‘Empowerment and Women With Disabilities’

A Paper by Margaret Cooper. Copyright 1995.

Empowerment is a word used a lot by social activists and community developers. What does it mean for women with disabilities?

Women often start explaining an idea by describing how their own web of knowledge grew. That way others can check whether they have had similar experiences which may have led to similar conclusions and ideas which can be shared and developed.

Empowerment to me means taking hold of personal strengths and using them to develop personal power and directing that force to attain personal goals. It also means sharing what works for me with other women with disabilities so they can develop their own strengths. If enough women want to share knowledge and power over their own circumstances, then a women’s group is born.

Taking hold of personal power is a huge challenge for someone with disability especially when the disability is severe enough that it affects physical, economic, and social independence.

Being female as well should be an advantage but often a community devalues females and if the individual is also disabled she can experience double disadvantage. Triple disadvantage can happen if the woman is of a different cultural background to most of the community she lives in. The disadvantage can be multiplied if the woman stands out in some other way, such as being single when all her friends are marrried, or preferring to dye her hair green.

Accepting disadvantage is accepting the role of victim. We are not victims.

Getting out of the role of victim means taking a good hard look at ourselves, those around us and finding out what are our true goals, who shares them and what we can all do together to achieve social equity.

Many societies are like Australia, where women with disabilities are less likely than men to be in employment or training, less likely to own their own homes and less likely to be married. Women with disabilities here are more likely than men with disabilities to be sterilised, more likely to be institutionalised, and more likely to be grass roots members of disability organisations rather than amongst the leadership.

Many women with disabilities sharing their experience, knowledge and research by writing are largely unfunded or given pathetically small grants.

Gaining power over the consequences of disability is damned hard and a lifetime battle. Those of us with secondary disabilities caused by childbearing, or ageing, or an unwise lifestyle know just how easy it is to slip into lethargy and give up.

For me the best way to get on top of it all was by getting to know my physical enemy by studying the research, attending relevant conferences, getting multiple medical opinions, and finally writing articles about it so I could get feedback on my thoughts. Then I set about reorganising aspects of my job, housework and attendant care to reduce the effect of the new disability on my life.

Exercising the next power, the power of knowledge and experience, is difficult for women with disabilities, simply because of the entrenched opposition of males who feel marginalised by society. We cannot allow that opposition to continue. If we think we can use our experience to run, for example, an advocacy service to enable others with disability to speak up for themselves, then we should. Why do we find it is so hard to assert ourselves?

Maybe the devaluing of different disabilities leads us to be less confident about ourselves. Maybe negative experiences as a woman in our society lead us to feel we should always appease others who may be in a position to reject us. So we smile and are nice to the people who patronise.

Certainly that’s the way I felt once. I have been involved with disability organisations for decades but usually not at a leadership level. Men with disabilities sought me out and talked me into becoming involved in leadership positions. I had no role models, but I was impressed by Rhonda Galbally who is now the executive director of VicHealth, a huge health promotion body. She was the first woman with disability who I had seen sell her challenging of the thinking of the health and welfare systems. Rhonda was only fleetingly involved with consumer controlled disability organisations.

During my time as Vice-President Policy of Disabled People’s International (Australia) I asked lots of questions and tried to share what I learned. We developed an affirmative action policy but noone practised it. Frequently I was hurt and puzzled by personal attacks rather than criticism of my work. Some men would listen to what I said at a meeting then restate my concept in their own words and get the group’s approval! As the opinions of myself and my policy network became troublesome to the economic rationalist side of the organisation, more and more effort was spent by them in trying to control us.

There are three lessons for other women here. Firstly we need to understand the language of economic rationalists and reframe policy goals in terms they can understand. Secondly we should not underestimate how much marginal males will do to keep control. Thirdly if a woman is running for a leadership position she must divest herself of negative relationships and build up a team of trustworthy advisers.

In the meantime I was nominated as DPI(A)’s nominee to the 4th National Women’s Consultative Council. What a difference! We did some amazing things like acknowledging each other’s point of view as equally valid, listening to everyone’s opinion on issues, practising consensus decisionmaking, thinking up ways by which other women could receive assistance to reach their goals. All those activities are time consuming but are infinitely more empowering than the old ways.

This led me to read more about feminism. Many men had warned me not to become like “them…hairy legged, ugly, angry…man hating…never listening to an argument…in fact they’re irrational and frustrated.” We’ve all heard variants on that theme.

My concept of feminism now is very simple. I believe feminists are those women who are getting to their goals and who are also assisting other women up and out of victimised positions. When one woman gains an opportunity then I feel she has an obligation to bring another woman through the door with her. Working with women’s organisations are one way of doing this. There are other ways like creating art, teaching, listening, being a real friend.

It is very important that we grow our organisations and develop new alliances with other feminist groups. We often share the same issues as women in poverty, women in public housing, women against beauty quests, so let us combine resources on specific campaigns, so women show their combined strength. As Naomi Wolf says “we must replace the sentimentalised model of sisterhood with a pragmatic model of affiliation.” (Wolf, N. “Fire with Fire.” Chatto and Windus 1993).

Development of women’s groups and organisations needs to be carefully done so that we empower women at every level to participate in decisionmaking. We must avoid the traps of traditional agencies where an elite rules the members. Our representatives to any committees or conferences must feel accountable back to every member.

Hopefully with women’s advocacy groups growing around Australia, like Women With Disabilities – Australia, and more publications by women with disabilities, other women with disabilities will have been empowered by lots of role models and lots of shared knowledge. If we can effectively connect with women’s groups around the nation or around the world there’ll be no stopping us!