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Persons With Disabilities And The Idea Of Love

It is not uncommon for persons with disabilities to be haunted by questions of love due to the attitude of others

Hug Yourself, because it is probably easier than finding love
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Brave. A person I met online called me “brave” during our first interaction on a dating app. This was preceded by, “What’s really wrong with you?” And followed by, “I am sorry this doesn’t work for me”. While I can make sense of the first and the last, the middle always puzzles me. What makes me brave? Brave enough to not bury myself under the stigma of disability. Brave enough to put myself out there, on a dating site, knowing fully well that I would likely be hurt. Brave enough to be sexual. Brave enough to be a man without any sort of comfort that patriarchy provides. Brave enough to just exist. I still don’t have an answer.

It is not uncommon for persons with disabilities like me to be haunted by questions of love. While our external lives are occupied by questions of accessibility, jobs and care, the core internal question remains about the social alienation that comes from our inability to find love. Some of us do find love. In the disabled and the able-bodied world. Online and offline. Others try to find love in different spaces. In the idea of arranged marriage, where society facilitates the matching of disabilities, class, caste and religion. Then there are others who just want to be alone and don’t even have access to these and look to find love in community weddings conducted by non-profits all across the country.

Every disabled body is different. Their embodied reality varies from each other. Not only across disabilities, but also within disabilities. Everyone has different bodily needs. Different care needs. Different ideas of pleasure. There is no common prescription or description of the idea of love. The only goal is to find love, in any form that seems fulfilling. It is a lonely pursuit. One that forces us not only to find every form of deficiency within us, real and imagined, it also forces us to notice small little privileges of those among us who are able to successfully find love. “Of course, they can find love, they are rich. Of course, they can find love, their parents are so supportive. Of course, they can find love, they are not as disabled as me. Of course, it hurts.” It is difficult to be happy for others when the world constantly reminds you of your incompleteness. You spend all your energy in coping with the incompleteness.

Can love make us complete? I don’t know. It is a heavy question, one that philosophers and poets have been struggling with for eternity. There is no clear answer. What is clear is the alienation that accompanies a disabled person throughout their life. You have no option but to stay strong. You stay strong as all your siblings, cousins and friends find love or get married. You stay strong as your ‘normal’ friends drift away, busy in their own normative world. You stay strong with all the stigma you face every day, all alone, and the tenderness missing from your everyday life. If you are lucky, you are cared for, but does that care entail any form of tenderness? It seldom does.

It’s not the same for a disabled person who struggles with self-pleasure because of their disability. Body parts betray you. There is no privacy. There is only shame.

I think it all comes down to intimacy. All of us are desperate for physical and emotional intimacy. The abled and the disabled. The married and the unmarried. And yet, somehow the disabled seem to be shamed for expressing these desires. And yet intimacy is not the same for all of us. It’s not the same for a disabled person who struggles with even self-pleasure because of their disability. Body parts betray you. There is no privacy. There is only shame. Intimacy is not the same for disabled persons who are not able to go on a date on their own, or find dating apps inaccessible. Finding physical intimacy in a society where there is so much morality attached with sex is a difficult task. When it comes with the added vulnerabilities of disability, your imagination becomes full of fear and suspicion. Emotional intimacy is much easier to find online but here too, it is easy for the disabled to be deemed asexual, their desires, their gender identity and even their existence invisibilised so that they can be used to heal the able-bodied world.

The disabled who have the vocabulary of pleasure still find ways. Some find poetry or music. Others find fetish and kink. But even access to a vocabulary of pleasure is a sign of privilege. Most of us are trapped in societal discourse, rejected by it and yet longing to be validated or accepted by it. No wonder we need to boast about all our achievements to strangers or play ball to the amusing circus of inspirational porn. How else can we belong if we can’t run away from all the stigma. The stigma that floats around in the form of a karmic discourse, of disability as punishment. The karmic gaze is even stronger than the able-bodied gaze, only invisible and talked about behind closed doors.

With this backdrop in mind, how is a disabled person supposed to find love, build relationships, live a life of pleasure? Dating, friendships, flings, ‘situationships’, love. It’s like the disabled are seldom invited to these parties. We do, of course, get to witness all of it, livestreamed on our social media timelines. And when we find another disabled person entering the party, all we can do is count the flaws and lack of privileges that entail our disabled existence.

It’s not that we have given up on the idea of love. We are trying to have our own parties. We are trying to find love in queerness. We are trying to distinguish between pleasure and sex. We are trying to write our own stories. And creating our own imagined romantic universe. Although the process is slow and solidarity is complicated because of all the trauma we carry, we are still full of hope.

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I still date. I still use dating apps. I write on sex and pleasure. I write romantic poetry. Another person I met online called the idea of my body disgusting. At first, I was outraged but then I realised that this was probably more honest than the person calling me brave. At least there was no filter. I can take that and move on. People will find different ways to hurt you because they know you are already vulnerable. But what if you are so vulnerable that no one can hurt you? What if it becomes your strength? Like many other disabled people around me, I am working on that. It’s a work in progress. One that entails forms of self-love and acceptance. Like hugging yourself.

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Hugging yourself is not an easy task. You have to fold your hands, cross them, make sure you touch your back. You should be careful not to make it awkward or performative, or casual. You bury your anger—there is no point, you will never feel anything in anger. You shouldn’t remember hugs from the past, your hands will feel like boulders. You don’t have the option to half hug or side hug or air hug, or not hug. You hug and forgive, you hug and love, you hug and recollect parts of you. Hug yourself as if your life depends on it.

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It’s hard but probably easier than finding love in the able-bodied world.

(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Disabled Mindsets')

Abhishek Anicca is a writer, poet and performer

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