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Love in the time of paraplegia
Looks, caste and class - the narrow barometer of eligibility is replaced with intellectual compatibility, emotional resonance, and sometimes even physical parity when the differently-abled look for companionship.
They call it 'falling in love' precisely because you stumble into it and don't deliberately plan the fall, love is accidental, not intentional, " says Oliver D'souza. He's 27, lean, handsome but believes he will never find love. "Growing up, I always imagined I'd meet someone one day, but then the accident happened. " In 2005, Oliver fell through the roof of a shed and injured his spine. His mobility has since been assisted by a wheelchair. "Following the accident, all hopes for love and partnership left, " he says plainly.
It's ironic that the loss of a limb makes a man less desirable, less worthy of love, when they say love is blind. If the millions lacking one or other faculty settle for a life without love because they waited and didn't see it coming, love isn't blind, it's narrow-eyed, calculating and opportunistic.
Love may be hard to come by for many, but for the disabled it has always been decidedly elusive. Particularly in India, where the next best thing after love - partnership - has a price whose currency (caste and cash) accretes another variable: mental and physical fitness. This is why parents with disabled children looked for an equal alliance (if they looked for one at all), seeking out blind for the blind and deaf for the deaf, as they would with caste and class. Compatibility was the argument. As for the disabled seeking out their own partners - how could they, when for so long, the majority of them were concealed beneath the kitchen sink?
All that's changing, Oliver should know. Just like the mainstream is gradually opening up to accommodate the disabled through bigger educational and employment windows, it's similarly migrating to more progressive ground where the heart is concerned. This truth is borne out not just by the proliferation of special needs dating sites and community groups online, but also backed by people in the business of betrothals. Gourav Rakshit, business head of Shaadi. com says attitudes are slowly turning. "When we conducted our annual Partner Preference survey in 2009, we asked the respondents if a physical disability in a prospective partner would be a deterrent in their final choice of marriage. While the majority said it would, a sizeable lot (35. 76 per cent of men, and 8 per cent of women) said it wouldn't. Surprisingly men seemed more open to the idea than women, " he reveals. This was the first year the website slipped the question into the survey.
If social acceptability is rising, it's mainly because mobility (physical and virtual) has expanded the empire of the mind.
WHEN LOVE CALLS
Here's a story about a disabled couple who wouldn't be corralled into singlehood or an arranged alliance. K Siddesh lost his vision at 18. At 22, his family tried to marry him to a relative much younger and less educated than he was. He refused - being unprepared for marriage at the time, and aware of the risk of siring a blind child if married to a blood relative. He'd drawn up a mental image of his future wife - she had to be intellectually compatible with him and preferably disabled to better empathise with his condition. In 2005, love came by way of a new cell phone. He'd asked a friend at work to put him in touch with people who might be interested in being phone pals. He was routed through to Sridevi Kodekal, whom polio had consigned to crutches. "From December 22 to January 16, we spoke every day on the phone. Jan 17 was the first time we met - then too accidentally, " says Siddesh, from Bangalore. Four months after their first date - at Karnataka's state bus terminal no less - they were married in Sridevi's village. "My father was concerned, cautioning me about how my ideals might soon give way under the practical difficulties of having a visually impaired husband, but I told him I was willing to take that risk, " says Sridevi. She is an employee at Infosys, and he is a medical transcriptioner. "We hadn't invited anyone to the wedding, but out of curiosity, the whole village showed up, " she chuckles. "Our physical deficiencies were of no concern to us, we matched each other in heart and mind and that was all. We've been married four years now, and never once felt the other was disabled. "
MORE ABLE THAN MOST
Disability may not be a problem for those involved, but sometimes society's views can be overwhelming. When Sanjana, an ablebodied girl wanted to date Ravi (names changed on request), she was attracted by his charm;his paraplegia made no difference to her. They were studying for their MBA when Sanjana, a looker herself, won Ravi over despite his reluctance to believe she was in for the long haul. "She was more mature than most girls her age, " Ravi says. They became the campus 'it' couple. She drove him around before he learnt to drive himself, helping him in and out of the car with his wheelchair. He improved his grades, participated in dramatics, and she volunteered at the local school for the disabled with him. While her family was initially pleased with their friendship, when it came to marriage, they objected and eventually, divided between her love and family, she chose the latter. "She had lost her father, and being the eldest, had to support the family, " says Ravi in her defence. Even though he was well-educated, employed and entirely independent, it didn't cut ice with Sanjana's family who, like most conventional families, expect a man to figuratively and literally stand on his feet.
"I've been through a terrible time, but never gave up the hope of leading a complete life. I've beaten all odds to reach where I am today - totally independent, physically and financially, " he says, "But the irony is when it comes to relationships, I'm just a disabled person in society's eyes, even though a relationship is about love, commitment, dedication and devotion, and physical impairment is a small issue if other faculties are intact. " At 26, Ravi runs an NGO called the Breaking Barriers Foundation for the welfare of the disabled, and continues to be in love with Sanjana.
