I should declare that for the past three months I have been employed to consult with the National Union of Women with Disability in Uganda(NUWODU). My work has been to put into words that which escapes most eyes. Stories of struggle,success,oppression,advocacy and optimism. Not necessarily in that order.
In order to write this article I sought out the opinions of men, young and old men if any of them had ever dated a girl with disability-or if any was married to one. You don’t have to go far to get opinion on these issues- we live with people with disability in our homes and communities. Some of them attend our schools. We attend church with some more and a few of us share our workplaces with them. Yet they tend to live in a totally different world, a parallel of sorts where our particular paths never cross.
And in a world where beauty and perfection are sought in the search for love,relationships and partners,take a moment to imagine how much an in-love- young girl with disability may go through. Should I take the steps(in the absence of of ramps in most of our public buildings),use the wheel chair or use clutches? And that is just accessibility.How about acceptability for who she is and who she may be as an individual without her disability standing in the way!
So I sought out views in the newsroom. Out of the six men in the newsroom, only one had ever dated a girl who suffered from epilepsy- but she had drugs to stabilize her condition- he was quick to point out. I ask him whether he would have dated her in the first place if he had known of her ailment before hand, and he says -Yes. Not so for the rest, one of them had an emphatic ‘No’ right from the start and he used it throughout the discussion. Would he ever be interested in, let alone date or even marry a woman with disability? His answer was consistent- No. For the rest, the feelings and opinions about women with disability bordered on sympathy and curiosity, one even quipping, if I wanted kinky sex maybe.
Such is the disparity of opinion about women with disability. And a lot of them do not even get to hear this from others. They just know. Everyone keeps away. Of course it would be erroneous to lump all people with disability together when discussing this most personal of all subjects. The barriers to dating, and forming a relationship, are different and varied depending on one’s nature of disability and circumstances.
When one thinks about life in the most basic of forms, at a certain age the priority would be finding someone you like and who likes you back, starting a relationship and living happily ever after. But not everyone has that choice. Not when you have a disability and you are female, seeing as it is culturally men who choose partners and women very often wait along to be chosen.
Recent research by the National Union of Women with disability in Uganda (NUWODU) found out that a lot of the respondents lived in secret relationships, with men, some having fathered children with them, repeatedly, not wanting to ever be associated with such women in public. A lot of them end up having sex by chance and never by choice as they regard any forthcoming male attention as a favor. This nature of events has also led to many of them being raped by close relatives and neighbors and their stories rubbished because no one believes any one would be interested in them-sexually.
According to the research information collected in Kamuli and Mpigi districts, most people, including parents believe that women with disability are asexual, and they are thought to have no sexual feelings or interest whatsoever and to reduce the burden of taking care of their children, if they ever accidentally had some, such as through rape, many parents reportedly connived with health workers to neuter them so as to make them infertile.
It is this undesirability that makes the life of women with disability such a debilitating pain to live, in the process robbing them of their innate sexual and reproductive rights by society.
No-one likes to think that they elicit no interest whatsoever from the opposite sex or that they are “undate-able” but it is well known that, for a number of reasons, being disabled can decrease the chances of romance and family formation.
Although many disabled people are happily married or dating with no difficulties, others do face a wide range of challenges. Those with a disability date a variety of people – both disabled and non-disabled. But occasionally there can be strange attitudes from the latter, not mentioning their immediate community and in-laws.
Very few women with disability are as lucky as Tyabisulira Tabitha- lame in one leg and walks with a pronounced limp- who found not just a friend and comforter but also a husband and advocate in Kayima Patrick, her husband of eighteen years.
Kayima talks of the battles he has had to fight in the defense of his choice of a woman with disability, right from his family to the community.
“People don’t ever stop to think that women with disability are women first and that they can make great partners and mothers. In Busoga, people have a mythical belief that getting married to a disabled person brings ill luck to the family.” Kayima says, from their humble house in Bugaya village,Butansi Sub-county,Kamuli district.
Tabitha speaks so much of him, the husband who has had to make a number of enemies in her defense that he has appointed himself her Personal Assistant in all the advocacy work she does both as local councilor, as secretary for people with disability, as well as her work as a paralegal trained by NUWODU to champion the rights of girls and women with disability in Kamuli district.
As a result of his untiring work, he has won over a number of men-fathers mostly, to girls with disability- who constantly consult him in the management and looking after their daughters through infancy to teen age and beyond. It is Kayima who, abused and heckled before, has now stood out as the so rare male voice in the fight against un speak able evils done to women and girls with disability perpetrated by their own families and leaders-because for every woman sexually abused, there is a man, not normally as disabled as she, and for every child neglected, there is a man who would have neglected his duty as a father.
“My wife like many people pointed out many years ago has physical disability, true, but she is not intellectually disabled, and for me that counts for a lot.” Says Kayima,with a proud smile.
As a result of their joint hard work, they have created a support structure for women with disability in Butansi and beyond. And a lot has changed since when these two were newly married. Then, even a rape report by a woman with disability would attract little attention from Police as from Health workers. With NUWODU sensitization of all these institutions however, women and girls with disability receive better treatment in school, church, hospital and local council meetings.
Still, a lot more ground would have to be covered in attitude change before the dating world of people with disability and the others come to meet more closely.
Tell me,how do you view people with disability?