In September last year, Antara Telang, a young girl from Mumbai wrote a blog post based on her experience of trying to find a potential companion on the dating-app Tinder. Telang is an amputee, having lost one foot after an accident, at the age of 18. Her post was upbeat and humourous, and while she admits that there were those whose comments were insensitive, it ended with her saying how being on the app helped her regain her self-esteem and made her realize that she was not undateable, just because she wears a prosthetic leg. “Not all women with disabilities, however, fall under one umbrella. My general mobility has not been affected by the accident” says Telang, adding, “There are those who suffer from more severe mobility restrictions. For them to go out and find a match is more difficult,” she says.
To begin with, the women themselves suffer from low self-esteem. “It’s because of the charitable way that society looks at you. Women with disabilities don’t fit the conventional norms of beauty or expectations that society has from a woman,” says inclusive design consultant Shivani Gupta. She is wheelchair bound. Agrees Nidhi Goyal, a disability rights and gender justice activist based in Mumbai. “In our society a woman is supposed to be sarva gun sampanna. The same is not expected of a man. You find more men with disabilities in a relationship than women with disabilities,” she says.
Often the girls’ families subscribe to the collective feeling. In one of her blogs, Goyal talks of how in a country where arranged marriages are still the norm for many, while parents are keen to have their other children “settled”, they will not take the initiative to get their disabled daughters married.
“In our society a woman is supposed to be sarva gun sampanna. The same is not expected of a man. You find more men with disabilities in a relationship than women with disabilities”
However, Kolkata-based disability rights activist Shampa Sengupta feels that the stigma against a disabled woman is ironically more pronounced in cities. Some states have a system under which a monetary grant is paid to a disabled spouse, and among the economically weaker section, the money can be a lure. As Delhi-based disability rights activist Anjlee Agarwal says, “Many marry for the money and then leave the women”. Physical abuse and infidelity are also common, she adds. Agarwal gives two examples. “In one of the cases, when the wife who was disabled got pregnant, she asked her sister to come and help her manage the house. The husband got into a relationship with the sister and told his wife that she would either have to accept the relation or move out. Because of the baby she decided to stay back. There was another case I know of, where a disabled woman was routinely beaten by her husband. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she approached the police, but the police told her to adjust because who would look after her otherwise,” adds Agarwal.
Technology hasn’t changed much and online dating or matrimonial sites haven’t made finding a partner necessarily easy. “I suffer from low visibility. How will I check out the profiles of the people there or interact with them? Most of the sites are not voice coded. Like most public spaces, these sites too are not disabled friendly,” says Goyal. There are a some sites, specifically for the disabled, but most women feel that such segregation is unfair. There is also a gap between dating and marrying, for that is a commitment which involves the family and society at large. Gupta dated for ten years before she got married. “Somehow the confidence to marry was not there. And when I did get married, it was a shock. You become so used to not being accepted, that you begin to expect that. It is a shock when you get accepted,” she says. Bengaluru-based Meenu Bhambhani is married with a child. “I got married when I was 39, after dating for about six-and-a-half years. But till I was 33, no one had befriended me or looked at me as a potential partner,” she says.
There is a distance between the disabled and the so-called “normal” world. “There is little awareness about the disabled. Most people lack the social etiquette required to engaged with the disabled. They are seen either as pitiable or superhumans, the normal things of everyday life are not associated with them. They are out of social things like dating,” says Goyal. She adds. “Even in popular culture such as films their depiction is aimed to evoke either pity or terror. I liked Margarita With A Straw simply because it started a discourse around women with disabilities and their sexuality. There is another coming up, the Hrithik Roshan-starrer Kabil. But I wonder why they don’t cast disabled actors for such roles. It is easier for them to imitate and engage. Unless we get used to engaging with the disabled, how will be accept them in our personal space, in relationships, that is the final acceptance.”
Disclaimer: The features often use the word disabled instead of differently abled since many feel the latter is just a euphemism that makes no qualitative difference to their lives