‘Women of the Shadow Universe’: The Relationship Between Gender and Disability and its Effect on the Lives of Women With Disabilities – A Preliminary Survey

Written by Diana Palmer and Patricia Woodcoft-Lee. This paper was prepared for the First National Women’s Conference, University of Canberra, 29 September – 1 October 1990. Copyright 1990.


Approximately 16% of Australians have a disability. Just under half of these are women (1), 15.2% of Australian women to be exact. However, although this is a sizeable chunk of the population, yet one which has until very recently been largely ignored, by policy makers, academics and the women’s movement. it is also notable that, although there are almost as many females as males identifying as having a disability, the education and labour force participation rates for women are considerably lower for women and for men (2).

This paper attempts to analyse the factors which contribute to the lack of awareness, not only of the needs of women with disabilities, but even of their very existence. We have chosen to concentrate on women with disabilities because they have specific problems. They are not necessarily worse off than men with disabilities but because of their roles as wives, mothers and primary care givers to families, and because society’s perception of them are complicated by widely held assumptions about the image and role of women, their problems are different from those of men.

There has been to date a reluctance on the part of the disability rights movement to address gender issues and a reluctance on the part of the women’s movement (including feminist academics and ‘femocrats’ to acknowledge the special needs of this particular group of women.

The fact that people with disabilities are regarded as being ‘different’ is borne out by the reaction of conference organisers to the offer of papers on the subject of women and disability; one is usually greeted with sympathetic remarks about how issues of ‘health’ and ‘welfare’, really need to be addressed. People with disabilities are apparently thought to be exclusively and obsessively concerned with the subject of their (presumably poor) health and what benefits they can extract from the welfare system (3).

The fact is of course that all people with disabilities (and that includes women) are interested in these subjects, only to the same extent as the rest of the population. We all want good affordable health care for ourselves and our families. Many of us will need access to welfare services at some time in our lives, and we will be concerned that such services should be provided by governments. We are however equally concerned about other aspects of our lives – education, career, home and family, hobbies and recreation, causes of various kinds. So too with people with disabilities. Yet there appears to be a persistent tendency to lump them into an amorphous mass known as the ‘disabled’ or worse still the ‘handicapped’ whose interests are supposedly limited to free health care and pensions.

The shadow universe

It is almost as if people with disabilities are alien beings who inhabit one of those alternative universes, the existence of which scientists have begun to postulate recently (4), an impenetrable, unknowable shadow universe where the ordinary conventions of human society do not apply.

There are a number of reasons for the continuing tendency to relegate persons with disabilities to this shadow universe, a tendency which is as well entrenched in the women’s movement as anywhere else, but they all ultimately derive from the way in which society has always viewed disability as alienating, as being a ‘handicap’ which prevents a person from leading a fulfilling and useful life. There is a widely held belief that the mere fact of having a disability is the cause of all a person’s problems. This is simply not true in the majority of cases. A disability may be uncomfortable to carry about, but it does not of itself constitute a handicap. The handicap arises from the barriers which people with disabilities encounter in the social milieu in which they live. Melbourne disability rights activist Fiona Strahan stated this proposition very clearly in her address to an International Women’s Day rally in 1989:

“It (disability) is not a medical problem. Nor is able-ism just a set of prejudicial ideas about disabled people……Our societal position has been shaped by history and is inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture. There is no reason to assume that medical conditions or physical, emotional or intellectual differences are disabilities or that they should be necessarily stigmatising”.

In Strahan’s view, the marginalisation of people with disabilities derives from the period of the industrial revolution, when they began to be regarded as useless for generating productivity and hence profits, like broken machines. This is compounded by the exaggerated individualism of modern western society where it is almost a crime not to be self-sufficient and independent. She concludes:

Disability keeps being regarded as problematic for society, not as a socially constructed problem.

There is some support for Strahan’s argument in the format of the Australian Bureau of Statistics publication Disability and Handicap, which provides statistics on the number of persons with disabilities in Australia and their educational, employment and residential status. The publication distinguishes between people who have a disability and people who are ‘handicapped’. It defines handicap as a limitation in performing certain tasks in relation to one or more of the following five areas:
a) self care;
b) mobility;
c) verbal communication;
d) schooling;
e) employment.

In many cases limitations in these areas are not so much a result of the disability per se, but a function of the environment in which the person has to operate. For example, mobility may not be so much of a problem where there is adequate public transport, or where there are wheelchair accessible buildings; schooling may not be a problem where there are sufficient teachers trained to assist the child with a disability. It might be more appropriate for the community to request its statisticians to tabulate the number of people with a disability who experience barriers to their day to day activities. Such an approach would automatically focus attention on the way society functions in relation to people with disabilities, rather than implying that there is a class of person who is invariably ‘handicapped’ irrespective of the social milieu in which they live.

Strahan also points to the particular problems facing women with a disability:

“Society’s resources are unavailable to us because we have been structurally defined as unemployable as well as unable to fulfil traditional female roles (5). (Emphasis added), a theme to which women with disabilities return again and again.

One of the reasons for the lack of attention to the specific problems of women with disabilities in the past (at least in the area of the social sciences) appears to have been their almost total invisibility. There was simply no easily available data on which to base any supportable conclusions.

Until very recently most women who had a disability led very limited lives. It was expected that their families would ‘look after’ them, and if they were too old for that, some organisation would do so. They had little or no access to such services as career counselling, marriage guidance counselling and family planning advice. This lack of opportunities to make informed choices about their own lives perpetuated a sense of dependence and” a feeling that one ought to be grateful to the service providers, even if one felt that on occasion the quality of services could be improved.

