Women – Moving Beyond The Disability


A paper written and delivered by Lina Geltrude Pane on behalf of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) at the 4th International Abylimpics Conference, Perth, 1 – 3 September 1995. Copyright 1995.


Introduction

In our society, women are frequently discriminated against simply because they are women. if you are then a woman with a disability, you are at a double disadvantage and then if you happen to come from a non-English speaking background or an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, you are subject to a triple (dis)advantage.

‘Half Way to Equal’, the Lavarch Report of the Inquiry Into Equal Opportunity, Equal Status for Women in Australia, reports that ‘women with disabilities experience double disadvantage because they are subject to constraints that arise from society’s expectations of women’s abilities, in addition to social attitudes towards people with disabilities. As a result, women with disabilities are at a greater disadvantage to men with disabilities and non-disabled women and the population at large. [1]

The Australian government, like others I’m sure, have policies, strategies and legislation for protecting the rights of people with disabilities, yet when it comes their implementation, there is still a long way to go. Major reports like ‘Women – Shaping and Sharing the Future’, ‘Half Way to Equal’ and the ‘National Women’s Health Policy’ [2] set out various services and programs for the benefit of women with disabilities, yet women with disabilities are still categorised as a ‘special interest’ group and their experience is separated and marginalised.

Disability has become the commonality of all people with disabilities, without the recognition of differences such as culture, class, gender, sexuality. People with disabilities are also seen as separate -not part of the ‘human race’ – simply because disability is affected by the degree and stigma of discrimination imposed on individuals by society. Society basically makes disability more of a handicap than it actually is for the person with the disability.

My argument is basic; that women and society, in general need to examine the experience of women as universal. This includes gender, age, culture, sexuality and disability. Whilst only women with disabilities can speak for women with disabilities, others with overlapping concerns such as non-disabled women and men with disabilities, are equally responsible in the task of working towards change.

This can be better understood by looking at four different issues that I will focus on today. They are the:

  • Inequality between men and women with disabilities in the sharing of power and decision making at all levels.
  • Insufficient initiatives to promote the advancement of women with disabilities.
  • Triple (dis)advantage – looking at women with disabilities from non-English speaking backgrounds.
  • Unmet health needs of women with disabilities.

The Inequality between Men and Women with Disabilities

Inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision making at all levels, has been identified as a main area of concern for the Australian Government as illustrated in ‘Women – Shaping and Sharing the Future’. [3]

Women, do not participate equally in decision making, either in parliament, decision making positions such as local government or as employers. However, some women are beginning to be heard, be counted and are in a position of sharing power with men. Society, at last is becoming aware of women’s role in society and women themselves are demanding to be heard and treated as equals.

What about women with disabilities, you may ask? Hannaford, writes that the position of women with disabilities is yet to be understood. [4] Lloyd also argues that this position is due to her being a woman and a person with a disability. This leaves her in a position of ambiguity. Where does her alliance lie? Is it to the women’s movement or the disability movement? Lloyd goes on to illustrate that the former is orientated towards non-disabled women and the latter towards disabled men. [5] Meekosher goes even further, stating that women with disabilities not only face inequality with regard to men with disabilities but also women without disabilities. [6] Women with disabilities are therefore marginalised and disempowered by the two movements which should be advocating for their rights.

Women with disabilities are ‘left merely to inhabit the empty space that the progress of women has left behind’. [7]

‘The Government, women’s movement and society, in general, view women with disabilities as having one identity, as they have ‘disabilities’. Although there are common concerns, these must be analyzed in the light of complexities which influence all people. Women with disabilities are not a separate group. Simply because disability is affected by the degree and stigma of discrimination imposed on individuals by society. Women with disabilities should have the same rights as other women men with disabilities and society at large. And if there needs to be extra services or legislation, this should not be seen as outside of the mainstream but as an extension of the mainstream. Vash argues that human beings are more alike than different, regardless of variances in the physical bodies, sensory capacities or intellectual abilities. [8]

What makes people different is the social construction of disability, like that of gender. The structures, institutions and values of the wider community also determine and define disability more than the biological characteristics of the disabled. [9]

Neither the disability movement nor the feminist movement, fully address the issues of women with disabilities as in the disability movement a woman faces sexism and disability alone is not a basis for collective organising. Anecdotal evidence also shows that men with disabilities are more likely to be in positions of power, while women with disabilities are more likely to be in supportive positions. In the feminist movement there are ‘oppressive ableist structures, beginning at the very basic level of physical access’. [10]

The experience of being a woman and having a disability needs to be linked and not separated. Disability and women’s organizations should put affirmative action strategies into effect. Disability should not be used as a category to separate the experiences of women with disabilities as this only marginalises and disempowers. Women with disabilities should be empowered and given funding, to take charge of their own lives.


