“People with disability are considered to not have any sexual urges - almost asexual. Why do we exclude them while discussing sexuality?” begins Amba Salelkar who heads the Chennai-based organisation 'Equals, Centre for Promotion of Social Justice'.
We are at the ‘Skin Stories: Love. Desire. Disability’, an inclusive film screening event that seeks to dispel the fog and the insensitive assumptions surrounding disability and sexuality. The festival begins with This is Normal, a 20-minute short film directed by Justin Giddings and Ryan Welsh, that shows a hearing-impaired woman and her choice to undergo an experimental medical procedure. How this affects her and those around her forms the crux of the story. A number of eager faces walk into the theatre, some are guided and a few others manoeuvre their wheelchairs up the ramp.
The day-long film festival was held at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) in Chennai on March 3. Conceived and spearheaded by Mumbai-based Point of View, an organisation that builds and amplifies the voices of women with disability, the festival in Chennai was the replication of a similar festival that was held in Mumbai this February.
The foundation for this initiative, however, was laid in 2016 at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) when Point of View collaborated with MIFF to play a film, Tuhi Mera Sunday, with live audio description. Srinidhi Raghavan, Senior Researcher and Trainer at Point of View, says that the idea was to allow persons with visual impairment to enjoy films. “We also had subtitles for those with hearing impairment and the same was done again the next year for Ektara Collective’s Turup. We are hoping to keep such spaces accessible," she says.
Point of View had curated a set of films that touch upon disability and sexuality. The festival in Mumbai was a longer version of the one in Chennai. “Chennai, with its love for cinema and its vibrant disability sector, was the ideal choice to feature this festival next,” explains Amba.
The festival’s Chennai edition had two sessions and screened four films while accommodating two panel discussions. “120 people had registered for the event which was very encouraging for us. While a few couldn't make it, a lot of them want us to do this again,” says Amba.
Unrest, a documentary shot by Jennifer Brea on her life following the diagnosis of M.E. (commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), Awake a 22-minute existential comedy directed by Michael Actman featuring two blind women and The Sessions, a 2012 feature film that threw open a whole new debate of sexual surrogacy and the importance of it, were the films screened in Chennai.
L to R: Dr Aiswarya Rao, Poonam Natarajan and Nidhi Goyal | Picture Courtesy: Facebook/ Point of View
The panel discussions at the end of the sessions had experts talking about ‘gender roles, chronic illnesses and mental health’ and ‘the importance of a sexual surrogate’ (a person who initiates sexual experience for someone with disability).
Dr Aiswarya Rao, who runs a shelter for women, says that women with disability are very open when it comes to talking about sexuality. “I’ve been working in the area of sexuality for over 19 years and in my experience, I have found that women have never considered sexuality a taboo. In fact, they’ve been very eager to discuss, given a platform.”
She goes on to add that while men have a lot of misconceptions when it comes to sex, women are far more invested and inquisitive. “Sexuality comes with responsibility for women. Every event of sexual encounter is a risk taking for women - inside or outside of a marriage. In order to keep them well informed, we’ve been conducting a number of programmes in places like Kancheepuram, Madurai, Trichy, etc,” she says.
The basic needs of persons with disability are often overseen. That being the case, a platform to encourage a healthy sexual dialogue for those with disability is a welcome move. “While movements such as Me Too are encouraging, women with disability are left out of this discussion. If you're a middle-aged woman, there are people who ask you about marriage but the same does not apply to someone with disability. People are often doubtful if someone with disability can have a normal sex life,” says Amba.
“We’ve got a lot of encouragement from parents who have questions on their child reaching puberty and how to handle their sexual urges in a healthy way. We want to show sex-positive stories that could encourage a healthy dialogue among people,” says Amba.
Nidhi Goyal who heads the Sexuality and Disability Program at Point of View says that the idea of such initiatives is to extend the reach of their programme to the grassroots. “These are intimate and personal conversations and a woman with disability does not live in isolation. We hope to change the environment in which a disabled woman lives," she says.
Nidhi goes on to add that mainstream Indian cinema hasn't had any film address the disability and sexuality conversation (with the exclusion of Margarita with a Straw). “And by sexuality conversations, I don't mean that we have to show someone with disability as very desperate. Longing is a form of sexuality which we show so openly in our films but why do we make a big deal out of disability and sexuality? Because the problem is calling it sexuality and engaging it with disability. Mainstream cinema does not have to think about it as a disability story. We have to make a film on love and make the character disabled. That has to change.”
So how is the response for this initiative so far?
“Even without disability, people hesitate when talking about sexuality and sex. Even though we can see that it's starting, it's not translating into policies. What kind of sex education are we making available in special schools or what kind of conversations are parents having with their children with disabilities? Are we encouraging people with disabilities to date? Although it is mostly among privileged groups, we can see that the dialogue has started,” says Amba.