Given this background of dependency of women with disabilities, bureaucrats dealing with women’s issues have been obliged to consult parents, and service providers rather than the women themselves. An example of this was the consultations on setting the National Agenda for women conducted by the Office of the Status of Women (OSW) (6).

EEO coordinators are still coping with the overhang from this past conditioning as they try to encourage women with disabilities to exercise their right to some control over their working lives. Recently, however there have been a small number of women speaking out about their experiences of living with disability. They are still few in number but they are able to illuminate the shadow universe to some degree, and thereby to reveal it as not too different from the world which ‘normal’ people inhabit.

Women who speak out

Disability an Issue is a small booklet compiled by the Melbourne based Women with Disabilities Feminist Collective, around 1988. It contains a number of articles and poems in which women voice their anger at the way in which they are viewed by able-bodied society and at the destructive effects stereotypes of both femininity and disability have had on their lives. Jane Smith describes the all pervading tyranny of the stereotypes thus:

“I spent too many years trying to “pass” as an able-bodied woman. It was a ridiculous farce with a curved spine and a pronounced limp……I was socialised into believing that being able-bodied was best. Not just able-bodied, but with some ideal of physical perfection as the goal one had to fill within a social norm – not too short and not too tall, not too fat and not too thin and classically, symmetrically beautiful. Step outside this arbitrary well-defined boundary and you are a deviant.”

She states that she is only just learning to accept her body image even though she does not like it, “it is part of me and I do like myself.”

She attributes the strength to confront the stereotypes to “the support of women friends who have given their trust and the strength to question accepted values. And I am starting to meet other disabled women who I’m learning from and growing with, that’s of prime importance to me. I am no longer isolated and our struggle with internal and external prejudice is united.”

Jane Smith’s experience of group solidarity, however is probably not yet the norm, as the stories of other women with disabilities testify.

In the same collection Lesley Hall (8) addresses the injustice done to women with disabilities by the continuing use by service providers of beauty quests, to raise money for people with disabilities, who can never conform to the image they present. Hall states:

“Women are told that beauty is equivalent to success…..We have an image to conform to. Aspiring to this image necessitates competing with other women. Both the image and the competition is reinforced by advertisements and by beauty quests. Beauty quests are the epitome of competition” (9).

She contrasts the image of the contestants with that of the people for whom the money is raised. They are presented as “childlike and in need of the public’s pity”. She considers that attitudes towards disability are not formed accidentally. “They are the obvious outcome of a society that values competition between people. People are judged according to their success in education, work, marriage, the ability to produce (healthy) offspring, creativity and beauty”.

People with disabilities are not beautiful by the standards of our culture and because of their marginal position few to date have had the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary for success in education, employment or any other high status activity. Hence the perpetuation of their image as objects of charity.

Hall argues that the juxtaposition of the images of the confident, attractive beauty quest entrant and the pathetic, dependent people for whom she is raising money is particularly destructive for women with disabilities and for this reason (at least the more articulate) women who are disabled oppose beauty quests:

“Because of our disabilities this standard (of beauty) is impossible to attain. Every time we are judged against it we inevitably fail. We become second class women…….People in the community must be allowed to develop positive attitudes towards us. The abolition of beauty quests will be a significant step towards this end” (10).

It should be noted that courageous women with disabilities like Lesley Hall have had very little support from the women’s movement in their fight to abolish beauty quests as a form of fund raising. Although feminists as a whole detest beauty quests, they have made little attempt to address the special case of women with disabilities. Able-bodied feminists do not appear to have assisted the women to the extent which might have been expected with their demonstrations etc. against the quests.

It is not only the activists among women with disabilities who feel that to date they have been treated as second class citizens. At the ACROD National Consultation on the Design of Aids and Appliances for Women funded by the National Women’s Consultative Council in 1984, a group of women, many of whom had never spoken out publicly before expressed their anger because they felt “many disabled women had missed out on the richness of life because of their low self-image and self-esteem” (11).

A number of the women present admitted they had absorbed the stereotypes of disabled women into their own self-image and in the critical early phases of disablement found it a battle not to reduce their own aspirations to the negative expectations of others.

The title of the published proceedings of the consultation I Want to be Visible is taken from the comment of a young woman, who had left a sheltered workshop. Since leaving the workshop, she and her friends had started their own self-help group, and they all now felt more self-confident: “I was going backwards in the workshop”, she said. “Putting serviettes into bags does little to raise the level of one’s self-esteem. I want to be visible, not hidden away. I want to be an individual and self-confident.”

The issue of sexual harassment of disabled women is one that participants felt needed attention. It is rarely reported, and is instead commonly endured. Again there is almost nothing about the danger to young women with disabilities in any of the literature on violence against women. They appear not to be considered a group at risk, although given their position of powerlessness in society the reverse is true.

Evidence from oral histories

Perhaps one of the most revealing glimpses into the ‘shadow universe’ is provided by the publication in 1989 by the NSW Women’s Advisory Council of I Always Wanted to be a Tap Dancer – a collection of twelve tape recorded interviews with women of varying ages and socio-economic backgrounds who all have the common experience of disability. Although the impact of the book is somewhat undercut by the lack of analytical rigour in its introduction (a must if the best use is to be made of oral histories), it is by far the best source material on the subject of women and disability available to date.

