‘What is the Impact of Disability on Gender?’

A paper written and delivered by Karin Swift (B. Soc. Sci. Grad. Dip. Hum. Ser.) on behalf of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) at the Communication Aid User Society Conference – “Communication is Unlimited”; Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, 2-3 April 1998. Copyright WWDA 1998.


All people with disabilities are at risk of being denied their gender. This is because many people with disabilities are not given the opportunity to fill important roles, such as mother, father, wife, lover, activist, feminist. This can have an especially detrimental effect on women with disabilities as they often have to put their disability first and their woman hood second. This can lead to pertinent issues effecting all women, such as health, domestic violence, feminism and sexuality, being overlooked or even denied of women with disabilities. This increases the vulnerability of women with disabilities as they are not seen to have the same issues as all women and they often lack vital information about their rights as they are unable or unaware to defend their right to have a presence within the feminist movement and indeed, wider society. Through telling women’s stories, this paper/presentation aims to challenge the notion that women with disabilities do not experience the same issues as all women and show the increasingly various roles women with disabilities are taking in society. Through showing a video about women with disabilities participating in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, this paper/presentation also hopes to demonstrate the valuable contribution that women with disabilities can make to the feminist movement and show that they have a right to be included in all parts of society and to feel proud that they are women.

Women’s Stories

Each of the following stories have been taken from the work of the New South Wales Women’s Advisory Council (1989). She wrote the book “I Always Wanted to Be a Tap Dancer” in 19? (Displays book).

Slide 1

This is Laurie. She has a tertiary education and began work as a secretary and personal assistant before moving into community development work in the disability area. Laurie is the founding member of Disabled Person’s International and Vice President of the First National Council of Disabled Person’s International. She was the Chairperson of the Disability Advisory Council of Australia. Laurie was a representative of the disability movement at the National Tax Summit where she presented a paper on the costs of disability. She represented Australian women with disabilities at the United Nations Decade of Women Conference in Nairobi. She has spoken at various other international conferences on disability issues. Laurie is currently the coordinator of a program called RAPS, for people between 18 and 30 years of age with physical disabilities. This program aims to build up peer support networks, confidence and self esteem. Laurie lives with her significant other. She is Australian and can speak English, French and Italian. Laurie likes theatre and music. mainly classical and participates in Yoga and awareness through music classes. She is studying aromatherapy and can make her own perfumes. She would like to practice aromatherapy and is interested in most forms of natural medicine. Laurie plans to take up fencing because she used to watch pirate movies as a child and always wanted to be a sword fighter or buccaneer. Laurie describes herself as ‘a bit of a confrontationalist. Its often the only way things change but it can cause problems for you sometimes’. Laurie has polio.

Slide 2

Rachel is 23 years old and lives in a residential facility. Before she turned 18, she lived with her parents in Cowra. Rachel is the youngest of five children and is of Anglo-Australian background. She completed Year 11 at High School and was employed for five months as a receptionist at Blacktown. Rachel is a widow with no children. Her interests include music, reading, horses, raging, ten pin bowling and singing. Rachel did one year at the Conservatorium where she was on a scholarship. Rachel describes herself as short, a bit overweight, good personality, and ambitious. “I want to study science. I try to get on with people”. About where she lives, Rachel says the following: “We are like one big happy family here sometimes. When somebody dies it is really hard. So I think people understood when Danny died and they knew it was different because he was my husband. We only had eight months together but I think we put more into eight months than some people put into a lifetime. We were never apart or away from each other, except for football. I couldn’t watch football when he watched it. I used to go out somewhere or talk to the people downstairs.” Rachel has limited mobility of her arms and legs.

Slide 3

Sandra is 41 years old and has a twin brother. From the age of one till twenty she lived in a babies home, a boarding school and a hostel. She left school and was employed as a telephonist with Telstra and is still there. She has only had one relationship and describes it as insecure. Sandra is Anglo-Australian, however learned French at school. She is distanced from her family due to geography. She likes music, reading, handicraft, tap dancing and socialising. Sandra is involved in a church group and various other committees for people with disabilities. She describes herself as 162cm high, with light brown hair, blue eyes, 55kgs, and intelligent. She is outgoing and likes people.

Sandra further describes herself as: “meticulous about my appearance and my house. I am fairly positive, but was not allowed to like myself while I was growing up. I find it hard to describe myself. I don’t relate to kids. They intimidate me. I don’t abide cruelty to kids. I don’t like to see them sick. I am a benefactor to the Children’s Hospital in Camperdown.” Sandra is blind.

Slide 4

Faye is 39 years old and has a secondary school education. She has worked as a clerical assistant, a home care education officer, coordinator and is currently a Senior EEO Adviser in the Premiers Department. She considers herself an Anglo-Celtic Aussie. Faye has five blood relatives and a large extended family. She has no children of her own but considers herself a mother of many. She is interested in issues that affect Aboriginal people and women. She likes to have heaps of fun and can appreciate the ironies of life. Faye considers herself to have an overactive sense of responsibility and too many activities in her life. She says that she cares what happens to other people. She describes herself in the following way: inflexible and intolerant at times, understates her own abilities, direct, determined, stubborn, intuitive, has a sense of personal integrity, strong but also fragile and vulnerable. Faye has arthritis.

