When 25-year-old Antara Telang lost her right leg in a freak accident seven years ago and her doctors recommended getting a prosthetic leg, she had many questions. Would she be able to bathe while wearing her prosthetic leg? Would she be able to dance?
Her plastic surgeon who performed her amputation could only give her recovery-related information like how long it might take her to walk again and what brand of prosthetics she could consider using.
Telang, her friends and her family began to look for someone who had undergone an amputation, who might help Telang figure out what everyday life was going to be like. Her mother managed to contact a woman in her mid-thirties who had also had her leg amputated. As Telang recovered in hospital after her surgery, the woman came to meet her and demonstrated how her prosthetic leg worked. Telang remembers that meeting as an important part of her recovery because up till then she had not been able to visualise how her body would look and function without a leg.
“It was comforting to see someone with my condition in the flesh,” she said.
Six weeks after her surgery, Telang went to a prosthetic facility to get a new leg. The process involves a prosthetist, who is essentially a medical technician, examining the patient and then assembling various components of the prosthetic limb as per the patient’s needs. Once the prosthetic is made and fitted, prosthetists and physiotherapists help patients learn to use the limb.
Three months after her accident and one month after her first fitting with a prosthetist, Telang was able to walk with support. However, the prosthetists were unable to answer many of her questions about day-to-day life with a prosthetic limb.
For three years after her accident, Telang continued to go to college and carried on with daily activities thinking that she had to navigate life with disability on her own. Then, she found out about a Whatsapp group whose members are all women amputees.
Social media support
The group was created in 2013 with by Sneha Kale, Darshana Deshmukh and Manasi Joshi, who had never met each other but who had the same prosthetist and connected over Facebook. The group now has 14 members – women from Mumbai, other parts of Maharashtra and Bangalore.
Telang also met Kale through her prosthetist. As Telang had discovered, living with a physical disability in a world that mostly made for able-bodied people can be traumatic. For women, the experience of living with a physical disability is also qualitatively different from that of men. Women with physical disabilities have to deal with complications that may come with marriage, menstruation and pregnancy – problems that prosthetists, who are almost always men, find themselves ill-equipped to handle. Women amputees often look for advice rooted in experience and that is what some of them have found on this WhatsApp group.
According to Joshi, who has a prosthetic left leg and is an international para-badminton champion, the conversation on the group ranges from basic doubts regarding which brand of prosthetic to use to more tricky ones about how to deal with relationships and marriage. In fact, said Joshi, the group was formed because the three initial members wanted to discuss how they should go about creating profiles on matrimonial websites and whether they should specify that they are disabled.
Geeta Salunkhe is from a village in Jalgaon district in Maharashtra and had her leg amputated below the knee when she was fourteen months old. She said that she had grown up without being conscious of her disability. She had been especially fond of playing kho-kho and kabaddi as a child. She finished college with a diploma in computer engineering.
However, when her parents wanted her to get married, she found that offers for arranged marriage did not come her way. It was then that she became acutely aware that she was perceived as being different from other women and that there was still stigma attached to her physical disability.
According to Hema Subhash, founder of One Step At A Time, a support group in Bangalore for both men and women with amputations and orthopaedic disabilities, the idea of a disabled woman finding a partner is one that the world still finds astonishing. Subhash, who is also a member of the WhatsApp group, said that people still think that a woman is supposed to be the caregiver in a relationship. That a disabled woman would require care and demand it from a male partner does not fit popular ideas of relationships. A disabled man may be seen as someone to care for and may find a partner more easily.
Subhash recalled when a taxi driver, upon finding out that she is married, had asked her how much she had to pay her husband’s family.
Even the fiercely independent Salunkhe has been inspired by the women on the WhatsApp group who are confident, financially independent and in relationships.
“When men turn me down now, I am thankful because I know that these men are no good,” she said. “And I turn down the men who are considered prospective grooms for me because I don’t think they are good enough or qualified enough for me.”
The women also help each other build confidence in their bodies. They share stories and photographs of themselves doing things that others in the group may not have considered because of their disabilities – going for a trek, swimming or wearing skirts or shorts which reveal their prosthetic legs.
Shoes and other blues
Subash reveals that a frequent point of discussion on the group is shoes. People using prosthetic legs cannot wear heels or sandals with split-toes. They often tell each when they find suitable and nice-looking footwear.
The women also help each other negotiate uncomfortable situations. Joshi recalled when an autorickshaw driver who she had called for a ride referred to her as langdi – a derogatory word for lame – without realising that she was still on the phone line. She immediately messaged the group asking them what she should do when she saw the driver. With her friends’ encouragement, she confronted him making it clear that it was wrong of him to insult her, even though he denied doing so.
This informal group finds support and positivity to deal with their disabilities by sharing the big and little things.
“Darshana recently got married,” said Joshi. “She had put mehendi on her prosthetic leg and had sent us photos of it. It was quite beautiful.”