Sunday, December 10, 2006

Talking About Women with Disabilities

This is the text (identifying names deleted for my paranoia... ahem, privacy) of a talk I gave about the issues that many women with disabilities face and what I am doing about these issues via a group and forums I coordinate, to a women’s committee that I’m on. It was written in 2004 the night before the presentation - I would change a few things now.

“There are many issues and concerns that affect women with disabilities, some of the more obvious ones include; poverty, finding employment, accessible housing, health care, sexuality, domestic violence, accessing education, and dealing with a physical environment that is still largely inaccessible. I imagine that many of you already have some awareness of these issues. They are very important, and affect our lives on a daily basis. But I’m not going to talk about any of those things in great detail today. Instead, I’d like to talk about a few of the less tangible challenges we face, along with the ways I hope the forums will address and provide possible solutions to them. I’d also like to give you some idea of the many ways that women with disabilities can contribute and are contributing now to the world.

One of the most difficult things to cope with as a person with a disability is the fact that many non-disabled people only see the disability when they look at you. As a result you unwittingly become public property. It is very common when you have a disability to be accosted in the street by complete strangers who demand to know ”what is wrong with you“, and expect you to drop whatever you are doing to give them an answer. I’ve been asked - with no warning at all - such questions as ”So, what have you done to yourself then?“, ”How long have you been confined to that“ - indicating my scooter, and ”What’s wrong with you, you don’t look sick“. I’ve had a number of people come up to me over the years and tell me ”Oh, I think you are so brave, if I was like you I would kill myself“. A very disturbing thing to hear when you are simply out and about minding your own business.

Women with disabilities are not seen and valued as women. The mainstream view of beauty does not allow for spastic or amputated limbs, scarred bodies or bodies that have limited movement. It doesn’t allow for slow or slurred speech. It doesn’t allow for anything but the most limited ideas of beauty - something that as we all know affects non-disabled women as well - but it can be very difficult when you have no chance of living up to even the broadest definition of normal. And we still live in a world where a woman’s value is often defined by her looks. It is still a fight for a woman with a disability to be seen as intelligent and capable of looking after herself and others. Our sexuality is denied, and many in the community and the medical profession still doubt our ability to have and to raise children. It is harder to form relationships and friendships - we are still seen by some people as burdens and incapable of giving and receiving affection and support. However, some women with disabilities do manage to have these things in their lives. Unfortunately too many of us are unable to take these opportunities for granted. This must change.

The forums can provide us with an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate our various roles in life and our innate value as women, not despite our disabilities, but with them, and all the other aspects of our lives.

In the forums we are sharing our experiences and learning that we are not alone. We celebrate who we are and what we can achieve, we acknowledge the painful and difficult aspects of our lives. The forums have covered and will cover many different topics relevant to women with disabilities, all of the issues I’ve already mentioned, along with many more. We will also be running the self defense course that we received funding for recently. Other plans include running more in-depth forums on things like sexuality, parenting with a disability and nutrition. I hope that we will be able to develop the forums into an sustainable organization for women with disabilities that is run by us. Women in the forums have put forward ideas that include a magazine that is run by women with disabilities and showcases all aspects of our lives, and a fashion show. These are just a couple of examples, there are and will be many more. One of my own plans for the future that is very close to my heart is to set up a mentoring program for women with disabilities to support and encourage younger women and teenage girls with disabilities. I hope in this way we can reduce the isolation that too many younger women and girls with disabilities suffer, and provide them with role models who can show them that they have the potential to become valuable and amazing women.

I’ve been asked to mention possible ways in which you all could provide assistance and support to help the forums keep running and become a sustainable and ongoing project.

Obviously, things like funding and other practical supports are necessary, but today I’d like to ask you all to go beyond that if you can. The support that all women with disabilities really need, is the awareness and acknowledgment that we are truly valued and respected as women, standing alongside all other women. Please get past the stereotypes that society and the media perpetrate, stereotypes that paint us as weak, dependent, asexual, incompetent, unattractive, and drains on the economy. We are none of these things. Neither are we tragic heroines overcoming our disabilities, or particularly brave or inspirational. We are simply human beings, living our lives, as flawed and imperfect and as real as anyone else.

Work with us in challenging and shattering these myths and prejudices that can make our lives so difficult. Come along and help out at the forums. Get to know us, learn about our lives, see the things we have in common with you. Who knows, you may even make new friends and professional connections. Like any group of people there is a variety of experiences, opinions and personalities among us. We don’t always agree with each other, but all of our viewpoints are valid, and we all deserve to be heard. Share what you learn about us with others, tell them that we are more than the sum of our disabilities, correct their misconceptions if you can.

I’m asking you to think about these things not just for our benefit, but also your own. Any of you could become disabled at some time, either through accident or disease, you may already have some form of invisible disability such as depression or joint or back problems. You may have family members or friends who are disabled. Wouldn’t it make life easier to know that having a disability is not a fate worse than death, to know that it is not something to fear, but something that can be lived with, and, with the support and knowledge of those of us who have gone before you, to know it is something that can be lived with well.”

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