With the exception of former full time disability rights activist Laurie Alsop, none of the group has the intellectual stature of a Fiona Strahan or a Lesley Hall. They are however all intelligent women with a great deal of personal charm whose lives have been affected, mostly for the worse, by society’s attitudes to disability.

A number of them echo the feelings of Hall and Smith on the necessity to conform to an image imposed by the culture in which they live. Laurie Alsop states that as a teenager:

“I found it hard to think that I was attractive. How could I be? I had a disability. It is so difficult to form a good self image if you have a disability, particularly if you are a woman. In the media there are no positive role models presented to us to learn from. You don’t see many positive portrayals of people with disabilities on television or films, and never in advertising. It is as if we don’t exist. Nothing is reflected back to us to reinforce a positive sense of ourselves”.

Most of the women found it hard to develop a positive self image. Those who had been born with a disability or had developed one as young children had found teenage years difficult. Those who had become disabled later in life found adjusting to other peoples’ perceptions of them as a problem.

There is anger and frustration at having to be seen to ‘cope’ in order to put people around them at their ease. Able-bodied people apparently feel better about disability if people with disabilities are cheerful and coping (12).

There is also a feeling that one is expected to be grateful, to carers, to employers, to all sorts of people (13) and that this prevents the articulation of wants and feelings on the part of the person with the disability. Dependence on others or the fear of becoming dependent is a common thread, linking the life histories (14).

Above all there is a sense of drifting with the tide, of opportunities missed, through the existence of barriers, which need not have existed, and which a more equitable society could easily remove.

Even the career plans of the younger women, Rachel and Dominique are formulated more in terms of vague longings and aspirations, rather than definite goals or objectives. It is almost as if having such aspirations was in itself an act of great daring instead of the right of every young person in an affluent modern society, and that therefore the women do not like to be too specific about them, lest they vanish like a mirage.

One cannot escape the impression that the talents of the women are vastly under-utilised. Only two of them, Fay Druett, (Senior EEO Adviser in the NSW Public Service) and Maggie Smith (University lecturer) had anything like careers (as against jobs) at the time of publication. Some of the women have managed to develop a career out of their expertise in disability related activities, such as legal aid and anti-discrimination but this did not necessarily guarantee them a permanent living. (Laurie, Fay and Carol) (15).

Another important theme running through the interviews is the lack of group identification. Again only Laurie Alsop and Carol Pein have any real political awareness. Some of the women openly distance themselves from any involvement with others of their kind (Rachel, Joan) while others seem unaware that group involvement, could be of any use to them (Annie). Some see involvement only in terms of their own diagnostic group (Dorothy) (16).

One or two speak of being involved in the women’s movement, but do not seem to feel that women with disabilities have specific needs which could be addressed within the context of this movement. One gains the impression that for some, the problems of daily living appear to take such a toll, that they can do little else but cope from day to day. Yet paradoxically only collective action can change the social conditions that make the lives of women with disabilities unnecessarily burdensome.

The attitudes of the women in Tap Dancer appear from our personal experience to be more typical of the majority of women with disabilities (at least outside the major cities) than the social analysis and sense of group solidarity so eloquently expressed by Strahan, Hall, Smith and Alsop.

The social conditioning of women with disabilities has engendered in some an excessive timidity, often manifested in extreme conservatism and devotion to structures of authority. Such women are afraid to complain about their working conditions, afraid to join unions and highly critical of any person with a disability who is suspected of asking for something for nothing from the system. (For example the authors’ were once acquainted with a woman who considered provision of technical equipment for disabled Commonwealth employees was double dipping, ie: they should pay for such equipment out of their pensions). Such persons are never heard to criticise the Government or the service providers.

Others spend their time in the fruitless pursuit of what ‘normality’ described by Jane Smith. The authors were also acquainted with a woman who had a visual impairment but who would not support the campaign of other disabled library users for a microfilm enlarger in the National Library, on the grounds that she would be noticeable if she used it. “I just want to be normal” she said, as if peering uncomfortably into a microfilm reader was likely to go unnoticed.

Although some of the social myths which played such a destructive role in the lives of older women with disabilities in the past are breaking down, (for example the empty headed beauty queen is no longer universally admired as the feminine ideal) others have arisen to take their place.

The cult of success – targeting for the top

One which appears particularly dangerous, because bureaucrats, academics and even sections of the women’s movement are so infatuated with it is the cult of the glamorous successful career woman which has taken root along with the ‘free market’ economic philosophies of the 1980’s.

Marian Sawer describes the rise of the ‘corporate woman’ of the 80s thus:

“Women were urged to compete and ‘target for the top’ in this new world dominated by economic rationalism and by the elite doctrines of managerialism. Networking was promoted as an instrument of career success rather than an expression of feminist solidarity” (17).

Sara Dowse, sometime Director of the Office of Women’s Affairs, laments the passing of the egalitarian spirit of the early Women’s movement.

“There was nothing in this program (of the women’s movement) about becoming bankers or bureaucrats and exerting power over anyone else. There was nothing about getting to the top. The movement was about releasing women from their bondage, physical and psychological; it was about, yes, liberation” (18).

There may have been a place for the woman with a disability in Dowse’s egalitarian liberation movement, if she had the political awareness to take advantage of it. There appears to be very little space at all for her in the elite world of the ‘femocrat’ or the ‘femocapitalist’, unless she can gain access to the skills which are valued so highly in these circles. Strahan, Hall and others would suggest that she has not been notably successful in this so far.

