Monday, August 31, 2009

Shekhar Seshadri Does Dehradun

Dr Shekhar Seshadri is a child psychiatrist and a very dear man. Here he is in his Jesus Christ avatar, speaking to the multitudes. We got him to come to Dehradun after a gap of eight years, and the pursuit was half the fun.

We were relentless because we knew what he would bring: insight, analysis, creativity, imagination and genuine kindness and compassion.

His topic was Sexuality and the Lives of People with Intellectual Impairment and almost from the moment we began issuing invitations we knew it was going to be an unusual evening. A lecture on a Saturday night isn't everyone's idea of fun. But we got so many affirmative responses that  we had to shift the venue at the last minute from the 150 seater hall we had originally booked to one with a capacity of 400. And we almost filled it. Busloads of teachers came from most of the other disability organisations in the city and parents came from everywhere.  It was a poignant reflection of the need people have to speak openly about sexuality, especially in the context of intellectual disability.

It's a need because almost no one is doing it. And certainly no one is doing it the way Shekhar Seshadri would like to see it done: from a rights-based perspective and as part of a normal, positive, healthy life. 

Sexuality, in his view, is far more than penetrative intercourse between a married, heterosexual couple for the purpose of creating babies. It is a way of being in the world, a part of each person's identity and a vital and essential aspect of each person's life. 

But for most of the parents and many of the staff in attendance that evening, sexuality among people with mental handicaps is a problem, an issue, an uncomfortable fact of life that just won't go away. Nobody is really comfortable talking about it, but for most people, it's even MORE uncomfortable not to talk. It's too worrying, it's too embarrassing. The idea of a man of 23 masturbating in the living room or a girl of 15  continuously fondling herself is unbearable. So even though talking is hard, it's better than silence.

Shekhar wishes people would talk more. But not just about sexuality. About anything. One of the most valuable things I got from his presentation was this need for TALKING. As he pointed out, most adults never talk with their children - whether they have disabilities or not - about anything significant. Why should sex be any different?

Shekhar had lots to say about different aspects of sexuality and much practical advice on how to approach problem areas and behaviour issues. But the main thing I learned was to just talk. Get to know your kids while they are small. Talk to them about their feelings,  their dreams, their fears. Learn what makes them tick and help them to see that you are there for them - the friend and guide they can trust when things get confusing and strange. Because that's the relationship you'll need to have when they start learning about themselves as sexual beings (at 4, at 11, at 16 and right on up through their entire lives) and yes, it will happen whether they have a disability or not.

Talk to them. Listen to them. Be there for them. Let them know there isn’t a thing they can’t ask you about, not one thing you won’t want to discuss with them. That’s what will make them comfortable in their own skins. That’s what will make them see sexuality as a gift and not a curse. 

Talk to them. It’s magic.


1 comment:

Shelja Sen said...

Why is it so tough for us to listen? Especially to children and to people with disabilities? Because we think, they do not have much to say. We assume that we know better than them, we believe we are more "intelligent". We think that they can't think or have anything worthy to say. And it is so difficult to understand their language. They speak slowly, in circles, too softly/loudly, too much/less. And it requires too much of patience, too much of our precious time.
It is easier and more convenient to turn away and mute the voice.....

Jo, I would say, listen to them. It's magic :)