Slide 5

Dominique is 33 years old and has her HSC. She has done some teachers training and now has a career in the public service. She has worked as an inquiry officer in the Anti-Discrimination Board. She has a Czechoslovakian father and a French mother and is Australian born. Dominique can speak French and English. She likes theatre, reading, friends, eating and drinking. She describes herself as an intelligent, caring, humorous woman with a bright future. She is a member of Disabled People’s International and the Disability Electoral Network. About herself, Dominique states the following: “I am now liking the person I am and that has never happened before, except for the briefest of periods. I am no saint….there is not a halo around my head…..and I get scared all the time. And I get really angry when I am told I am brave. I am not. I am a coward, a coward who is happy”. Dominique has cerebral palsy.

Slide 6

Patricia is 41 years old and has completed her Intermediate Certificate at school and has studied at Liverpool TAFE. Her mother has an Aboriginal background and she is the second eldest of nine brothers ad sisters. Patricia is married and separated. She had one daughter, Lisa, who died at 13 months. She lived alone for four years and then she met Bob, who moved in with her ten years ago. In the past Patricia worked as a waitress, now she lives on a superannuation pension. She says she has a good de-facto relationship with Bob and that she doesn’t want to get married. Patricia is an aunt and a good friend to many children. She enjoys playing pokies, cards, scrabble, knitting, hobbytex, and visiting her many friends. She gives the following description of her relationship with her family: “I always got on really well with my sisters and brothers and my mother and father. Most of my brothers and sisters live around here, all bar a couple or so. Even now, they spoil me something shocking. They come and take me out often”. Patricia has paraplegia.

Slide 7

Joan is 63 years old and four generations Australian. She got her Intermediate Certificate and then trained as an Early Childhood Teacher. Joan is widowed and has three children and seven grandchildren. She is writing an autobiography and is a counselling teacher. Joan describes herself as adventurous and a great survivor. Joan has polio.

Slide 8

Bronwyn is 39 years old and has a Bachelor of Arts. She has also received an Order of Australia Medal for services to people with disabilities, particularly in the area of education. In the past Bronwyn has been a teacher, a marriage counsellor and now lectures casually. She is married with two sons named Daniel and David. Bronwyn’s interests include movies, ballet, books and travel. She considers herself committed to the disability movement. She says she is friendly, outgoing and tends to throw her heart and soul into issues. Bronwyn is a quadriplegic and has had a stroke.

Slide 9

Annie was born in England and lives with a friend and has a lover who visits. She enjoys yoga, singing, reading, ferry rides, low level gardening, the women’s movement and gay radio. She reflects the following: “I have two images of myself, however, overall, I have a sense of myself as a strong, reliant person”. Annie has epilepsy and scoliosis.

Slide 10

Carol is 32 years old. In the past she has done some TAFE courses. She had a job babysitting a little boy for two years but then she worked at Redfern Legal Centre teaching people in sheltered workshops about their rights. She now works for Self Aid in Newcastle, helping them set up their office and answer phone inquiries. She lives with a friend in a Department of Housing Unit. Carol has no children but admits one day she might. She belongs to several rights based organisations for people with a disability in New South Wales. Carol describes herself in the following way: “I help people a lot. I feel that sometimes I give out more than I should but I like doing it. And I like working with the people I work with. I just like helping people”. Carol has a learning disability.


From listening to these stories of women with disabilities, it is easy to see that they have the same issues as moist women and that they have a right to access information about such issues. At a glance, the issues of women with disabilities include:

  • self-image and sexuality;
  • relationships;
  • domestic violence;
  • incest;
  • sexual harassment;
  • sexual assault;
  • health;
  • housing;
  • choosing to have children or not;
  • access;
  • advocacy and advice;
  • aids and appliances;
  • arts/media;
  • community action and networking;
  • education and training;
  • employment;
  • home care and home help;
  • money;
  • rehabilitation;
  • sport and recreation;
  • transport and access.

I have brought with me an InfoSheet I wrote along with a lot of other material on many of these issues. I have also brought information about Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA). Please feel free to help yourselves to any of this information. I even have some material in Braille.

The Video

To conclude this presentation, I would like to show a video entitled: Disabled Women: Visions and Voices. This video is a photo and audio documentary celebrating the experiences and accomplishments of women with disabilities at the First International Symposium on the Issues of Women with Disabilities, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995. In the video, women with disabilities from around the world passionately share their concerns and successes. Their stories show the diversity and commonality of women’s issues. I believe this video clearly demonstrates the beginnings of the inclusion of women with disabilities in the feminist movement and hopefully this video will promote and generate discussion in the Question time session of this presentation.