I am blind, and when you are blind, it is not just that you cannot see people and things around you, it is also that you cannot see yourself. The mirror, a device that scholars have so much to say about, has been of no use to me. This means that the relationship that I had with my own body was always via other people, or through some things I imagined about myself. This is the context of the story I would like to tell you about how I discovered and started to love my body with disability.
The third of December was always a big deal for me when I was growing up. It is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and I took part in several competitions and celebrations that were organised around it every year. While these were exciting in themselves, what I looked forward to the most was the closing ceremony. This would feature disability rights activists speaking out against ableism, and the ways in which the government fails us by not implementing disability-friendly measures. This was my first classroom on disability rights; it was because of it that I slowly began to identify as a person with a disability. This identification only increased as I grew into an adult and got more involved in issues of disability rights.
However, there was an interesting development happening simultaneously to my political awakening as a disability rights person. My body with disability did not feature in my many thoughts about disability. Physicality was not part of my understanding of disability — I only focused on accessibility, social acceptance, and legal reforms, essentially directing all my thinking towards the state and society.
It was not that I never thought about my body. I thought about my body, but always with a negative image in my mind. The bodies being celebrated in pop culture, or in conversations around me were unlike my body. They were non-disabled bodies, meeting too many standards that I was absolutely sure that my body with disability could never meet.
For most of my university life, I lived with a negative image of my body. It was not that I kept myself away from social interactions. In fact, I grew more and more assertive about disability rights and was exposed to other kinds of political mobilisation that was not about disability. Even as I was engrossed in a flurry of activities, though, I was conscious of how I was not able to appreciate my body while I was pointing fingers at others for not giving me what is due to me. I was uncomfortable with pictures being taken of me — too much of my body was a part of the whole process. If I was certain about one thing, it was that I was not good looking and that my body would never be appreciated. The repercussions of this belief were evident in many areas of my life, including sexuality and relationships.
A slow, painful and ongoing process of change began when I started to read literature on disability and sexuality (including the articles in this publication). I made the connection between ideas of the ‘perfect’ body and patriarchy. It was feminism and disability studies that opened up a politics of the body up for me. It showed me that ideal body types are defined and perpetuated by existing, unfair structures, and that therefore it is vital to think about and express ideas that fall outside of these definitions. It shifted the blame from my body with disability to a structure with which I had to engage politically.
As I read more of this literature, the internet enabled me to connect with some of its authors. I was soon part of a community of like-minded people who pushed me to think in directions I would not have ventured in otherwise. I became part of Whatsapp and email groups where I talked with people about how both ideal body types and disability itself were constructed by society. This meant that there were openings to think ourselves out of such constructs. I started to think about my body as one body type that had the possibility to exist alongside other body types.
While technology helped me to read and connect with people, there was a silent revolution happening in my life. I was fortunate enough to meet a few people with disability who were engaged in sports. Even though I had made multiple cities my home, I never got an opportunity to participate in any kind of sports. My friends opened up a new avenue for me and helped me to overcome my initial inhibitions.
My initiation into sports was through Adventure Beyond Barrier Foundation (ABBF), an organisation that encourages persons with and without disabilities to come together and engage in adventure sports. Before I participated in a marathon for the first time, I never believed that I could run. ABBF gave me target goals and nudged me to participate in other events such as wall climbing to tandem cycling. As I engaged in more of these activities, I grew in confidence and started to believe in my body. By playing sports, I connected with my body in ways I never had before and realised so much of its potential which I had not known it possessed.
Eventually, I joined a group of people with visual impairments who play sound ball tennis every weekend. My body, that I had always thought of as feeble and fragile, started to occur to me as being active and lively.
I took cues from other persons with disability in how they managed similar body issues and got encouraged to push my own limits.
I do not claim that everyone with disability holds the same image about their bodies that I did. Neither am I claiming that non-disabled individuals do not experience body image issues. But in a world obsessed with ideal body types, individuals with disability will benefit from engaging in multiple strategies to rediscover their bodies, strategies ranging from newer forms of politics to sports. The hope is that we shall move to a world where people with disability who want to can at least mutter to themselves, if not say out loud, ‘I am sexy (or strong) and I know it.’
Tony Kurian is a researcher based in Mumbai. He is interested in the intersections between disability and technology. Read his Skin Stories essay about online dating as a person with an identifiable disability here.
Featured image credit: Alia Sinha