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Reflections on accessibility and sexuality

A woman in a wheelchair, smiling, conversing with another woman who is also on a wheelchair. She has long hair pulled to one side, is wearing frameless specks, and is wearing a red and black top.

I thought of myself as a feminist activist much before I formally entered the development sector space. I participated in many protests and the celebrations and attended panels and talks on the different ways that gender and sexuality play out. I avidly consumed the abundance of information that the vast world of the Internet had on offer, and engaged on different social media platforms.

As a temporarily able-bodied (because we may be disabled at any time by an accident or illness), upper-class and upper-caste person, many spaces of accessing sexuality automatically opened up for me. For me, thinking and talking about accessibility came from the comfort of an intellectual exercise, as opposed to the anger, frustration, pain and agony that the lack of accessibility to spaces in which we engage with our sexuality bring to many marginalised communities. Well, that is how privilege operates. It wasn’t without ethical trepidation that I embarked on the process of writing this piece, but, thinking about accessibility is not only the responsibility of the marginalised groups for whom these spaces remain inaccessible, be it physically, financially, socially, and/or culturally, but is a collective one.

At feminist human rights organisation CREA, we work in partnership with many disability rights organisations like Anjali, Sruti Disability Rights Centre, Equals, Point of View, and independent disability rights activists, to conduct trainings and workshops on gender and sexuality with persons with disability. In these workshops we cover a range of issues from understanding the body, to sexual and reproductive health, to dating, relationships, marriage etc.

When the sexuality of women with disability itself is stigmatized and silenced, providing information on sexual and reproductive health and rights is the first step to ensuring access to the tabooed spaces of sexuality. However, let’s say we successfully build understanding on all these issues and the training is over. Now what? That’s the question I have been asking myself. What follows below are reflections based on my interactions with and the work of many disability rights and queer rights activists over the past years.

If dating, relationships, and companionship is seen as an integral part of how we express and exercise our sexuality, where and how is one meeting and interacting with potential partners in real life? If it is through mobile apps, social gatherings, and public spaces, then how accessible are these? How accessible are Tinder, Grindr, Planet Romeo, OKCupid, PinkCupid, etc. (momentarily leaving aside the other issues we may have with them)? How accessible are the neighbourhood parks, bars, coffee shops and restaurants? A report from 2011 indicates that only 3 out of 710 parks in Bangalore city are accessible by wheel chair.

What about our social gatherings, parties and Pride marches? This year both the Bangalore and Mumbai Pride Marches worked towards ensuring that the parades were accessible to those with disability. Social spaces like the ones organised by Inclov and their dating app provide a space for disabled and non-disabled people to find partners. But these instances of accessible spaces for persons with disability, both online and offline, are too few and far between.

This question of accessibility of social spaces is not just a question of ability/disability but also a question of class and caste. Where and when these social spaces are organised largely determines who can access them and who cannot. If queer parties are organised in fancy hotels with cover charges and take place late in the night, how many working-class queer folk can participate? Who can pay the cover charge, who can feel comfortable accessing a place which screams upper-class and upper-caste, who are the people who can stay out late at night without the fear of backlash from their families and who have the luxury of safe transportation to go back home?

An event organised at the American Centre in New Delhi this May by the Humsafar Trust on the occasion of IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia), called Sweekar – Towards LGBT Acceptance was yet another grim reminder of how the choice of venues can be severely counter-productive to the espoused cause. It took the pain and efforts of many trans rights activists to call out the event organisers for requiring a government ID with the “real name” of the participant for registration, reinforcing feelings of dysphoria many trans people have with their assigned names, one of the foremost issues an event on LGBT acceptance should be sensitive about.

What about accessing sexual and reproductive health? Think back to your last visit to your gynaecologist. Did you notice a ramp leading up to the clinic? Were the instruments and procedures disability-friendly? Was the different information on contraception and other services accessible in Braille? What about the examination table – was the height adjustable? If the examination table/bed is not accessible, the only options are to either conduct the examination on the wheelchair, which can never be a thorough examination, or to transfer the person to the table with the help of other staff, which can often be an undignified and humiliating experience. In fact, breast and cervical cancer screening become difficult in the cases of women with mobility impairments, because examination tables are not height-adjustable and mammography equipment only accommodates women who are able to stand.[1]

What about the various information platforms from where we discover many new aspects of our sexuality? Are the materials that we create on sexual and reproductive health and rights accessible? What about popular media? If we agree that the media – social media, print, films, other audio-visual material, etc. – inform and shape the way we engage with and come to understand our sexuality, are these media accessible? Most of the material that is available online is in PDF format. We use many graphics, visuals and audio content in the materials that we generate. However, PDFs cannot be accessed by screen readers (doc and html format are more accessible), graphics seldom contain an image description and most often we overlook providing captioning for video and audio description. There is no dearth of information on how access can be ensured for online and offline material and service providers to assist you with it.

Have we considered that the nature of the material we put out, if it relates to sexual violence, could cause intense discomfort and possibly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-related issues for many, and that we should therefore use trigger warnings at the beginning of our content? It took me my own personal breakdown at a workshop to realize the debilitating effect some of the content we use could have on participants and how important it is to have trigger warnings for people to prepare themselves and decide if they would like to view or opt out of watching the content.

And the language we use in all of this, is that accessible? When was the last time you went for talk or a meeting on sexuality without a single speaker using the academic language of “pedagogies”, “non-normative”, “deconstruct”, “Butler”, “Foucault”, and the like? Who can understand this language? Somebody with a university-level education, would be my guess. The next question then is, who can access university-level education? These are only some of the many ways in which our spaces for talking about and engaging with our own sexualities continue to be limiting.

However, the most oft-used excuse against ensuring accessibility in our work is that it is expensive. I would like to leave you with two thoughts which were shared by Shampa Sengupta, a gender and disability rights activist. The first is that accessibility can be expensive only when we are thinking of revamping an existing set-up which is inaccessible in the first place. If universal design[2] is followed and accessibility is thought of and introduced right from conception, the processes are not that cost heavy. The second is that accessibility, like any other service, is a question of demand and supply. If it is only disability rights groups who are raising the question of accessibility, be it of venues or of other services, chances are that people will charge a higher price. However, if we all take on accessibility as a collective responsibility and refuse to engage with spaces and services which are not accessible, we could together ensure that service providers start taking accessibility seriously. This could be a start in making the myriad ways in which we engage with our sexuality more inclusive.

[1] This following link leads to the Factsheet on disability and health by World Health Organisation (WHO)

[2] Section 2(ze) of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, defines Universal Design as “the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design and as being applicable to assistive devices including advanced technologies for particular group of persons with disabilities.”

इस लेख को हिंदी में पढ़ने की लिए यहाँ क्लिक करें।

Cover Image: Inclov Meetup – Social Spaces