There is nothing wrong with women (or men) being successful and enjoying the fruits of hard work and creativity. What renders the new paradigm of female success doubly dangerous is a tendency among policy makers to concentrate on providing opportunities for women at this level, while ignoring the needs of those lower down the social scale and the slow but steady increase in popular culture of the identification of success and glamour.

In recent years a flourishing ‘industry’ has grown up around the contemporary career women both in Australia and overseas. It has generated academic projects such as Leonie Still’s Women in Management study. This has spun off into three books on the subject with the arresting titles: : Everything a Woman Needs to Know About Winning the Corporate Battle, Becoming a Top Woman Manager and Enterprising Women. They explore the paths to success of Australian women managers, their motivation, their goals, the strategies they employ to reach them. None of the 54 women interviewed has a disability, or if she does she keeps it well hidden.

In a similar vein Lana Wells Knowhow explores the ‘career success secrets’ of 36 successful women. Interestingly, one of these women, Rhonda Galbally, who contracted polio as a young child admitted that her disability probably had an impact on her desire to achieve, but she believes she has turned this into ‘something positive’. “I don’t think people relate to me about my disability” she says dismissively. She does not appear to relate to other women with disability either. There is no suggestion that she could be a role model for such women (19).

Both Still and Wells highlight the need for the ambitious woman to fit in with the corporate culture, to develop her presentational skills, to network with the right people and to seek out the areas where promotion is most likely. Still warns against working in “women’s areas or ghettos, such as EEO, while (they are) socially desirable…they are considered peripheral and a burden to the mainstream organisation”. Whatever happened to Dowse’s egalitarian ideals?

Still’s studies concentrate on management skills and personal development, Wells takes it one step further and discusses personal appearance and clothes. She notes “how you package yourself, using clothes, jewellery, hairstyles and makeup, influences others in their perception of you” (20).

There is nothing wrong in being appropriately dressed for the office, perhaps this is something all young women should be aware of from the time of their first job, but there are also disturbing elements in this emphasis on personal appearance. It may result in the intrusion of elements into the selection process, other than those relating to qualifications for a job.

While Wells is fairly restrained in her advice on dress, magazines targeted at career women, such as Portfolio, openly project the idea of a nexus between career success and glamour, both in self presentation and as the reward of success. The successful woman is not only good at her job, she is physically fit, looks beautiful, wears stylish expensive clothes, drives an expensive, imported car and dines at the best restaurants. A glance at some of the articles and illustrations in Portfolio over the last few months will confirm this impression. The successful women are by and large, thin, elegant and of course able bodied (21)! There is an implicit assumption in the literature that to be like these women, ie: with a highly paid, high profile job, is a state to be desired and striven for. Money and success are held in higher esteem than socially useful, fulfilling work. These are the role models which are being held up for young women entering the labour market.

One of the dangers flowing from the cult of the successful career woman is the tendency of management’s in some cases to target their EEO Programs to the needs of this group. Most public servants will be aware of agencies where the management believe that EEO is about ‘senior women’ and the other target groups run a poor second. This is not the case across the Service, but an increase in the number of women in the SES is still thought of as a measure of the success of EEO Programs in some areas. Special opportunities are provided for them, such as attending high level meetings, taking short term secondments in prestige areas etc. There are opportunities available to this group to which junior staff do not have access. The SWIM (Senior Women in Management) Program is targeted to the SES feeder group and the PSC occasionally runs courses such as Writing Winning Resumes, exclusively for women at the ASO 7 and 8 level.

In private enterprise there are probably fewer official programs in place to assist in the development of women managers, which is why the bulk of the advice in books and magazines is directed to meeting the needs of aspiring women managers in the private sector.

There is also another, and in the long term perhaps greater, danger in the promotion of the notion that success necessarily equals glamour. If it is promoted long enough, it can gradually build up an image of the type of applicant managers and personnel officers associate with women in the workforce. If one is expected be super fit and dress in the latest fashions to be seriously considered as a competent candidate for any position this automatically excludes a sizeable chunk of the female population.

In her controversial work The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf argues that contemporary society’s obsession with physical appearance, carefully cultivated by the cosmetics and weight loss industries, has worked to exclude large numbers of European and American women, not only from high status jobs but even from the paid workforce. She contends that this has come about because it has proved extremely difficult in the US and Britain at least, to convince anti-discrimination tribunals that the appearance requirements of employers are discriminatory and are not legitimate qualification for the particular job. Older women, plum women, plain women are all therefore starting behind the eight ball when applying for jobs (22).

Ms Wolf does not take her argument to its obvious conclusion, that if employers and the community in general are conditioned to accept a certain image of women workers, this would automatically exclude women with disabilities from the workforce, since no expenditure on cosmetics, diets and fashion can make them conform to the stereotype. However it does not take too great a leap of the imagination for women with disabilities to take the argument this one step further. Indeed it is obvious from the discussion on the image of women with disabilities, quoted above, that women disability rights activists, such as Strahan, Hall and Alsop have been thinking along the same lines for some time.

In the Australian context, Wolf’s thesis may seem a little exaggerated. As yet there does not seem to be as much emphasis by Australian employers on appearance as she describes, nor do Australian career women generally spend as large amounts on beauty and fitness as their American counterparts, but her research deserves to be heeded both by women with disabilities and by EEO practitioners and counteracted wherever possible.

Workforce participation of women with disabilities – targeting for the bottom?

