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Of Braille, Fighter Pilots and a Sexuality-Informed Approach to Science

Braille text.

Braille. On the website of The Naked Scientists (thrilled with this name, goes with this theme), the science behind Braille has received focus:

When we move our fingertip over objects such as Braille characters, receptors under the skin produce electrical impulses that race at about 50 meters per second through the nervous system and up towards the brain. This pattern of electrical impulses, a sort of neural Morse code, activates a part of the brain’s parietal lobe – roughly halfway between the forehead and the back of the head. This tactile area of the parietal lobe helps to decode the neural impulses, in order to infer the shapes of the objects that touched the skin.

That’s cool. That’s scientific. Hold that thought for a bit.

What if this month’s theme was art and sexuality? The nude human body leaps to mind, in painting, in stone, in moving image. Somehow the first image that comes to my mind with the word sexuality is still body-based. This is despite the many years of tutoring that I have been exposed to, by friends, by strangers, by the Internet and by my brain as it analyses everyday inputs such as advertising. Sexual beings, sexual expression, who we are, how we identify, and our attitude to sex.

However, this month’s theme is science and sexuality. Science is mind-boggling because the word covers the universe. It’s everything from refraction, through meteors millions of years old, to how and why I think the way I do. Instead of boggling, I have sought inspiration from news involving three sparkling young women, and a workshop I facilitated recently on self and identity with five young people who are visually challenged.

So I return to Braille. But I will take the sexuality approach. This can take me to education. I read on the website of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired that,

Sighted children learn a great deal about sexuality through casual observation. Children with visual impairments cannot see the differences between boys’ and girls’ bodies, various body shapes and sizes, and pregnancy changes. They cannot observe these and other developmental changes over the life cycle. They may have limited knowledge of gender roles and fashions, male-female attractiveness factors, toileting practices, and appropriate displays of affection.

Therefore, in short, you need to have materials for sexuality education that are in Braille.

I Googled the subject of sexuality education for persons with visual impairments in India and found that Voice Vision, an NGO, had held a workshop on the subject of sexuality and intimacy in 2012. This was for adults, not children, and it was conducted in a hospital setting. I do not know if there were materials in Braille for participants. The website of Voice Vision has a matrimonial section so the workshop on sexuality and intimacy seems supportive and appropriate.

The National Association for the Blind provides “Pre-marital counseling workshops for visually challenged women and men of marriageable age”. There is a need for material resources that take advantage of the science behind Braille to approach sexuality. (TARSHI did Braille versions of their sexuality education publication for children, The Red Book, for NAB, many years ago. TARSHI has some sexuality education materials including The Red Book and The Blue Book in DAISY audio format and an audio book on sexuality and relationships called TARSHI Talks for those with print and visual disabilities.)

Elsewhere, in the book Tactile Mind, artist Lisa J. Murphy has “sculpted, thermo formed and self-published a handmade book of nude photographs for the blind. Pictures and grade-one (American) English Braille accompany the images, so blind, vision impaired and sighted individuals can enjoy this work”. Then there’s also Pornhub, in the news recently, for creating a section on its website, the “described video” category, that makes films accessible for service users with visual impairments.

Now, in about 500 words, we have Braille, sexuality education, accessibility, art, pleasure, pornography and diverse practical uses of many different fields of science popping out of the lab and textbook. If we want to see these cross-connections we will; if not, we won’t.

Image taken from

Science can help the visually challenged find sexual expression and pleasure in a porn film experience. This brings their ability to choose these experiences on par with one who is sighted. Science can help you transform the body you are born in to the body that you feel is you. Science can help tip the balance in favour of justice and human rights.

India has crossed a milestone as I write this, as Bhawana, Avani and Mohana become the very first women fighter pilots to be inducted by the Indian Air Force. To most people, this indicates some form of breaking gender barriers, of changing social perceptions.

As I think and write this, I am made keenly aware by voices external and internal, that war and combat are miserably negative experiences in human history. Too much of the world, the greater part of it, is in grief, and suffering the consequences of violence, crimes against humanity, conflict and battle. Amidst these thoughts and voices, I hear Bhawana’s young voice in an interview saying, “Always, always dream big, there is always a way, never give up.” I connect with the spirit underlying the words. At this point in history, the world, including Etawah, Bulandshahr, Kanpur, and Kohlapur in India, and the Republic of Macedonia in the Balkan peninsula, amongst many other locations, is exactly what it is. There is violence, crime, corruption and the misuse of office, power and uniform, by those who will do so. In this same world, there are some women who have sought the option of service through office and uniform in what has traditionally been a man’s world. Manzil Saini, for example, a fiery policewoman in the town of Etawah, B. Chandrakala, District Magistrate in Bulandshahr taking on crime, as does District Magistrate Dr.Roshan Jacob, conducting raids, challenging the corrupt.  Have you ever wished to see the sight of men who sexually harass women running in the other direction as the law catches up with them? Watch Kolhapur ASP Jyotipriya and DSP Vaishali Mane, attempt to create a safe city. In the Republic of Macedonia, Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva, along with colleagues Lence Ristovska, and Fatime Fetai are taking on crime and corrupt politicians and government officials. According to the BBC news report I read, they are inspiring hope and renewed faith amongst ordinary citizens. “They’re the first real glimmer of hope that justice can happen in this country,” says Damian. “Their message is that the law is the law and nobody can go above it and beyond it.”There is a strong connection here between the administrative sciences and sexuality. Perhaps to be explored at another time.

