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DISABILITY AND RELATIONSHIPS: What has Technology Got to Do with It?

Seven years ago, my life was as depressing as it could get.

I would lie awake at night, sure that the next day would be even worse than the one just gone by. During these sleepless nights, my friend Rohit (1) would silently sit on the other end of the phone with me, keeping me company while I lay miserably awake. One such night, he asked me a strange question: "Will you come for a film with me?"

In no mood for jokes, I irritably reminded him that we were not in the same town, and that in any case it was past midnight, and no cinema hall would be open so late.

Rohit asked me to join him on Skype. And reluctantly, I did. When the call connected, I heard a faint excitement in his voice, but I was too depressed to notice it till the music began to roll. He smiled, and said, "It won't be as interesting as the musical you saw but this has its own beauty."

Saying this, Rohit played a film, but in a version which was thoughtful like him, a version with audio-description. (2) The film was Legally Blonde, but both Rohit and I are legally blind. I remember easing into my bed to watch the movie, with Rohit's presence on Skype as warm as a physical hug. I could hear his laughter at the same moments I cracked up, we felt each other's silences during tense moments and with my earphones plugged in, I soon fell asleep.

Rohit was and continues to be "just" a friend, but that night, for a few surreal moments, I thought, "What if this was something more?" And although it wasn't meant to be between us, I'll always remember that night as the most romantic midnight date I ever had.

Disability can be complex, particularly when you are living in countries like India where accessibility to places and services is lacking. If you are visually impaired, navigating unhelpful Indian public infrastructure with a white cane is tough going, and for women, there's an added concern of abuse and misbehaviour. As a result, many families--being protective and often over-protective--don't let their daughters with disabilities step out alone. But sometimes I wonder if I can really blame them.

If a woman is on a wheelchair, she will need assistance to enter a university, a hospital, or access public transport. Thus, she is forced to take help from strangers for lifting, pushing, and holding. She is often accompanied by someone, more often a family member. Or she is left with the option of not going out at all. These restrictive infrastructural and social situations are often combined with stigma. Because disabled women are most times not considered women enough, they seldom find opportunities to meet others, form friendships, and find romantic partners.

Technology, however, has been a miraculous gift for persons with disabilities! Not only has it opened up opportunities for education and employment, but also vital spaces like online social networks to interact with others and form friendships.

For many women with disabilities, technology creates a window to the world, helps in ending isolation and building relationships with others. However, the relationship with technology takes a while to develop.

When I was diagnosed with my eye-disorder at 15, I didn't really know how my future would unfold. All I knew was that my life was going to tilt, shift, and alter in ways that I couldn't fathom just then. Everything, from mundane to special, was going to be layered with the challenge of gradually losing my sight. Perhaps as a teenager, one of my biggest worries was how my friendships, social life, and romance would be impacted by my failing sight ...

I was introduced to a screen reading software (assistive technology) that would assist me and be my comrade in arms for reading, writing, accessing the web, and getting through my education and work. At the time though, I was highly irritated with this software. I was supposed to be able to see, not hear my educational material in some stupid robotic voice! Like all teenagers, since I couldn't alter my situation, I rested the blame and irritation on the voice of the screen reader.

Over the years, my relationship with technology has grown and like any friendship, this is a relationship of support, trust and dependence. My laptop's screen reader "JAWS," has an American-accented male voice and I often refer to him as "my man." He listens to me, and speaks whenever I need him to. I can't imagine living without him, even for a day. He enables me to check my emails, connect with the world through Facebook, share my thoughts on Twitter, work on my research, mark my calendar, read my novels, and so much more. The only real threat to my relationship with him is the British-accented voice-over software on my iPhone. Personally, I can't decide who is hotter!

There's a widespread belief that people who are disabled are not desirable. And, with all the "real" issues we have to face, we would never even think of romance or love. We are seen as either depressed individuals, dependent on others for survival, or made into inspirational memes, constantly battling crises and emerging victorious.

This couldn't be further from the truth. Our lives are filled with as much desire for love as a sighted person's, and many of us now have access to technology that increases our participation in the great symphony of flirtations, romance, and life.

Last year, on the insistence of some friends, I registered myself on the dating app OkCupid. A friend helped me select my profile photo in which I'm dressed casually, hanging out by the swimming pool with a coffee mug in hand!

I found a person's profile interesting. His writing was witty and he seemed potentially intelligent from his work profile. He was a runner (I was not, but opposites attract, right?), and the clincher was that he loved books! So, I sent him a message.

The only thing was, I couldn't see his picture; a screen reader cannot read images unless it has a written image description or an alt text. When I scrolled over his image, I heard only silence. I wanted to know what this man I had just messaged, looked like. Over dinner, I excitedly asked my girlfriends to describe him, to be told that his profile picture was of a nude man! Had I known this, I wouldn't have reached out to him.

Thus, the overarching problem for people with disabilities is accessibility, both offline and online. When it comes to dating apps, it's clear that no one--neither the developers nor the app users--really have us in mind. I wanted to expand beyond OkCupid. Tinder was out of the question since it functions primarily on photographs. I ended up using the app, TrulyMadly. Again, I encountered trouble. TrulyMadly has yes and no buttons on either side of its screen, but neither was labelled for screen readers! Although a friend helped me with the buttons, I forgot after a few weeks, had no idea whether I was saying yes to those I wanted to reject and vice versa, and soon deleted the app. In all of this, my primary irritation was why I should be forced to let my friends know every detail of my dating landscape and how much assistance did I really want in this very private aspect of life? Not much, frankly.

Although the internet and technology have levelled the playing field and increased the social reach for people with disabilities, the truth is that the offline heavily impacts the online. Inaccessibilities are echoed in online spaces, and stigma in people's minds percolates into online interactions, particularly in the romantic landscape. It is not uncommon for conversations to cease once the shield of the online is removed from interactions with disabled persons; it is not uncommon for conversations never to start because the disability is out there in an image, or as a category on the website/app, or as a description. And so the struggles continue ...

Yet, this doesn't negate the fact that technology has awarded us many more avenues to get creative, to uphold friendships, to pursue interests, and to create special moments. It was touching when my concerned visually-impaired friend found and forcefully downloaded an accessible language translation app for my trip to Brazil (because I don't speak Portuguese, and with my visual impairment, gestures and signing for communication becomes impossible); and a very special moment when a friend who was hitting on me put up a picture he wanted me to see with a personalized description-quite impersonal for others.

It is thanks to technology that many of us feel just like anyone else our age--more of a human being than just a disabled being!

The end...

By Niddi Goyal

Activist: Disability Rights and Gender Justice

Email: nidhigoyal21g@gmail.com

Twitter: @saysnidhigoyal

Notes & References

(1) Rohit is a name changed for anonymity.

(2) Audio description is a pre-recorded soundtrack that describes non-verbal scenes in a movie, which means that you don't need to be able to see the screen.
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Title Annotation:in our own words
Author:Goyal, Nidhi
Publication:Arrows For Change
Date:Dec 1, 2017
Words:1529
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