Insufficient machinery at all levels to promote the advancement of women with disabilities

The promotion of women with disabilities to mainstream is inadequate. This includes federal, slate and non-government machinery.

The Australian Government has advocated and even implemented some policies, strategies and legislation to protect the rights of women with disabilities, yet the position of women with disabilities is changing less rapidly than other ‘disadvantaged’ groups. Government reports, specifically written about women, recognise that women with disabilities experience a double disadvantage or triple if ethnicity is involved. This recognition however, is still categorized as one of the ‘special needs’ group. [11]

Women with disabilities are mentioned and often a section, paragraph or page, is dedicated to them when writing reports such as those on health, violence, media etc. To relegate women with disabilities to one section or page, marginalises their concerns and confines them to a specialist group, rather than their concerns being fundamental to all policies, strategies and legislation One strategy to improve this position, would be the development and implementation of an affirmative action policy for women with disabilities, to bring social justice to women with disabilities. Successful affirmative action however, depends on the action being taken on a program by program basis, across the whole of the federal public sector. Furthermore, broad affirmative action policy should be developed along these lines, in state and local governments and the private sector.


Triple (Dis) Advantage – Women with Disabilities from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds

A research/literature report called ‘Triple (Dis)Advantage’ [12] which I wrote for the National Women’s Consultative Council in 1993, was based on examining the experience of women with disabilities from non-English speaking backgrounds, living in Australia. Fifteen women were interviewed, that were from non-English speaking backgrounds. Ten women had disabilities, while five were non-disabled women. who worked mainly with women.

A questionnaire even though not my first preference for gathering information, became my main research tool, as the women involved lived in different states of Australia. Two sets of questionnaires were used; one for women with disabilities and the other for non-disabled women.

The questions to the women with disabilities were based on issues of disability, culture and what it means to be a woman with a disability. While the questionnaire for non-disabled women, had similar questions, the difference was that I was investigating their attitudes and philosophy when working with people with disabilities, especially women.

What the consultation found was that:

  • disability should not be used to separate the experience of people with disabilities from other cultures, as this only perpetuates and reinforces the existing position of people with disabilities – that they are seen as disabled first.
  • when conducting research, gender, class and cultural issues should be emphasised much more than they are, and disability should not be seen as the primary topic.
  • there needs to be a greater exposure of positive images of women with disabilities, as at present there is no positive exposure. Women with disabilities are ‘invisible’.

The findings of the report support my argument, that women and society in general, need to view the experience of women as as inclusive of many different aspects, including, gender, age, culture, sexuality and disability.

One final topic that I should like to discuss with you, is the unmet health needs of women with disabilities, specifically looking at what the Victorian Women with Disabilities Network is trying to achieve in Victoria, with the assistance of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, who have given us a funding grant to look at the health needs of women with disabilities.


Unmet Health Needs of Women with Disabilities

Women with Disabilities experience the difficulty of overcoming the ‘power differential’ which impedes their taking responsibility for their own health care. [13]

National health policies, strategies and campaigns such as the ‘National Better Health for All Campaign’ do not seem to address the needs of people with disabilities. [14] Relegation of women with disabilities, to disability specific services is also implied by the National Women’s Health Policy, yet there seems to be no disability service that caters for the particular issues faced by female clients. [15] As long as women with disabilities are seen as less than whole people in a medical model, their anatomy will needlessly be the focus of their identity. [16]

Anecdotal evidence for women with disabilities also shows that they have particular difficulty accessing information and services. For example, not being able to find guidance or practical help when managing female health education, menstruation, contraception, exploitative relationships, sexual assault, menopause, late onset incontinence and osteoporosis. Although women’s health services are usually sympathetic, their services or facilities are often physically or intellectually, inaccessible to women with disabilities.

There is a general recognition that there is a lack of literature and research available about the needs and issues concerning the health care of women with disabilities. The issues surrounding the experience of motherhood for women with disabilities and sexuality in general is an unexplored area. There has been analysis and dialogue on issues of sterilization, the inadequacy of women with disabilities as mothers, and the AIDS concern for women with disabilities – all of which contribute to the negative attitudes of society. There has also been little work done on the parenting needs of women with disabilities, the appropriateness for mothers with disabilities or general sexuality issues of’ women with disabilities. [17]

Women with disabilities I believe, should be given support to set up their own health care needs support group, as this would enable women to take control of their own lives. These women should also be able to input their expertise into research and analysis carried out by health providers in the government and non-government sectors and to contribute to policy changes.