There is considerably less publicity about the problems of women seeking to enter the labour force or working in junior poorly paid jobs, which is where the bulk of women with disabilities, who have been able to secure a job at all, are to be found. Of all groups in Australian society women with disabilities are probably the most disadvantaged in terms of workforce participation.

A former member of the National Women’s Consultative Council, Robyne Burridge, presented a report to the June 1989 meeting of the Council stating that according to the 1981 Census figures, only 28.4% of women with disabilities were in the paid workforce, as against 49.5% of men with disabilities, 52.7% of all women and 70.1 % of the total population.

Results of the 1988 survey of ‘disabled and handicapped’ persons, published in 1990 indicate that, although workforce participation for both males and females with disabilities has increased, the disparity between males and females still exists. Workforce participation rates for males classed as ‘disabled, not handicapped’ are 87.4% and for males classed as ‘handicapped’ 54.5% (23). The same figures for females are 55.3% and 36.9% respectively. This would seem to indicate that there are specific barriers to the employment of women with disabilities which do not exist for other minority groups.

Burridge also notes that figures from the Department of Social Security as at 6 January 1989 show that of people with disabilities receiving the Sheltered Employment Allowance only 36% were female, just over half the number of males. She adds that the majority of clients in Activity Therapy Centres (ATC’s) (52.1%) were female and believes this may reflect the stereotype that women’s primary need is for non-vocational training.

In 1983 the National Committee on Women’s Issues of the Australian Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (ACROD) (24) first looked at figures on participation of women in sheltered employment and ATCs – generally the ratio of males to females in employment was 2:1. It was felt desirable to know what factors had led to this situation. Burridge comments that a submission, presumably to the Department of Community Services and Health (DCH) to do a study in the area was subsequently unsuccessful. She also draws attention to the fact that the low participation rate in services also applies in rehabilitation units.

1982-83 figures from the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service (CRS) show that only 26% of their clients were women. By February 1989, the participation rate of women had risen to 36%.

In its December 1988 Policy Statement on Access for Women, CRS states that it will aim to achieve an annual increase of 2-3 percent per annum in the national participation rates of women in the next 4-5 years. The 1989-90 national target for representation of women in the CRS client group will be 39 percent. The CRS to do this by providing appropriate and effective programs for women with disabilities.

Another statistic quoted by Burridge is that in the September Quarter 1987 of the people registered as unemployed, 12% were disabled and of this 12%, only 2% were women with disabilities (25).

One wonders what has happened to the women with disabilities. Are they all out there competing for those top management jobs? Or are they the hidden unemployed discouraged from registering with the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) because of disillusion with the seemingly insurmountable barriers to their workforce participation? (26)

Interestingly it appears that, where employment programs are targeted to groups with specific needs, women with disabilities can be successfully placed. For example only 10.3% of people placed by CES in Wage Pause Programs in 1984 were women and of these women, 4.1 % were disabled. Of the four groups targeted in this Program (Aborigines, Disabled, Persons with language difficulty and Out of trade apprentices) placements for people with disabilities were consistently higher and disabled women compared favourably with disabled men (4.1 % : 5.5%).

A sampling of the 12 specialised training programs for people with disabilities now funded under Skill-Share also shows consistently higher participation rate of women. Given that there evidence that women will participate in employment programs which suit their needs ACROD has expressed a concern that traditional community attitudes are still a big factor in the lower participation of women in services funded by Government:

“The problem is not so much whether it is best to stay at home on the invalid pension or work in sheltered employment but rather women are often just not being given that second option – it would appear that there are still many instances where well-meaning family and professionals are virtually saying no to vocational opportunities without consulting the disabled young women involved”.

If this fact is obvious and a cause for concern to service providers, it ought to be just as obvious and even more of a cause for concern for the women’s movement and those involved in formulating government policy for women (27). It should also be of paramount concern to women with disabilities themselves. Yet the habit of letting others make decisions is hard to break: women with disabilities have been protected from failure by both parents and professionals, and in many cases are still fearful of taking responsibility for their own lives.

Figures from a 1981 phone-in for women with disabilities in SA indicate that 32% (6 out of 28 women) believed that they did not have the same opportunities in employment as men with disabilities. This was attributed to the higher social position of men, and the traditional view of men as breadwinners, and thus requiring priority in employment over women. Some women indicated that with the onset of disability, employment was no longer seen as an option for them by service providers. The reasons given for preventing the women gaining employment were:

  • No qualifications
  • Disability prevents working
  • Lack of opportunities
  • Discrimination due to disability
  • Effect on Social Security payments
  • Low self esteem
  • Living in country area

Women with disabilities are doubly disadvantaged: not only are job opportunities limited by traditional ideas of “women’s work” which are frequently associated with low pay and few opportunities for advancement, but jobs seen as suitable for people with disabilities are similarly stereotyped: for example blind people answer telephones, deaf people work on keyboards. Because of the tendency to focus on traditional work areas, other jobs normally filled by men may be overlooked. For instance work crews have become a widely accepted form of supported employment for men with an intellectual disability, and non-disabled women are often employed in parks and gardens, but work crews are not often regarded as job opportunities for women with disabilities.

Many women with physical disabilities have also not contemplated seeking employment because of their need for an accessible environment, modifications to equipment or special gadgets. Others are dependent on another person to assist with toileting, eating or drinking. For many this ‘other person’ is a husband or other family member (cf. the case of Patricia Kendall in Tap Dancer quoted above).

