Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Better late than never... International Women's Day 2007

I just read this excellent post by Andrea, and realised that I had forgotten to write anything about International Women's Day a week or so ago. Then I remembered that I had written something in the last two or three weeks that would fit the bill. Over the last few years that I have been `out' as a disability activist and as a feminist, I've come across many people, online and off, who have been unable to understand that disability issues, and the lives and concerns of women with disabilities are relevant to feminist thought and action. The fact that women with disabilities are actually women is something that a lot of people have trouble grasping. And so, after a lifetime of having my gender denied, of being sexless and not quite human to too many people, I finally exploded a few weeks ago, and this is the result.

Feminism is meaningless if it doesn’t include *all* women and the issues that affect them. Just because some people don’t want to admit the existence and relevance of intersectionality in many women’s lives, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

I can give many examples of the way sexism and ablism intersect in my own life and the lives of women with disabilities I know personally, the following are a very small sample.

The woman with Cerebral Palsy whose husband was violently abusing her and whose speech impediment meant that on the night he attempted to kill her that she wouldn’t have gotten prompt police assistance if the person on the other end hadn’t already spoken to her on other calls and realised that she wasn’t drunk, stoned or kids making prank calls. Her husband abused her physically, sexually, financially, and emotionally for years and when she tried to tell people about it, their response was, “but you’ve got a disability, he wouldn’t treat you like that”. And the custody case for their kids, where he tried to paint her as an unfit mother because of her disability. I have heard dozens of those stories, just change the disability of the woman involved and the partnership status.

A women with Muscular Dystrophy who was told by doctors that she couldn’t have children and when she and her husband tried to adopt was they couldn’t, because she’s in a wheelchair. Never mind that women in wheelchairs and with other disabilities all over the world have been successfully parenting children for years. They did eventually get pregnant, and she had to put up with personal questions and remarks from complete strangers about how she got pregnant and whether she *should* be pregnant. Again, not an uncommon story in the lives of women with disabilities

Me, at 13, whose ‘mother’ had some bee in her bonnet about the fact that I didn’t get my period on the dot of turning 13, and assumed that because I was born prematurely and had a developmental disability that this would affect the timing of my period, had me up on the local doctor’s exam table with this doctor’s hand between my legs giving me an internal examination. Neither of them told me what he was going to do, or why (no medical reason for this by the way - wildly inappropriate and unprofessional on his part - was told by female medics and women’s health nurses many years later that this was totally unwarranted). Invasive and unecessary gender related medical abuse. Not at all uncommon for women with disabilities, and my experience is one of the mild ones. There are women who’ve been sterilised, who’ve had forced abortions, had their children taken from them, all without their knowledge or informed consent and all because of society’s prejudice about women with disabilities.

And do I even need to mention women and mental health issues and the genderbased violence, neglect and dismissal of women as a result?? No, thankfully, for the sake of my overworked fingers, I don't have to, right now. The Goldfish has an excellent post up about women, sexism and mental illness that fits the bill nicely.

From the Women With Disabilities Australia website - the peak body for women with disabilities in Australia (and we have much better health and welfare policies here in Australia than the US does, based on what I hear and read from US women with disabilities):

“Women with disabilities are, from the government record, one of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Australia. Analysis of data available from a variety of sources, gives us the following information about women with disabilities in Australia (Frohmader 2002).

* Women with disabilities are less likely than their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary and/or tertiary education. Only 16% of all women with disabilities are likely to have any secondary education compared to 28% of men with disabilities.
* Women with disabilities earn less than their male counterparts. 51% of women with a disability earn less than $200 per week compared to 36% of men with a disability.
* Only 16% of women with a disability earn over $400 per week, compared to 33% of men with a disability.
* Women with disabilities are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities or the population as a whole. In fact, men with disabilities are twice as likely to be in paid employment as women with disabilities.
* The percentage of women with disabilities being assisted by Government funded open employment services continue to decline. Open employment and disability employment services assist twice as many men with disabilities as women with disabilities.
* Women with disabilities’ participation rates in the labour market are lower than men with disabilities’ participation rates across all disability levels and types.
* Women with disabilities are substantially over-represented in public housing, comprising over 40% of all persons in Australia aged 15-64 in this form of tenure. Women with disabilities are less likely to own their own houses than their male counterparts.

Low levels of education relegate women with disabilities to lower eschelons of society, limit their access to information and their ability to interpret it, limit their life choices and limit their ability to achieve financial and living independence.”

“Overseas studies have found that women with disabilities, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or class are assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than non-disabled women (Sobsey, 1988, 1994; Cusitar,1994; Stimpson and Best,1991; DAWN 1988).

Sobsey (1988) suggests that 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. A qualitative study by Nosek, found approximately one third of women with physical disability had experienced sexual abuse at some stage in their life (Nosek, 1996). Similarly, in Doucette’s study of Canadian women with disabilities, 40% experienced abuse and 12% had been raped (Nosek, 1996).

There are relatively few studies into the incidence of physical violence and rates vary widely. A study for the Canadian Ministry of Community and Social Services in Toronto found 33% of women with disabilities were assaulted mostly by their husbands compared with 22% of non-disabled women (Nosek, 1996). Feuestein estimates that upward of 85% of women with disabilities are victims of domestic violence in comparison with 25% to 50 % of the general population (cited in Waxman, 1991).”

Full article and cites at

And if any of this sounds angry, yeah, I’m angry, I’m fucking furious. I’m furious that I constantly have to fight to be seen as more than just a ‘disability’, a ‘pity or charity case’. I’m sick of my very existence being put at risk, at my sanity being jepordised by having to live in a world where I am told - literally as well as figuratively, that other people, other women tell me that they think my life is meaningless, is a life that they would rather be dead than have to live, (and I have been accosted by people, women and men, in person to be told this), is something that they don’t want to concern themselves with.

I am a woman. I am a feminist. And my concerns do not fragment the movement. The inability of ablebodied women to acknowledge that my issues are also feminism’s issues fragments the movement.

My concerns belong in feminism, as do the concerns of all other women with disabilities. It is to your benefit, not just ours, that this is the case. Just because you’re not disabled now doesn’t mean that won’t change in the future, and certain concrete results of sexism - chronic illnesses resulting from poverty and poor health care, domestic violence - cause many disabilities in women.


sl.flett said...

Thankyou for your honesty, education and advocacy, i am sorry to say that i was unaware of the severe discrimination and abuse suffered by women with disability, but your passion has stopped my ignorance in its tracks and enabled me to be more humane and informed,

Ariella said...

My concerns belong in feminism, as do the concerns of all other women with disabilities. It is to your benefit, not just ours, that this is the case.

Y'know, as much as your argument that including the concerns of women with disabilities is of benefit to able-bodied feminists is a good one, and probably practical in some respects, it makes me sad that such an argument is necessary.

Incidentally, thank you for the link to the WWDA site; I didn't know it existed before.

spotted elephant said...

I'm glad I found this post *today*, as I really needed it.

I am a woman. I am a feminist. And my concerns do not fragment the movement. The inability of ablebodied women to acknowledge that my issues are also feminism’s issues fragments the movement.

Perfect. Just perfect!
*wild applause*

andrea said...

It's good to see you blogging again!

Jacq said...

Well said!! Thank you. I will definitely be looking up the article to use for future papers.

Liz said...

It still amazes me when people say "I would rather DIE than have to be (in a wheelchair, or whatever)" right to my face. Total strangers come up and say it!

- liz henry