Finally, I would like to share with you an example of how ‘women move beyond the disability’, by looking at the Victorian Women with Disabilities Network, who work from the grass roots and are currently improving the position of women with disabilities.


Victorian Women with Disabilities Network

The Victorian Women with Disabilities Network, is a multi-diagnostic group of women with disabilities. Our membership at the moment, is approximately 240 women and growing. Our group has been meeting for the last three years as the Victorian Women with Disabilities Network, however women with disabilities have been meeting in Victoria for at least ten years. To talk about strategies of survival and the need to establish a group for women with disabilities, who seem to be ‘invisible’ to both the disability movement and the women’s movement.

Late last year we received funding from the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation to research the unmet health needs of women with disabilities in Australia.

What the Victorian Women with Disabilities intend doing, in summary, is holding six regional consultations in Victoria, which would cover both city and rural areas (such as Wangaratta, Ballarat Dandenong, Footscray and Reservoir). In each region both women’s health services and disability organisations would be asked to work together as facilitators for these workshops, so that the issues of being a woman with a disability is seen as a ‘whole’, and not separated. We also intend to hold a state wide phone-in that Health Sharing Women’s Health Resource Service, an umbrella organisation for women’s health services, have offered to provide over a weekend. Finally, we also intend to produce a brochure on women’s health for women with disabilities.

The Victorian Women with Disabilities, has shared this health project with you today, to illustrate how:

  • women with disabilities will be given a voice – become ‘visible’, by the provision of communication, information sharing, networking, advocacy, peer support and education;
  • others with overlapping concerns such as the women’s movement and disability movement are equally, encouraged and responsible in working towards change;
  • the experience of being a woman with a disability isn’t separated but kept as a ‘whole’ and;
  • the advancement of women with disabilities is supported through the grass roots of women based organisations.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with this thought…..

‘Women with disabilities want to be able to make choices, to take up opportunities and live independently as we can. We want to run our own lives and to have our needs met.'[18] We want to be free.


References

[1] Lavarch M. (1992), ‘Half Way to Equal: Report of the Inquiry into Equal Opportunity, Equal Status for Women in Australia’, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

[2] Office of the Status of Women (1994), ‘Women – Shaping and Sharing the Future: The New Agenda for Women 1993-2000’, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

[2] Commonwealth Department of Community Services and Health (1989), ‘National Women’s Health Policy’, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

[2] Lavarch M. 1992, ‘Half Way to Equal’. (as above).

[3] Office of the Status of Women (1994), ‘Women – Shaping and Sharing the Future’. (as above).

[4] Hannaford S. (1985), Disability and Society taken from ‘Living Outside Inside’.

[5] Lloyd M. (1989), Does She Boil Eggs? Towards a Feminist Model of Disability.

[6] Meekosha H. (1990) ‘Is Feminism Able-bodied?’ Refractory Girl, August 34-42.

[7] Hannaford S. (1985). Disability and Society, in ‘Living Outside Inside’.

[8] Vash C I. (1981), The Psychology of Disability, Springer, New York.

[9] Asch A. & M. Fine (1988), Women with Disabilities: Eassays in Psychology, Culture and Politics, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

[9] Meekosha H. &; J. Pettman 1991, ‘Beyond Category Politics’, Hecate, 17:2.

[10] Meekosha H. (I990) ‘Is Feminism Able-bodied’ in Refractory Girl August pp. 34-42.

[11] Pane L.. (1993). ‘Triple (Dis)Advantage’ in Australian Disability Review No.1993:3 Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

[12] Pane L. 1993, Triple ( Dis)Advantage (as above).

[13] Health Participation (1993). National Health Strategy Background Paper, No 12. March, p42.

[14] Better Health Commission (1987), Better Health For All, Australian Governemnt Publishing Service, Canberra.

[15] Commonwealth Department of Community Services and Health (1989), National Women’s Health Policy, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

[16] Blumberg L. (1993), ‘The Personal is Political – Medical Attitudes Towards Disability’, Health/PAC Bulletin, Summer 35-37.

[16] Geth L. (1989) ‘Attitudes Towards People with Disabilities’, Medical Journal of Australia Vol 157: Dec 7/21, p725-726.

[17] Westbrook, M T. &; D I. Chinnery (1990), Negative Attitudes Towards Physically Disabled Women Having Children, Australian Social Work Vol 43.

[18] Lavarch M. (1989), ‘Half Way To Equal’ (as above).