Solutions do exist, either in acceptance by fellow workers of situations that some consider embarrassing or provision of a care attendant. Job support workers and job trainers to assist people with intellectual disabilities are increasing in number as Competitive Employment Training and Placement Services are set up under the Disability Services Act.

One of the greatest barriers to equal opportunities in work for women with disabilities is their own negative attitudes about their capabilities as illustrated by the response of a woman from the Northern Territory to a question in a 1986 phone-in for women with disabilities. When asked why she had not sought to be included in a CRS program she said “Oh, I didn’t think they would bother with me, I’m just a housewife” (28).

ACROD believes that assertiveness training, advocacy and women consumer representation on service organisation management are central tactics in the strategy of improving disabled women’s sense of worth.

In fact this internalisation by women with disabilities of the negative images with which society constantly bombards them appears to lie at the heart of the whole issue of the invisibility of women with disabilities and the poor deal which they have received to date in the areas of workforce participation and access to various community services. Feminists from Germaine Greer to Naomi Wolf have theorised about the often subconscious feelings of guilt and unworthiness experienced by women who for various reasons do not fit the currently accepted stereotype of the ‘ideal’ woman. These feelings often leas them to embark on expensive time consuming and ultimately fruitless beauty or weight loss programs, which are sometimes detrimental to their health and which engender more feelings of frustration and loss of self esteem when they fail. As noted above, nowhere is the promotion of the socially accepted stereotype of woman more harmful than in the case of women with disabilities.

The evidence from the oral histories and from the phone ins seems to indicate that in many cases women with disabilities have allowed themselves to accept the role of passive victims which society has allocated them, deserving of sympathy but not necessarily of success in employment, education and other sphere of life. Those who, like Laurie Alsop, have refused to accept this role have found the road to self determination to be long and arduous and have not always received the whole hearted support of other women with disabilities.

Using the System

The breaking of the nexus between low self esteem, low levels of expectation and disability is an essential prerequisite for raising the status of women with disabilities. There is already a substantial body of Government policy documents in existence, which if used effectively by women with disabilities could ensure that their needs and wishes are taken into account at every level of the policy making process.

For example, the Principles and Objectives of the Disability Services Act (1986) represent a very public and unambiguous Government commitment to improving opportunities for all Australians with disabilities (See Attachment I).

The Principles state (inter alia):

  • People with disabilities are individuals who have the inherent right to respect for their human worth and dignity.
  • People with disabilities, whatever the origin, nature, type and degree of disability, have the same fundamental rights as all members of Australian society.
  • Every person with a disability has the same rights as other members of Australian society to realise his or her individual capacity for physical, social, emotional and intellectual development.

Objective 5 of the same Act recognises the special position of women and minority groups with in the disabled community; it states:

That programs and services should reflect the needs of people with disabilities who experience double disadvantage as a result of gender, ethnic origin, and aboriginality.

Similarly the National Agenda for Women (1988) makes a number of commitments in its “Specific Objectives for the year 2000” for women with disabilities:

  • To improve the ability of women with a disability to make their own decisions about their lifestyles.
  • To provide equal access to rights, social systems and community services for people with a disability.
  • To improve access to income security, education, health, rehabilitation, employment, accommodation, independent living and other community services for women with a disability and for women caring for another person or other people with a disability.

To achieve these ends action plans were developed for the next five years, including (inter alia):

  • remove barriers to women with a disability enjoying individual rights and provide access to information about individual and consumer rights and available services, in co-operation with other Government and non-Government agencies as appropriate;
  • support improved access to assertiveness training;
  • seek to improve the image of women with a disability in the community through promotional campaigns and affirmative action strategies; (See Attachment 2).

In addition, following changes to the Invalid Pension in the 1990 Budget, a number of Departments are now developing strategies aimed at greater participation of people with disabilities in the paid workforce. Although it is generally true that Governments do not always live up to commitments, or are notoriously slow in implementing policy changes, the message is clear. The commitments are there on paper. What is required is for women with disabilities to be sufficiently well informed and sufficiently assertive to lobby Government agencies and service providers funded by them to honour these commitments.

An essential starting point for such lobbying however, is that individuals with a similar interest must first be willing to identify as a pressure group with common interests and characteristics. In order for this to happen women with disabilities will need to feel comfortable about living with their disability and also with being in the company of other women with a disability. There has been an unfortunate tendency in the past for the competitive ethic of contemporary society to be reflected in activist groups, with one disability group believing that it is better off, or enjoys higher social status than another, or for some people to feel they are ‘not disabled enough’ to make common cause with other people who have a disability.

In order for women with disabilities to be able to claim their rightful place in the community they will need the assistance and support of other women’s groups which have already travelled this path. This means educating members of the women’s movement to better understand the problems which confront women with disabilities, and to recognise that many of their own attitudes have been influenced by the success and glamour ethic of the society in which they live, not by informed dialogue with women with disabilities.


From the foregoing it is evident that women with disabilities have been an almost invisible group in our society and that they suffer definite disadvantage in areas such as labour force participation. In this paper, we have identified a range of factors which contribute to this disadvantage, including:

  • the combination of stereotypes about both women and disability in society – assumptions about physical appearance and the widespread view that disability is a problem for society, not a problem of society’s own making;
  • a past history of lack of opportunities for development and limited choices which result in timidity and low self esteem among many of the women themselves;
  • misguided perceptions among parents, other carers and service organisations about what the suitability and availability of options for women with disabilities;
  • lack of solidarity and political know-how;
  • lack of enough women with disabilities in sufficiently high profile areas to attract attention to the needs of the group and to serve as role models for young women with disabilities;
  • lack of willingness among other sections of the Women’s Movement to acknowledge that women with disabilities have many of the same problems and concerns that women had in the early days of the movement, only they are starting a little later;
  • the tendency of some sections of the bureaucracy and feminist academics to perceive improvements in the status of Australian women in terms of the number of women in highly paid, high profile managerial careers in either the public or private sector and to stress the importance of glamour and personal success.