It's not an intransigent moon that moves the tides. Radical shifts in perspectives, in social sanctions will follow the example of people who dare to love differently. It turns out there are many of those. Monika Arora's husband lost the use of his legs two years into their marriage when he, like Oliver, fell through a roof performing community service. Monica was advised by friends to divorce Rahul and remarry. "But what if the accident had happened to me?" she reasoned. She fortunately had a supportive family, and a resolute husband who helped her keep it together. "People grumbled when I took Rahul out to parties, they felt uncomfortable around a man in a wheelchair, but I was adamant. If they wanted me, they were going to have him, " she says from Delhi. They've been married nine years, and have travelled the world with their son Rishab.
Ask around, and they'll tell you love and partnership are essentially the same at heart, no matter the body, although some believe that equal bodies broker better empathy. "I do not believe the blind should only marry the blind, " says Deon Boshoff, a blind man in South Africa, married to a sighted woman for 26 years. Deon provokes deep thought on the forums of Inclusive Planet - a virtual network of blind and visually impaired people administered from Bangalore. "In some schools, blind children are being influenced to find a sighted life partner. Although this is practical, I still believe that love is the most important in marriage. On the other hand, if a blind person is lucky enough to get married to a sighted person whom he/she really loves and can get along with, the chances of a successful marriage may even be better, " he says. The trick is really to mix with people and make friends with them. "There is a certain amount of love in every relationship, every friendship, and you cannot know in which direction that love will grow, not before you start the friendship. Don't go out looking for love, allow it to find you. "
IN THE WORDS OF A DEAF MAN | CHANDRAMOULI KS SASTRY
I work in the Indian Air Force which is about 6 km from the deaf school where I studied. I used to come to volunteer at the school after office hours. At the school I met Asha, a clerkcum-typist, who was also deaf. We introduced ourselves and learned about each other through sign language. We started sending letters and birthday cards to show our love. (This is because at that time we had no access to computers. )
Months later, I visited Asha's house and talked to her parents. After some visits, her mother asked me if I would marry her. I told her to ask my parents for permission and blessings. At first my parents were opposed to this alliance because they believed that if I married a girl of similar disability, the offspring would be disabled. But I was not convinced. Also I was not prepared to marry a hearing girl chosen by my parents or relative(s) because I feel a hearing girl could be forced into marrying a deaf guy like me. Besides this, hearing people do not know much about deaf language and culture.
Many of my relatives supported my choice and my parents finally relented. Asha and I were married in May 1998, nine years after we first met at the school! We were blessed with a son without knowing that he was deaf from birth. When the baby was five months old, he was sent for computer-assisted hearing test, which showed him to be deaf. We were shocked. Our relatives and friends did not blame me or my wife. . . they wholeheartedly accepted this hearing disabled boy as if he was their own son!!
As I am educated (I finished BCom) I am confident I can educate my son. After two years in deaf school, my son, Deepak, is studying in a hearing school - DAV Public School in Std 6. In the evenings, I help him in his studies. And my wife is very supportive. All three of us (my wife, my son and myself) enjoy talking with one another, we enjoy making decisions related to our needs in sign language. We also argue with each other in sign. We manage to forgive and forget and make amends. This is how we manage to live together as a happy family.
For the disabled, the internet is the new Love Boat. Dating and matrimonial sites have cropped up with the agenda of narrowing the soulmate search. Dating4Disabled. com is a popular site administered in Israel with thousands of profiles from around the world, including posts by able-bodied people truly catholic in their search for love. "The site was launched four and half years ago, when the idea of a dating site for the disabled was brand new, " writes Merrly Kaplan, customer care manager, in an email. "Despite the existence of 650 million disabled worldwide, there had not been any niche dating sites where people, brilliant people, of all classes, colours, religions and beliefs, all sharing a life challenge - or disability, could meet and feel accepted. Friendships have been formed and weddings have taken place between members who met in the halls of this site. "
In India, we skip dating, and cut right to the altar with matrimonial sites. While Bharat Matrimony launched abilitymatrimony. com this year, with claims to 55, 000 profiles and 15 matches, Shaadi. com says four per cent of its general member pool comprises people with mental and/or physical disabilities. It's a point to note that special needs sites dispense with caveats of class and caste, in their stead is the bodily equivalent - type of disability.
Those looking to mingle, but not yet marry, circulate on social networking sites like Inclusive Planet, which allows people (in this case, mainly the blind and visually impaired) to share dating (even kissing) advice, examine relationships in the light of their disability and post such posers as 'How important is the practical, compared to the emotional? Would a guy in a wheelchair make a good match for a girl who is blind? How important is beauty to a blind person?'
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