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Kama sutra & wheelchair

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A wheelchair limits my ability to move in what you would consider the standard sexual ways. . .
How can I help my schizophrenic partner and make our relationship work better?
Can I conceive even if I have a disability?

While there has been some awareness about the rights of the disabled with regard to issues like employment and wheelchair access, the sexual rights of disabled women are rarely articulated in public. Now, a new website has decided to strip away the silence.

The dynamics and mechanics of sex, the biological need to have a child, and the complexities of an intimate relationship are some of the subjects that this website takes a frank look at. Created on the premise that women who are disabled are sexual beings like other women, the website, sexualityanddisability. org, is a collaboration between CREA, a feminist human rights organisation that promotes and protects sexual rights of all people, and Point of View (POV), a nonprofit that brings the voices of women into multiple domains through media, art and culture.

The realisation that the sexual rights of disabled women had not been counted - either by the women's movement or by disability groups - came about during a conference held in Nepal, says Bishakha Datta of POV. "My perspective changed as disabled women explained that their needs had been totally neglected because they were viewed through the lens of pity, charity or sympathy, " she says. "My colleagues and I spoke with disability and women's groups and we agreed there was a definite need to bridge the gap. "

A thorough online search revealed there was no definitive website on the subject except a few blogs and forums. "We asked ten women to become informal advisors, " says Datta. "A lawyer told us to design a website accessible to the blind. With the expertise of Barrier Break Technologies (a firm that tests and assists with software to make a website disabled-friendly ) we were able to do this, thereby making a contribution we had never thought about. "

There were other challenges. How to strike the right balance - not to compartmentalise the users as disabled but address them as regular women with ordinary needs. Also, how should one discuss a subject so intimate and sensitive without being patronising. Datta says that once again they reached out to people with some experience in disability issues. "Since people with disabilities are not really comfortable discussing issues with traditional sex therapists and counsellors, we sought inputs from counsellors attached to disability groups, " she says. "For example, there is a lot of decision-making involved where the subject of mental health and sexuality is concerned, so we sought advice from Anjali Mental Health Rights Organisation of Kolkata who explained that mental illness is an arc, ranging from mild to severe, and, therefore, there are no uniform answers. "

Another challenge lies in how sexually explicit one can or needs to be. "There's no point in using euphemisms and conveying the wrong impression but we don't want people to reject the site because it is too explicit, " says Datta.

This ability to say it all without offending anyone has been brilliantly captured with graphics of wheelchair sex that feature on the website. "The message going out is that being in a wheelchair, not being able to see or hear should not be a deterrent to having a sexual life or having a relationship. The graphics have been reproduced with permission from a website - www. streatsie. com - which bills itself as a site where all cool wheelchair people hang out, " says Datta.

Another challenge is to consider specifics when looking at different kinds of disabilities but not push it too much. This balancing act has been achieved by deliberately making navigation not on the basis of categorisation of disabilities, but providing information constructed around a bunch of questions that a disabled woman might face. The idea of the Q&A with active links to blogs, websites or books is to make it much more personal and interactive. Interspersed with the information are first-person narratives (My Story) which bring out the complexities of issues.

The website is divided into five sections - the body, relationships, having sex, having a child and dealing with violence. There are also different channels of information - for families, for partners, for doctors and for organisations.

This construction enables specifics of different disabilities to be addressed without compartmentalisation. For example, visually-impaired Neha Pavaskar pens her account of how she proved in court that she could raise her adopted child even though she could not see him. A hearing-impaired woman asks what she can do when male colleagues stare at her oddly and talk among themselves.

Deepak Kashyap, counsellor and sex expert, addresses not just the general questions of having sexual relations but also of getting creative despite an impairment. He addresses specifically issues of those who have limited movements and may have bladder or bowel control problems.

This format also enables a wide spectrum of subjects and issues to be addressed, from a mother's concern because her adolescent, mentally challenged daughter is masturbating in public to handling one's periods, from fears of inadequacy as a partner to questions on how one socialises.

The content, written up by a team of three - Datta, Richa and Nidhi Garima Goyal - draws largely from published material like The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability and a book on health.

Nidhi, who is visually handicapped, came to her job already keenly aware of the need for sexual rights and rights to protection of disabled women. Her work, she says, was challenging because few women in India will talk openly about sex but she was able to raise the subject whilst talking about relationships. "Since I am impaired myself I could understand what the women were saying and so I could bring out the first-person narrative stories better. It was emotionally moving for me to hear the dilemmas of women with disability - right from Shanoor Forbes, 67 and a quadriplegic, who has been the most open in sharing how she coped and continued intimate relations with her husband with a body that is different, to Shirin Juwaley who was disfigured after an acid attack. "

But it has also been fun. For the 'feeling good' section, she and the others sought a number of inputs from those who conduct aqua therapies to a great piece on dancing. Nidhi, who goes salsa dancing, sends out the message that anyone can go dancing - from wheelchair head bops to the hearing impaired who can feel the rhythm of dancing feet on the floor.

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