What can we do about it?

A modest beginning to address some of the inequities has been made in some areas. For example the women of the Disability Employment Action Centre in Melbourne regularly publicise the point of view of women with disabilities both in the feminist and disability rights movement. They also run job seeking skills courses particularly for women with disabilities and workshops on issues such as women’s health and community services available to women. However at present there does not appear to be any similar activist groups outside the larger State capitals. We are not aware of any such initiatives in Canberra but would be glad to hear of the activities of women with disabilities anywhere in Australia which might prove us wrong on this point.

It appears to us that some actions could be taken along the following lines:

  • insist that all Government statistics on training, employment, recruitment to the Public Service, career progression rates etc. for persons with disabilities be disaggregated by gender, so that the progress of women can be charted;
  • make funding available for the proposed ACROD study of female invalid pensioners to ascertain why they are not employed or the factors which contributed to their ceasing employment;
  • ensure training and work experience programs are targeted to women’s needs and are appropriate to their cultural, social and other circumstances and that information about them is widely available;
  • Government agencies charged with policy development for women to encourage self help groups and service organisations to hold more information and training courses targeted to women with disabilities to enable them to use the political process more effectively;
  • funds to be made available for women activists with disabilities from capital cities to travel to smaller cities to share experience gained in running training courses etc. with other women with disabilities;
  • publicise the career successes of women with disabilities more widely in ‘mainstream’ academic works, women’s magazines etc;
  • Women’s Desk Officers in all Government Agencies to include disability segment issues in their monitoring of Departmental policies;
  • provide income support to unemployed women with disabilities to assist them in their search for work.

Finally: what do you think? We would like to hear the insights, ideas, suggestions, etc, which conference participants may have on the these issues which may be added to the common store of knowledge and about the lives and experiences of diverse groups of women, accumulated over time by the Women’s Movement to assist all women in their campaigns for equal rights and status in the Australian community.

Notes and References

(1) Disabled and Handicapped Persons: Preliminary Survey, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, 1988.

(2) Australian Bureau of Statistics, Disability and Handicap (1988), 1990.

The way in which the statistics are collected makes it difficult to gain an overall picture of the group as a whole. For the purposes of the survey the group is broken into ‘disabled’ and ‘handicapped’ persons, ‘handicapped’ being persons who experience limitations in certain areas, such as mobility, employment, education etc. These ‘handicaps’ would be better defined as barriers placed in the way of the integration of people with disabilities, by the society in which they live, rather than aspects of the person’s disability. However the survey does show a consistently higher educational and labour force participation rate for men than women.

(3) This appears to be regarded as appropriate behaviour. People with disabilities are the ‘deserving poor’ to whom one can legitimate dispense public or private largesse and feel that one is doing ‘good works’; (as against social disapproval about assisting the undeceiving ‘dole bludger’).

(4) For example Paul Davies Other Worlds, 1990.

(5) Strahan, 1989, p.3

(6) Office of the Status of Women, Setting the Agenda, 1987. There were only three consultations Australia-wide where women with disabilities actually had a say for themselves in what they wanted to see in the Government’s National Agenda for Women. It appears that some organisations informed their clients selectively of what was going on. All the major submissions therefore came from the service providers.

(7) Jane Smith, “Trying to be Normal”, Disability an Issue, n.d, pp. 6- 7.

(8) Lesley Hall, “Beauty Quests – A Double Disservice”, pp.68-74.

(9) Hall contends that no matter what age group the quest is designed for, they all perpetuate the spirit of competitiveness. These quests ensure that females will be judged against a concept of beauty, against the other contestants and against all other women. Whilst there are particular qualities in which each quest may differ in respect to the differing age groups that they cater for, they all have the same role of judging contestants against the prevailing norm of what a female of that age, background, and marital status should conform to.

(10) Hall, “Beauty Quests”, p.70.

(11) I Want to be Visible; ACROD National Consultation, funded by the National Women’s Consultative Council, 1984.

(12) Fay Druett comments on how she resents the fact that people think she can cope while in reality she is often angry and frustrated. “The truth is my acceptance of my disability is for other people’s comfort…not mine. My acceptance and coping expands their comfort zone.” Bronwyn Moye shares the sentiments. After her stoke which reduced her mobility still further (she had become disabled as a result of an accident) she note that somehow everyone who knew her knew she would cope, “I was known as a coper”. Tap Dancer, p.37, pp.t4- 77.

(13) Bronwyn Moye expresses frustration at not ever being able to have an argument with the people she is physically dependent on, because they might walk out the door and leave her. Tap Dancer, p.74.

(14) The sense of dependence breeds a kind of hopelessness and a certain lack of self respect in otherwise capable women. For example Rachel says: “I have to admit that I do use my disability as an excuse sometimes. I do if there is something I really like and can’t afford. Sometimes the shop people say, ‘Oh well… you can take it for $10 anyway’. I don’t do it very often. I can also get in for half-price at the pictures. I don’t mind doing that. No, I don’t use my disability in a bad way. I don’t overuse it…”(P.19). She does not appear to be able to distinguish between legitimate concessions and a little private entrepreneurship. But she feels that if you are powerless and can’t afford things, then you do have to use whatever means are at your disposal to survive.

