holding hands. Leaning into each other’s bodies. I am reminded of , a cripple content creator, speaks about finding a balance between needing support during sexy times – like being lifted into bed, help with taking clothes off, and keeping it playful, intimate, and fun for both parties. There is often a technical way of looking at sexuality when it comes to disabled people. But the more we speak about it, the more disabled people’s experiences we make room for, the more expansive we can get around what disabled people’s experience of sexuality is. this article by Richa Kaul Padte on chronic illness and sex very insightful because of this reason. Some of these tips might work for many different kinds of bodies. All the while it is breaking away from rigid ideas around what sexual expression and sexual experiences look like.
I think there are more and more voices in the public domain of disabled people in India speaking about their experiences. But I think the question remains around which disabilities, which languages, and how easily accessible these narratives are. I wonder about information around bodies, genders and sexualities, and their availability for deaf folks in India. Or information and experiences on menstruation, sex, romance for wheelchair users and persons with spinal cord injuries. Or easy-to-read versions (information in simple text with pictures) on these topics for those with learning and/or intellectual disabilities.
In my experience of working at this intersection, I’ve found that people do have a wide range of lived experiences to share and it boils down to having safe spaces to do so. Especially because disabled people might not have many spaces where they can speak openly about their sexual experiences or even sexual curiosity. There is a heavy monitoring of disabled young people especially, and this can mean that exploration, which is often how many of us discover sexuality, can be limited. Moreover, since the experiences of disabled people are not seen in popular media such as films, we can (and probably do) imagine we will have the same or similar experiences as non-disabled people – which is often not possible.
SA: Thank you for the clarity of your perceptions in that overview. In terms of people’s approaches and understanding, what are some of the immediate responses you have encountered when you bring up the subject through your work and also during social gatherings and conversations? Do you sense a change over the years in these conversations?
SR: I don’t think there is a simple answer to people’s perceptions around disability and sexuality. My concern remains that people’s perceptions about disability have not shifted from the lens of lack. Adding a taboo area like sexuality makes this very contested territory. Most of the approach towards disabled people, especially in India, remains from a charity lens. Therefore pity plays a huge role in understanding and relating to disabled people. Resulting in many questions including – who will find a disabled person attractive?
Sexuality, when it comes to disabled people, is understood to be very low on the “hierarchy of needs”. However faulty the “hierarchy of needs” may be, this is how people perceive it. There is also an assumption that disabled people are not interested in understanding the expansive ideas that sexuality encompasses. We are more interested in education, employment, accessibility – and sexuality somehow is removed from all these experiences.
I think sexuality work still induces a lot of shock among people because it is not meant to be spoken about openly. To work with disabled people on sexuality, we usually have to navigate a pool of individuals who have a protectionist view of not just disabled children but even young people and adults – like parents, caregivers, teachers and doctors. We often hear, “Sexuality is not for my child,” which further hampers their access to information and lived experiences.
It just requires a different approach to engage with parents, caregivers, and teachers to ensure that the disabled individual has an environment where they don’t receive contradictory information around sexuality.
SA: That is a lot to reflect on. When you see the intersections between relationships, sexuality, and disability, what would you highlight as the ground-level experiences that are largely invisible and need immediate attention?
SR: I think the invisibility of disabled people’s experiences of the world is the ground-level reality. In a piece , I began by having to trudge through tweets and videos of non-disabled people thinking that Helen Keller was “fake news”, “not real”. And this was a trend. It was awful having to witness this kind of widespread erasure of a life of a disabled woman that is extremely well-documented because people remain unaware of disabled people’s realities. The ignorance (or whatever we want to call it) around the richness of disabled lives is damaging. The invisibility perpetuates a very non-disabled, ableist, pitying understanding of us.
We can only understand experiences of disabled people and our lived realities if we are present in the room and participating. Till date, I sometimes enter workshops or events (not conducted by disability groups) and find negligible numbers of disabled people in the room. Even the Generation Equality Forum that was recently held in Paris, which brought feminists from across the world together to argue for a better future – one with less violence and more access to sexual and reproductive rights – . So if we are not in these rooms, how will our experiences of sexuality, disability, and relationships even be heard? How will we influence those who have limited information on our lives?
SA: In an article online, you have spoken of living with chronic pain due to fibromyalgia and shared this experience, “So when I talk publicly about my pain and mention this ambiguous partner, S, I am asked: ‘Oh what does he do? Oh he knows about your illness? Oh he is still with you?’” Is it possible to revise the way relationships and stereotypes have been constructed? What are your experiences of a different articulation, a different kind of response that can be practiced and adopted instead of these approaches?
SR: So many forces are working together when people make such comments! But I think it comes back to us in society seeing disability/chronic illnesses as a lack and us disabled people as only receivers of care. These perceptions are so strong that we really struggle to imagine that someone who needs care is also capable of providing care. That someone who needs support in their lives can also have other things to offer in the relationship. This coupled with the gendered idea that women are meant to be providers of care makes us think that disabled women can’t find partners or can’t be in loving, thriving relationships. Or maybe that somehow the person who’s with the disabled woman is an exceptional human being. This is the reality for disabled women, though, in classic ways it is patriarchy and ableism bonding together.
I think the responses and perceptions will change alongside social change, when the invisibility reduces. The more vibrant, varied, diverse experiences of disabled people we hear, the chances are our ideas around what is possible will change. Simultaneously, hearing more such experiences also improves the sense of self, self-esteem, confidence and possibilities even for disabled people. We hear a lot from disabled women, “Who will want to be with me or marry me?” The invisibility as well as the stereotypical narratives also harm what disabled people imagine is possible for them. A lot of my work over the years has been to centre the voices and experiences of disabled people – which possibly shifts perceptions or assumptions of non-disabled people about our lives, but primarily it creates spaces and room for our realities; for us to be seen and heard, for us to dream of possibilities and disabled futures. For me, that matters a lot.
Cover Photo: Author