‘Discrimination Against Women With Disabilities’

Written by Margaret Cooper. This article originally appeared in the Australian Disability Review, Issue 4, pp. 69-71 (now ceased). Copyright 1993.

Women with disabilities are not protected by the Sex Discrimination Act or the Disability Discrimination Act when it comes to gaining access to a Disability Support Program. This paper seeks to explore and explain this issue for women with disabilities.

Social control has been used over those seen as not reflecting the grace of whatever god was worshipped by the community. Often the ungraced were women: witness the persecution of independent, lore learned women as witches. Physical and behavioural peculiarities of these women were often used as markers of deviance. These women were denied the same social opportunities as non-stigmatised women. I suggest this boundary keeping is akin to our current social legislation which keeps women with disabilities dependent on patriarchal welfare systems.

As a disability activist, and as a feminist of sorts, I support social change which gives all Australians a fair go. It is gratifying when social change is ratified, or enabled by legislation. As a woman with disabilities I could only give a huge sigh of regret as the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) revealed yet another legislative framework with loopholes large enough for women with disabilities to crash through.

To understand the DDA’s effect on women we first need to go back to the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) 1984. The objects of the SDA are:

  • to give effect to certain provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women;
  • to eliminate so far as possible, discrimination against persons on the ground of sex, marital status or pregnancy in the areas of work, accommodation, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services, the disposal of land, the activities of clubs and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs;
  • to eliminate so far as possible, discrimination involving sexual harassment in the workplace and in educational institutions; and
  • to promote recognition and acceptance within the community of the principle of the equality of men and women.

Well and good so far, but let’s look at he exemptions, where it is not unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sex. Section 39b of the SDA exempts voluntary bodies ‘in connection with the provision of benefits, facilities or services to members of the body.’ Other sections allow that religious bodies and charitable benefits are also exempt.

As the Department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services (HHCS) (Disability Programs Division) increasingly develops its role as funder and contracts out more service provision to voluntary agencies, one finds there is no statutory requirement for women to be equally represented in any disability program.

Recognising legislative deficits Lavarch 1992 recommended that relevant Federal government departments develop affirmative action programs for women with disabilities. The Lavarch Committee’s Recommendation 58 reads:

    • An affirmative action policy for women with disability be developed and implemented by the Departments of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services; Employment, Education and Training; and Social Security in relation to the Disability Services Program (DSP), the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service and the Disability Reform Package;


    • The Department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services work together with existing and potential competitive employment, training and placement services funded under the Disability Services Program to increase the numbers of women receiving those services, and in doing so, encourage and support women to obtain training and employment particularly in non-traditional occupations;


    • The Department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services funds a comprehensive study into the specific needs of women with disabilities to assist them with independent living. Further, that this study take account of the additional disadvantages experienced by women with disabilities who are aged, or of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or non-English speaking background. The Committee believes that there would be advantages for this study to be conducted by a research team of women with disabilities; and


  • The special needs of women with disabilities need to be accounted for in respect of financial independence, child care support, employment and training needs. In particular, evaluation of changes in disability allowances need to be evaluated in the light of their likely impact on women with disabilities.

The Government response of 1992 to the Lavarch Committee’s Recommendation 58 was: ‘That [it was] supported in principle��(HHCS) is developing a needs based planning approach to new service provision in the DSP�..which will operate in accordance with social justice principles.’ Sounds like more of the same to me.

Part of the problem may lie in DSP personnel not being fully aware of gender equity legislation. Changes to the Affirmative Action for Women Act 1986 which had exempted voluntary bodies from developing programs for women, were proclaimed 16/12/92 to cover, amongst other reforms, voluntary bodies with 100 or more employees.

The advent of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1992 has been long awaited. It has as its objects:

    • to eliminate, as far as possible, discrimination against persons on the ground of disability in the areas of: work, accommodation, education, access to premises, clubs and sport; and, the provision of goods, facilities, services and land; and, existing laws; and, the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs; and


    • to ensure, as far as practicable, that persons with disabilities have the same rights to equality before the law as the rest of the community; and


  • to promote recognition and acceptance within the community of the principle that persons with disabilities have the same fundamental rights as the rest of the community.

Sounds terrific, doesn’t it? However Sections 45-55 list a number of exemptions which include charities, which is to my mind, synonymous with the voluntary agencies contracted by the Federal Government to carry out disability programs. Section 49(1) reads: ‘This part does not:

  • affect a provision in a charitable instrument that confers charitable benefits, or enables charitable benefits to be conferred, wholly or in part on persons who have a disability or a particular disability; or
  • render unlawful any act done to give effect to such provision.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1988 revealed that women with disabilities are more often institutionalized, less likely to work for money, less likely to own a house, and less likely to receive requested personal care and household assistance than equivalent males.

It is impossible at present to get even guesstimates of the gender breakdown of disability services outcomes. Meekosha (1990) pointed to the lower rate of women with disabilities being included in various disability programs. Right now there is no legislative mechanism to give women equality of opportunity.

The concerns of women with disabilities were raised in a letter written to the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. The Minister replied:

The Government is concerned about the matters you have raised�..the Disability Services Programs Division in the Department of Health, Housing, Local Government and Community Services is developing a national action plan aimed at improving services access for women with a disability. In addition to specifically addressing recommendations from the Lavarch Report, the plan will also explore options for cross program and inter-departmental initiatives such as raising the profile of women with a disability in the National Women’s Health Strategy.’

Plans do not always lead to action, they are a poor substitute for legislated rights.

Anne Summers (1992) stated Australian women had won more legislative reform than their American counterparts. She believed this was because Australian feminists had agreed to ask for less than the predominantly male Houses of Parliament would balk at, in the hopes that later legislation would be enacted to strengthen the rights of women. The American women decided to settle for nothing less than their ideal Equal Rights Amendment, and lost.

The problem with this analogy is that women with disabilities were not involved in gender based discussions about either the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) or the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and we’ve lost. Twice.