Pallavi (name changed) was 14-years-old when a field worker from the NGO, Sense International India, discovered her tied inside a cowshed in Jharkhand. She was menstruating and unaware of it; her clothes were soiled. After seeking help from women nearby, the field worker learnt that her mother had abandoned her soon after discovering that she was deaf-blind (a combination of visual and hearing impairments), leaving her with an alcoholic father, who worked as a labourer. This was in 2008.
The same year, the wife of a deaf-blind man approached the NGO, complaining of “problems” in their marriage. She was not differently-abled. The counsellor later found out that her husband would force himself on her, often turning abusive.
These incidents, and general observations that deaf-blind children often act up and throw tantrums as they grow older, and at a certain time every month, made them realise that differently-abled persons were at the risk of not having enough knowledge about their own bodies, let alone sexuality.
“We learn about these things through friends, peers and other media. Persons with disabilities don’t have such accessible information,” said Akhil Paul, director of Sense International India, adding that even caregivers and parents are not equipped to explain this efficiently, especially as talking about sex is still a taboo.
A study the NGO conducted in 2010 on adult deaf-blind individuals from Western, Central and Southern India to assess the situation, noted that because of the stigma associated with disability, the sexual needs of persons with disabilities were “underestimated and largely ignored”.
Noticing the seriousness of the issue, national training of adults with deaf-blindness on ‘self-development – Understanding sexuality, social and emotional needs’ conducted under the Erasmus programme was conceptualised. The workshop for those from the southern region, which kick-started in Bengaluru on Monday, saw 22 deaf-blind participants from Karnataka, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, among others, all aged between 16 and 27.
The first day saw participants being trained in communications, with all of them following varying forms — some sign language, some others (mostly those who developed impairments at a later stage) writing down what they want to say. The following days will see them learning about body and sexuality.
Veena Lakhumalani, social development consultant who will be talking to participants on ‘sex and sexuality’, said first on the agenda is to tell them about the parts of the body, including a body mapping to educate both sexes about the other. “Most people think if a person has disability, they are asexual,” she said, adding that the participants will be taught about menstruation and masturbation, among other things.