Sweta Mantrii is a 32-year-old comedian, writer and disability activist who was born with spina bifida, a birth condition that prevents the spinal cord from fully developing, requiring her to use crutches while walking. She is a media graduate who gave up a career in PR to pursue stand-up in a way that lets her raise awareness about the issues that people with disabilities face in India due to the stigma and lack of proper infrastructure in the country.
I am a person with a disability doing stand-up comedy, except I’m sitting down for most of my routine. So I guess you can say I am a sit-down comic.
My foray into the world of dating began in 2015 with a matrimonial website called Ability Matrimony. Connecting with the men was easy; the hard part was what came after. I didn’t have much in common with these men so we could never really click. Most of the men on this website were there because they didn’t have anybody in their life and had been single for a long time. So they approached everything way too fast and were more interested in immediately discussing marriage instead of actually getting to know me as a person.
As a person with a disability who’s lived in India all her life, I’ve always been told that dating another person with a disability would be easier. We’re conditioned to believe that if we have some disability, we should only get married to someone who also has a disability. It’s a narrow-minded view but I’m still constantly told that people who are in similar situations will be able to understand each other better. So when I first started testing the dating pool, I only stuck to sites and apps that were designed for people with disabilities.
I moved on from the matrimony website to matrimonial meetings, until in 2016, IncLov—the world’s first dating app for people with disabilities—was launched. So I joined it expecting it to be better than all my experiences in the matrimonial market, where people tend to be more rigid and direct about their intentions. It wasn’t, and I ended up having a pretty similar experience with the men on the app, or only ended up crushing on men who lived in different cities.
Finally, three years ago out of pure boredom, I joined Tinder. I was sceptical at first so I didn’t mention my disability and would only drop the news after I had spoken to the guys I matched with for at least a day. But, it got super awkward and once I told them, many would just stop replying. Not everyone reacted badly, but when they weren’t ghosting me, they would put me on a pedestal, which is something none of us want. Others would engage in ‘inspiration porn’, which is when an able-bodied person starts glorifying a person with a disability for doing the same things they would do, for their own sense of gratification. It’s the worst according to me, because I have no interest in being this larger-than-life inspirational figure just because I need crutches to walk. Soon after, I entered an on-again-off-again relationship, not with someone I matched with on Tinder, but with the app itself.
Sometime last year, I finally had enough of the awkwardness and mentioned my disability in my bio and display picture, but with a slight twist. I wrote: ‘I am this way because my parents didn’t do it properly.’ Men found that hilarious and intriguing and the right swipes kept coming. Unfortunately, once again, it was either because these men wanted to indulge in inspiration porn or simply get to know me non-romantically, and almost always ended up friendzoning me.
When you’re facing rejection as a person with a disability, it’s difficult to not assume that people are dumping you because they don’t want to deal with your disability, even if they don’t reciprocate your feelings for other reasons. I definitely think it’s harder especially in India because of all the stigma that surrounds us. Our country is patriarchal and society continues to believe that women belong in the kitchen. So, they think that my disability is a disadvantage since instead of being able to help around the house, they assume I am the one who constantly needs help. Women with disabilities are not viewed as eligible for marriage with able-bodied men. We are often seen as undesirable because people like to assume that we can’t contribute physically in a way an able-bodied woman can, and too much importance is given to the way you look as opposed to your emotional contribution to a marriage or family.
People also like to assume that we are asexual or obviously don’t get any. They kind of forget that there’s more to sexual pleasure than penetration. A guy once asked me if I wanted to fuck, and when I turned him down, his reaction was, “Oh I assumed you must not be getting enough action, so I offered.” Even at a family function once, a distant relative kept patronising me and talking about how tough it must be to live with a disability. He even asked me, “Beta, can you bathe on your own properly?” I promptly responded by saying, “Uncle, I can’t bathe on my own, so I call the neighbour guy to help me shower.” He was so offended by my response that he still avoids me at family gatherings.
It’s these assumptions that are the problem. Instead of assuming or being afraid to approach a person with a disability, everyone should learn to ask before they offer. I am not so prudent and proud that I will act like I don’t need help if I do, but at the same time, just because I am standing on a road doesn’t mean I need your help to cross it.
I think a major reason why people aren’t sensitised enough to this issue is because of a lack of adequate infrastructure for people with disabilities in our country. If the infrastructure was slightly more inclusive then there wouldn’t be so much stigma because you would see people with disabilities around and you’d be more exposed to seeing them around. If there’s a flight of steps without a railing, I would obviously take longer to climb it, so I will appear to be struggling, while good infrastructure would enable you to think I am independent. When you create a hierarchy of a helper and helpee, you forget the concept of codependence. But despite it all, I’m still standing.
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