A couple of days ago, something strange happened. My son Ketan, who lives with autism, came back home and handed me over his school diary that had a handwritten note from his teacher Jyoti addressed to me.
This is with regard to the changes I have observed in your son’s behaviour over the past few days. As this is a pressing issue, I request you to come for a meeting on Thursday noon.
Next morning, after Ketan left for school, I wrapped up the housework, got dressed and made my way to his school. While I had received many notes previously, there was something stern about this one.
‘Hi miss Jyoti,’ I said.
‘Hello ma’am, how are you? Please make yourself comfortable. There is a sensitive matter about Ketan that I wanted to discuss with you,’ she said.
Hearing the word ‘sensitive’ raised red flags in my mind and left me with a strange sense of anxiety, wondering what this must be about.
‘I have been noticing some changes in your child’s behaviour. He has started to touch and kiss. Have you noticed all this?’
‘But he is a child ma’am,’ I said immediately. ‘And he truly admires you a lot and talks about you all the time. Well, children are like this, isn’t it? And he is a special child and children like him have a lot of love to give! He is god’s gift.’
Jyoti nodded, saying that she understands such behaviour. ‘But what if he behaves similarly with other people around him, who may have an issue with this?’
I listened to what she had to say. But Ketan will understand the difference between right and wrong on his own once he grows up, I thought.
‘As a teacher I don’t want his behaviour to get him into trouble. Now, it is up to you for what is to be done next,’ she said.
I asked her not to worry, as there was nothing to be worried about.
I walked out of her office, slightly irritated. I immediately phoned my husband and told him about this uncomfortable interaction with the teacher.
‘I think I am going to complain to the principal about this teacher. She was talking nonsense! I think we should put Ketan in some other special school,’ I said, partly furious.
Soon, I had forgotten about this meeting. My child continued to go to the same school and Jyoti was still his teacher. The routine went on.
Until five years later, when two community builders from an NGO, came to my house to talk about kids with disabilities and sexuality education as part of their parents outreach programme.
‘Hello! We are from NGO Udaan and work with kids with disabilities and provide sexuality education to them. When children are growing up, there are changes in their bodies and we want them to know and understand these changes,’ said one of the two NGO workers, who identified herself as Prajakta.
‘But my kid isn’t disabled. He is just different; he goes to a special school as he has special needs and I know how to take care of him,’ I replied hastily.
‘I suppose your child is an adolescent now. Like non-disabled kids, children with intellectual disabilities also experience sexual emotions and pleasure. It’s best to give them holistic sexuality education so they know how to process changes in their bodies,’ said Nita, the other NGO worker who was a wheelchair user.
‘We have done many workshops with disabled children on sexuality,’ said Prajakata.
I was confused. All of this was difficult to grasp, as I hadn’t noticed these changes in my child. And why would my Ketan need sex education? Children like him are innocent and pure and they don’t think about such things.
‘He is not like other kids! This is ridiculous! Maybe such things happen in bigger cities but not here. He has barely seen the world!’ I blurted out loud.
But the NGO workers were unrelenting. They said that it didn’t make any difference if the child was disabled or not. Whether one grows up in a big city or a small town that is also immaterial.
To me, all of this sounded preposterous. I was certain these workers had a target to complete and that must be why they had knocked on our door in the first place.
I didn’t have time for all this. It was Monday morning and I had ten other things to do before picking up Ketan from school. And talking to these people wasn’t one of them. To wrap up the conversation, I asked them to give their contact details and if and when the need arises, I will call them.
It was yet another day at school. Ketan had finished his class work and went to his teacher Jyoti and started asking questions about her breasts and brassiere. He couldn’t understand why he did not have breasts but still wanted to wear a bra. Jyoti somehow steered the conversation to classwork. She knew it was time to intervene and talk to his parents again. But how? Especially as his mom was reluctant the last time she tried speaking to her.
It was such a timely surprise when the two NGO workers visited Vidyamandir School and wanted to speak with Jyoti.
