Posted 07 Mar 2021
International Women’s Day Challenge: Choose To Be Disability Inclusive
Every year in March we mark International Women’s Day, a day for celebrating women but also for highlighting the struggles and inequalities that still exist for women around the globe. This year the theme selected is “choose to challenge”.
The “choose” aspect of the theme feels especially poignant since the last few years have seen more people than ever come to realise that the work of social justice must not be passive or performative, it requires real engagement and an authentic commitment to action. It is also an important reminder to those of us that are in a position to choose that choice is a privilege unavailable to many, making it all the more important that those who can take a stand, do.
The “challenge” aspect of the 2021 theme is a little more open to interpretation, and no doubt means different things to different women. For me it resonates most in the context of challenging stereotypes and societal norms since that is what so much of my work is really about, but challenge could also mean to confront discrimination or oppression, and it could mean to challenge yourself.
This IWD I would like to challenge the idea that women’s rights and disability rights are separate issues. Through the work of Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw the world has come to know the term “intersectionality” but how many of us have taken steps to really understand the intersections that exist within the causes we care about, and truly examine our positions and potential biases? If you are a passionate feminist then it is your business to care about ableism, champion the causes of disabled women and amplify their voices. Disabled women are part of the norm, around 10% to be specific, that’s nearly 17 million women in the UK alone. We are not merely a side issue to be sympathetic to, our rights and freedoms are entwined with yours.
The Intersection Of Disability And Women’s Rights
Within any marginalized group you are likely to still find a hierarchy that reflects the biases of the world around it. Despite best intentions we know that sexism still exists in the disabled community and that ableism absolutely exists within the feminist movement. And we’re not just talking about a few bad apples either. Outdated and harmful views about disability are deeply ingrained and systemic so to address them we must be informed and wise to the issues. To give one example of the history here, I recently watched an excellent TEDx talk by Una Fonte, who has albinism and is legally blind. She explained the importance of intersectional feminism and referenced the support for Eugenics among some important feminist figures in order to encourage wider support for abortion rights and birth control. Yes, that’s right mid-century feminists argued that disabled people could be eradicated if women were given the ability to control their pregnancies, actually harnessing ableism as a tool to further an agenda that did not factor in the views or rights of disabled women. An ugly legacy and something that is rarely spoken about. In fact, aspects of that misguided thinking still exist today.
Beyond the skeletons in the closet there is often an erasure of disabled women in the conversation about gendered discrimination as well. When we talk about the pay gap for example we rarely mention that disabled women earn less than both disabled men and abled women. Did you know that in the UK “on average, non-disabled male employees earn £2.15 more (£13.88), compared to disabled male employees that are paid £11.80 per hour, and non-disabled female employees earn £1.53 more (£11.73) per hour compared to disabled female employees that earn £10.20 per hour?”. That’s a huge 36% difference.
And according to the UN disabled men are twice as likely to be in work than disabled women.
Earning Power Matters
In an essential report sponsored by ‘The Female Lead,’ Terri Apter follows up her 1994 work “women don’t have wives” to try and dissect why women are still absent from the top jobs, despite the changes in social attitudes and narratives over the past 25 years. I quote:
“Earning power relative to a partner was an important issue, just as it was in the 1994 study. Some women explained that, in earning less than a partner, they felt it was reasonable to make more time available to their partner by doing more domestic tasks themselves. The majority of women were determined to earn at least as much as a partner”
Until we have parity of income, individual nuclear families will always make the “rational choice” to prioritize a husband’s work, thus creating a reinforcing loop from which it is hard to break free,. The report goes into some depth concerning the psychology and social norms of women’s income disparity and the difficulties women have in feeling “entitled” to higher salaries. They refer to this as the “Entitlement Gap,” such a gap is a loop exacerbated for disabled women who are trained to see our accommodation needs as “a nuisance” and to “feel grateful” for having a job at all.
Employment isn’t the only area where we see this intersectional impact, disabled women are disadvantaged by gender in almost every category; they are more likely to be institutionalized, they are less likely to get a diagnosis since criteria tends to revolve around men as default, and they often have their autonomy and choice taken away from them in medical settings and when it comes to their reproductive rights.
If that isn’t enough to make us fired up and ready to challenge then I don’t know what would be.
My Challenges For You
Disabled women are all around you, we are parents, business owners, neighbors & key workers. Most importantly we are fully realized human beings with value. Our outcomes should not be limited and decided for us by others. But we need allies. If abled feminists don’t join us in fighting the discrimination that is specific to our disability and disabled men don’t join us in fighting the discrimination that is specific to our gender then we lack the momentum and voice that is needed for progress.
So this International Women’s Day I’m going to sign off with a few actions that fit the theme.
- Challenge yourself to think of disability as part of normal human diversity and therefore not a side issue.
- Challenge yourself to view feminism through a disabled lens and review your positions.
- Challenge yourself to engage with the disability community and learn what issues are important to us.
- Choose to speak up on issues that go beyond your own personal experience and amplify the voices of disabled women in your network.
Thank you to Helen Doyle for your essential contribution to this article.