Young Indians With Disabilities Share Their Dating Stories

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A few years ago, 34-year-old entrepreneur and disability rights activist Nipun Malhotra and his date were reprimanded in front of a disabled toilet by staff at a major Delhi hotel. “A guest had probably complained that my date and I were inside together. We were asked what we were doing, although the staff probably knew we were kissing! Although Malhotra was not sure From what her date felt like after being with a disabled man and caught red-handed in front of a hotel bathroom, it was an unforgettable episode. “Looking back, I thought the incident was funny”, Malhotra said.

Diagnosed with arthrogryposis, a congenital disease that causes joint contracture, and linked to a wheelchair, Malhotra admits that most people tend to see him as the face of disability activism, not the- of the. “I have rarely been asked about dating issues with a disability. For the most part, people write to me to inquire about work-related opportunities. Maybe they don’t see me as someone to turn to for dating or dating advice.

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While dating is not a level playing field in India, people with disabilities (PWD) find themselves in a unique place. For most people with disabilities, dating in an urban Indian city involves several challenges, starting with finding like-minded people through apps, networking events, mixers, and more. The challenges are greater when it comes to marking dates and converting them into something between a specter of a one-night stand to a long-term relationship due to the lack of inclusive spaces, accessibility and equal opportunities. The obstacles are also worse for those with invisible disabilities.

Every situation is an opportunity

A genetic blood disease that affects the production of red blood cells, thalassemia is considered an invisible disability which was mostly unknown in India until the 1980s. Shobha Tuli, for example, secretary of Thalassemics India, was invited by her doctor to plan another child in the 1970s during her consultation for her child Thalassaemic Major. “The doctor couldn’t offer any hope,” she said. Over the past four decades, a collective effort by the medical fraternity, government officials, NGOs, parents and families of adult thalassemia patients in India resulted in the disease being classified as a “disability” in 2016. This resulted in the disease being classified as a “disability”. also mobilized conversations around the life of thalassemic adults in the country.

“Thalassemics India holds conferences every four years and takes children abroad to international gatherings. They went to Italy, Singapore, Cyprus, among other countries, ”explains Tuli. “The idea is to ensure networking opportunities and give them confidence in themselves. Malhotra, who is single and casually dates into the NCR, agrees that conferences are generally a good place to meet and get to know other people.

Pathankot-based Danish Mahajan, 33, co-founder of Radio Udaan, a community radio run by the visually impaired, says dating isn’t always the biggest obstacle. “People make friendships with people with disabilities and make a connection out of them. The trouble starts when the disabled person wants to make a marriage out of it, ”he says. “This is usually when the able-bodied partner looks for an exit.” He mentions “family pressure” as a common excuse they give when they break up.

Since 2018, Mahajan and the volunteers of Radio Udaan organize “meetings” for the visually impaired in Indian subways. “In the pre-covid era, we were having an event in a city and people from all over were traveling to participate. From the covid, appointments are organized via Zoom, and are free for everyone ”. Mahajan introduced members of the community to each other and many were successful in turning friendships into marriages. “I am personally responsible for organizing weddings between 12 couples,” he says.

The challenges are greater when it comes to marking dates and converting them into anything between the specter of a one-night stand and a long-term relationship.
(Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.)


But is marriage the answer?

Preeti Monga, 67, a pioneer in the empowerment of visually impaired girls and women in her Delhi NGO Silver Linings, responds categorically no to the above question. “Most visually impaired girls are considered a disability. They are rarely sent to study and even if they are educated you don’t see them working in offices, ”she says. “They are deprived of contact with the outside world and are sexually curious and repressed, which makes these women easy targets for violent men. Some are molested, others raped and disowned by their families.

Monga, who herself is visually impaired and has worked in the field for almost 30 years, paints a grim picture of the attitude of society towards dating people with disabilities. “In rural areas even today, I see families marrying their able-bodied daughters to a man and sending their disabled daughters as free goods. The husband is allowed to do whatever he wants with the disabled sister.