‘Hey Jyoti! We are here to talk to you about one of your students, Ketan. We just met his mother to talk about sexuality education…’ they said.
Jyoti intervened, ‘You have come at such a right time. About five years ago, I spoke to his mother about the changes in his behaviour that I observed like he would kiss, hold hands and now he wants to know what’s hidden under clothes and wants to show it too. But she was dismissive.’
‘True, firstly, she doesn’t want to accept that her child is disabled and that disabled children also need sexuality education,’ the two said.
‘We at our NGO work with kids and adolescents with disabilities. As part of our work, we conduct sexuality education workshops. Do you conduct such trainings in your school?’ they added.
‘Not yet but something like that will be great,’ said Jyoti.
The three discussed and concluded that it would be best to talk to Ketan’s mother collectively as individual interactions haven’t worked out.
That’s when Prajakta intervened, “I think we need to approach this case differently. Since Ketan’s mother is so reluctant to talk about sexuality, it is only obvious that we do not use the word as it scares her away. We should instead call it body literacy.’
Everyone nodded in agreement.
A week after the NGO workers had visited me, I received another call from Ketan’s school. His teacher Jyoti wanted to meet me.
After we greeted each other, Jyoti said, ‘Ketan is growing up. There are changes in his body. So they want to talk about that.’
It was the same issue all over again and this time, the NGO workers were with Ketan’s teacher too. ‘Not again!’ I thought.
‘I am a mother so I can’t talk about it but as kids grow up, they learn about their bodies on their own. And Ketan doesn’t need this information. If he puts his hand anywhere it shouldn’t be, all I do is hit him and he learns that this is not to be done. He is learning so I don’t think there is a need for a class about all this. And how much will you be able to teach in one class anyway?’ I said.
One of the NGO workers said, ‘We will take a body literacy session not only for your child but all children, and their parents too. We hope this session will provide you with the language so you can talk to your kids about these issues.’
‘But why does he need a session like that? If he touches at a wrong spot, then I hit him, that’s how it’s taught,’ I said.
‘Like I said this session isn’t only for Ketan, it’s for every kid. We also want to discuss abuse. Like disabled girls, disabled boys are also prone to abuse,’ the NGO worker added.
‘What? That cannot be true!’
‘We can make you speak with parents of survivor children if you wish to,’ the other NGO worker said.
‘We will talk more about safety and abuse in the session,’ the two said.
This sounded rational. After all, everyone should know about safety and abuse. ‘Well, if you are talking about safety, that’s absolutely fine with me. But when you had come to my house, you wanted to talk about sex. All that is not acceptable,’ I said.
‘If we talk about safety, we will have to talk about body processes and organs. Without body literacy, it is impossible to talk about safety,’ said Prajakta, the NGO worker.
‘Fair enough. But I think you must first apply this format for parents so we know what you are talking about and can edit the bits we don’t want you to talk to our kids,’ I said.
That sounds doable, said the NGO workers and Jyoti in unison. ‘We will share the format with parents for awareness purposes so they can answer questions when we are not around.’
I was on my way back home and while the meeting felt productive, I still had a lot of unanswered questions. But all this did make sense now. How does it matter whether my child is disabled or not? Knowing what is safe and unsafe is very important. And I was now eager to attend the session on body literacy and to meet other parents also.
‘That went pretty well, right? I will now speak to my principal for permission to conduct this session,’ said Jyoti.
‘Indeed. This only explains how important it is to sometimes be flexible with our methodology, goals and language as per context when conducting sexuality and disability trainings,’ said Nita.‘Absolutely,’ responded Jyoti.
‘Absolutely,’ responded Jyoti.
Written by Niharika Pandit
(This post has been written based on a skit by Dipika Srivastava, Jyoti Gogoi, Nita Panchal, Prajakta Dhumal and Shreshtha Das, who were all participants of Point of View’s first National Train the Trainers workshop on Sexuality and Disability. It is the second in a series of posts documenting the workshop sessions, in addition to the Storifies shared earlier.)