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Sexuality and Disability India

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Kiran sits on a wheelchair and reads from a piece of paper in his hands. Two women stand near by and look at him smiling.

Understanding the challenges faced by the Deaf community

Before we begin, we request all the participants to get into two groups. We will need one volunteer from each group. There are some chits of paper with us. The volunteer from each group will be asked to use lip movements (sans voice) as their group attempts to guess what’s written in the chit. Next, we will ask other volunteers who will then use gestures to explain the sentences written on the chits. All of this will be timed.

As volunteers tried hard to explain what the words and sentences were, it took a lot of effort on the part of their groups also to guess what was written on the chits. Even then, most guesses were with either incomplete or incorrect. After all the permitted attempts were exhausted and as participants’ frustration soared, the task demonstrated how gestures, signing and coordination are difficult and time-consuming.

Kanika and Sunita, who are trainers at V-Shesh, an impact enterprise which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities at the workplace, conducted this activity at our first National Train the Trainers workshop on Sexuality and Disability.

Through this light-hearted task, the message was clear: it was now time for all of us to understand the challenges faced by the hearing impaired.

As per the 2011 census, there are over 50 lakh hearing-impaired people in India, of which over 4 lakh are children. Why is this sizeable community left behind?

‘One of the reasons is that deafness, which is a communication disability is often misunderstood due to its invisibility as it cannot be seen. It is recognised late in children and considered as a developmental issue,” said Kanika, who is hearing impaired.

This delay in the identification of deafness leads to lack of cognitive development as many parents do not have the skills or the knowledge to address the specific needs of their hearing impaired children. Additionally, lack of systematic early intervention programmes in India leads to the further marginalisation of the hearing impaired who are not only subjected to disabling social structures but also experience loneliness due to a communication vacuum.

‘A deaf child may have an IQ similar to a non-disabled kid but the lack of accessible information, study material will affect the child’s cognitive development. Since there is a communication issue, the child is often considered to have an intellectual disability. This adds another layer of marginalisation, of loneliness where a deaf person is unable to express their feelings,’ Kanika added.

Among other social challenges is also the fear of safety among parents, which restricts children from stepping out and understanding the world, and may further aggravate loneliness.

Come puberty, and sexuality becomes an important issue to address. Like anyone else, the hearing-impaired too are sexual beings. However, they face many barriers, such as the lack of exposure, inaccessible knowledge, over-protective parents and guardians, and organisational gatekeeping among others. This resounding gap may result in their sexuality being denied, silenced and abused.

Attraction is common among teenagers and they want to explore their bodies but the lack of comprehensive sexuality education is a major challenge to them experiencing safe sex and sexuality.

‘Pregnancy rates are higher in schools for the hearing impaired because there is no guidance or counselling, no information on sexuality education,’ shared Sunita, who has hearing and speech impairment.

For the hearing impaired, even when their sexuality is legitimised through marriage, the relationships are often incongruent. For instance, they may be married off to a person whose ways of communication is exactly the opposite of what they are used to. Another downside of the lack of information about sexuality is that it makes the hearing-impaired vulnerable to abuse and ill-equipped to raise an alarm in an abusive situation. They also become easy targets for abuse in public places, and in their schools.

‘For instance, many hearing impaired women avoid Mumbai local train compartments reserved for the disabled because people with different disabilities abuse them. There is also a hierarchy within disabilities as the deaf are many a time asked to vacate seats as their problems aren’t grave enough,’ said Kanika.

It then becomes imperative to address these concerns. The first step is to understand that people with different disabilities have varying experiences and for the hearing impaired, it is not a level-playing field due to greater marginalisation.

Next, systematic intervention is a must – we need to start speaking with children about sex and sexuality, along with addressing concerns to ensure their emotional, sexual and physical well being. All of this must be in accordance with the specific access needs of each group.

Intervention must not stop here. In fact, it is vital to speak with parents, caregivers, and guardians of the hearing impaired on the importance of talking about sexuality. Trainers must also share means to identify early signs of distress in children and the means to tackle these through counselling.

Thus, in our calls for inclusion, it is important to ensure access for all and in every sphere of life.

Written by Niharika Pandit