In so many different ways, there are women dreaming big, believing there is a way, and refusing to give up. They choose methods that are in line with their sensibilities and their understanding of life. They must have equal access to the available array of options.

There’s a lot to think about though. In one of the news stories I read about Bhawana, Avani and Mohana, there is a sentence that says,“The IAF had advised the women in March to refrain from motherhood for the next four years.” There are complex intersecting issues here, for today and tomorrow. In Israel, the Air Force allows pregnant pilots and navigators to fly. In the US, an Air National Guard Commander, Stephanie Kelsen, aka ‘Vapor’, got pregnant in her 30s and became one of a rare breed, the pregnant female fighter pilot. Shlomit Levy Bard, a portrait photographer, did a series of photographs with the pregnant Kelsen and used the opportunity to ask her many questions. Levy says, “Looking at the photos of her round belly popping out of a flight suit reminds me that it’s ok to embrace who we are at any given moment – even if pieces of our identity seem as contradictory as a pregnant fighter pilot. Most important is accepting ourselves fully, and that we be present in whatever we are doing.” This story was published in The New York Times, less than a decade ago in 2009, the same year that India’s Vice Chief Air Marshall PKBarbora had spoken against inducting women as fighter pilots, “To give that much of training and not be able to operationally utilise, at this moment in time, I am not talking of tomorrow, may not be prudent.” Well, “tomorrow” is here.

Consider other aspects of the science involved in this story. You need to be basically comfortable when you’re flying a plane. I don’t mean the armchair, beanbag comfort of a Warcraft player,with pizza by your side. I mean the comfort of control in challenging situations. Should I ask whether the Hawk 132 jet trainer’s cockpit is gender neutral? That’s the plane next on the training schedule for these three trailblazers. Google tells me nothing about gender neutrality in the design of these craft.

When I drive a car, my pet peeve is the seat belt designed to cross my torso in a way that makes me want to take a pair of scissors to it and to the person who designed it. That would be a bunch of men. The only name on this list of the history of the seat belt that does not belong to a man – Julie – refers to a TV commercial, in which Julie dies, and not even because she doesn’t wear a seat belt! Watch it, if you like the macabre:

For too long, science has been harnessed by and for male type bodies; at least a lot of science is so.

I live in a country where a woman is allowed to drive a car. Loujain al-Hathloul does not. Therefore, this may not be the right time to question the science behind the seat belt or the plane. Yet, out of interest, I looked at the science of cockpit design. About two decades ago, Rachel Weber in a 1997 article called Manufacturing Gender in Commercial and Military Aircraft Cockpit Design asked:

How are cockpits designed to accommodate women’s bodies?  When is a particular flight deck ‘gender neutral’ and when is male bias embodied in the actual design, in the engineering specifications? How can biased technologies be altered to become more ‘women friendly’? Design bias is not restricted to the military; commercial technologies such as aircraft, automobiles and architecture are also built to accommodate male anthropometry.

I was happy to read that “Now, cockpits are being designed to accommodate from the 1st percentile female physical size and the 99th percentile male size.” Anthropometry and biomechanics focus on human size and dimensions as required for the ergonomical design of products. Found a lovely website that explained anthropometry to me just now. Basically cockpit design today is ready for any occupant, from those who belong to the physical size of one per cent of women (at the lower size end) to those who belong to the physical size of ninety nine per cent of men (at the upper size end). A sort of full spectrum coverage. Now here is where science and sexuality are working together. Ergonomics4schools explains this very well:

If you were designing an aeroplane cockpit, and needed to make sure everyone could reach a particular control, you would choose 5th percentile arm length – because the people with the short arms are the ones who are most challenging to design for. If they could reach the control, everyone else (with longer arms) would be able to.

Cockpit design is not my thing. I spent time reading up the basics of gender-neutral design to understand the connect between science, society and gender. Sometimes, some people try to prove that there are ‘scientific’ reasons for inequality and injustice, for depriving one set of people of the same choices and opportunities that another set of people enjoy. This is not true. Times are changing. ‘Biased technologies’ are being altered. The researcher, the producer and the user of science, they are all increasingly adopting a sexuality-informed approach. Tomorrow is here.

Cover image credit: Stefan Malmesjö (CC BY 2.0)