Monga organizes mixers and allows admission on one condition: if you are disabled, you must bring an able-bodied person, and vice versa. “I make sure that the ratio of disabled to able-bodied participants is always 50-50. Everyone is encouraged to talk and mingle, which helps able-bodied people learn to be more inclusive with people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. The connections forged here have endured and those who met at these mixers now frequently schedule group sessions, travel together, and keep in touch regularly.

It is difficult to disrupt the status quo. Rituparna Borah, 40, co-founder and co-director of Nazariya: A Queer Feminist Resource Group, mentions flaws in the queer community’s “system” when it comes to dating and marriage. “As the issues of invisible disability remain ‘invisible’, society as a whole assumes and designs notions about general well-being, including sexual health,” she says. “A partner left me because he believed I was lying about my invisible conditions. I was criticized for not loving them sexually as I struggled for my health both physically and mentally.

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WHO estimates that more than a billion people around the world live with a disability. In India, the population of people with disabilities is 26.8 million, and like most other countries around the world, people living with invisible chronic diseases are not listed in this data.

Borah identifies as an Indigenous, disabled, cis, queer woman with chronic health conditions including fibromyalgia, posterior tibial tendon dysfunction, and bipolar disorder. Fibromyalgia is not recognized as a disability by the Indian government. The condition is not generally mentioned and concerns remain unanswered. “Even within the queer community, the idea of ​​networking or mixing includes going to parties and drinking, when people with disabilities, including me, can’t drink because of our meds and can’t stay outside,” Borah said. “Dating space is limited for queer women, and queer women with disabilities suffer more because there is virtually no room to accommodate them. “

Even in cities, dating apps rarely meet the needs of people with disabilities. Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, and most other apps work on the sweep principle based on physical attractiveness. Founded by Kalyani Khona in 2014, Inclov from India was the world’s first inclusion-focused matchmaking app for people with and without disabilities. They hosted offline events, which had a positive impact on people with disabilities, but the app closed in 2019, once again leaving a void in the digital dating space.

Even in cities, dating apps rarely meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Even in cities, dating apps rarely meet the needs of people with disabilities.
(Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.)


Changing landscape

At 14, a mysterious illness afflicted Virali Modi and put her in a coma for 23 days. “I have been pronounced dead three times,” she said. When she finally came to her senses, she was paralyzed up to the neck. After spending nearly 15 years in a wheelchair, Modi, now 30, identifies as a “body positivity and lifestyle influencer” and promotes debates and discourse on well-being. be sexual. The focus of its outreach is largely on inclusiveness by dismantling taboos and notions around the bodies of people with disabilities.

“The idea is that society looks at us and accepts that it has made us ‘disabled’ by not including us,” she says. An incident of sexual harassment at a train station in Mumbai prompted Modi to encourage able-bodied people to be more inclusive of people with disabilities and not to view them as “incapable of being sexual beings” or as “sex objects”. “I speak openly about sex and try to dispel the noise around all of the inspirational porn being peddled around those with disabilities,” Modi said of her work on Instagram.

Having had relationships in the past, she uses examples from her life and turns them into thinking heads for her content. His videos are candid with ironic humor. In one, she clearly explains how the family of an ex-boyfriend reported the problem to her: “How are you going to have sex? To which she replies, “Is sex only possible when you are standing?”

Likewise, Vaishnevi, 24-year-old make-up artist and theater practitioner with Thalassemia Major, does not want to be reduced to her “disabled status”. Although she lives with an invisible disease, she has always been open about it with her exes. They supported her, even accompanied her to the hospital during the blood transfusions. But she doesn’t want to be a handicap.

“After I turned 18, I did not allow my parents to accompany me to the hospital and I left alone. It’s important for me not to overload people, which appeals to me when I’m looking for a partner on dating apps, ”she says.

Dealing with chronic illness while being open and honest with a partner is tricky, but not impossible to manage. Borah says that when her current partner moved in with her before the lockdown in March 2020, she worried about how she would respond to her chronic illness. “She took it well and although I had a past trauma of living with someone who had been less than kind to my condition, my partner made me feel comfortable at all times and made me feel comfortable. accepted for who I am. “

Anisha Saigal is a writer and entertainment and culture researcher from New Delhi.

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