Sandra dislikes her job, but feels she should be grateful to Telecom for employing her. She fears that technology will render her redundant, and has vague thoughts of learning word processing. “Sometimes I feel there is no way out for me” (p.27).

Tricia loved the NOW (new opportunities for women) course at TAFE and the related work experience operating a computer, “I loved it. It was great. I could have done that for ever. It was interesting”.

Rachel gave up her singing scholarship because she could not manage to travel to the city every day. She dropped her musical studies when she left school. She is not sure why. “I guess I was a bit lazy and couldn’t be bothered to find another teacher,” (p.15).

Annie says “I’ve accepted that since I can’t work I don’t need to work or do many of the ‘normal’ things that people do as conveyers of identity”. (p.87).

(15) Maggie Smith’s disability is a medical condition, which was not visible and could be kept under control by medication and she would not therefore be so easily identified as having a disability. This may have accounted in part for her access to a relatively high status career.

(16) Rachel’s perception of other people with disabilities is perhaps not unusual: “I know I have a disability but when I think of other people I know I am more able-bodied than so many. I might think, ‘You poor things’ but I am not into working in disability areas. I will help people with disabilities as individuals but I don’t set out to find groups or causes to do with saving disabled people – fighting for this, and fighting for that. Just because I have a disability I don’t think I have to be involved in things or should be doing things. I am an individual. I don’t think I should be active in groups just because other people with disabilities are involved”.

(17) Marian Sawer, 1990, p.105.

(18) Dowse, 1989, quoted in Sawer, 1990, p.1 06.

(19) Still, 1988 and 1990., Wells, 1987.

(20) Wells, 1987, p30.

(21) “Real Little Earners” Poltfolio, March 1990, pp.36-30. “Our Eight Best Dressed Working Women” Portfolio, June, 1990, pp.34-41. “Glamour Jobs and How to Get Then” Portfolio, August, 1990. pp.29-32.

(22) Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 1990, Ch. 3.

(23) Disability and Handicap, Australian Bureau of Statistics 1990, Handicapped Persons Australia, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1981, Census of Disability Services – 1988, Department of Community Services and Health.

(24) The peak organisation of the service providers.

(25) Policy Statement on Access – Women 1988, CRS, Department of Community Services and Health, Canberra, Commonwealth Employment Service, September Quarter, 1987.

(26) The Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) (and its predecessor the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, DEIR) sponsored programs often do not give a true picture of the participation of women with disabilities because of the emphasis programs such as the Wage Pause Program had on community programs in construction, maintenance and repairs or local and national parks which show a traditional gender bias.

(27) It has also been observed that many girls with mild intellectual disabilities who have the potential for supported employment have been placed in activity therapy centres by their parents because door to door transport is provided. Parents feel that their daughters may be at risk if required to travel by public transport.

(28) Report on ‘Phone-In’ for Women with Disabilities 1986. Disabled Persons’ Bureau, NT Health and Department of Community Services. Quoted in Burridge, 1989.

Attachment 1: Principles and Objectives of the Disability Services Act (1986)


People with disabilities are individuals who have the inherent right to respect for their human worth and dignity.

People with disabilities, whatever the origin, nature, type and degree of disability, have the same fundamental rights as all members of Australian society.

Every person with a disability has the same rights as other members of Australian society to realise his or her individual capacity for physical, social, emotional and intellectual development.

People with disabilities have the same right as other members of Australian society to services which will support their attaining an acceptable quality of life.

People with disabilities have the same right as other members of Australian society to participate in the decisions which affect their lives.

People with disabilities have the same right as other members of Australian society to the least restrictive alternative in the services they receive.

People with disabilities have the same right of pursuit of any grievance as have other members of Australian society in relation to the services which they receive.


1. That the focus of service delivery to people with disabilities should be the achievement of positive outcomes.

2. That services for people with disabilities should ensure that the conditions of the every-day life of people with disabilities are the same as, or as close as possible to norms and patterns which are valued in the general community.

3. That services for people with disabilities should be provided as part of local co-ordinated service systems and integrated with generic services wherever possible.

4. That people with disabilities should receive services which are tailored to their individual needs and goals.

5. That programs and services should reflect the needs of people with disabilities who experience double disadvantage as a result of gender, ethnic origin, and aboriginality.

6. That programs and services should promote a competent and positive image of people with disabilities.

7. That programs and services would promote participation of people with disabilities in the life of the local community through maximum physical and social integration.

8. That no single organisation providing services should exercise control over all or most aspects of the life of an individual with disabilities.

9. That services providing assistance to people with disabilities, be they specific or generic, should be accountable to consumers and their representatives, funding bodies and the public at large.

10. That programs and services should provide opportunities for people with disabilities to reach goals and enjoy lifestyles which are valued by the community at large and are appropriate to their chronological age.

11. That people with disabilities should have access to advocacy support where necessary to ensure adequate participation in decision making about the services they receive.

12. That services should provide appropriate avenues for people with disabilities to air and resolve any grievances about the services they receive.

13. That people with disabilities should be provided with avenues for participating in the planning and operation of individual services and opportunities for consultation relating to major policy development and program changes.

14. That services for people with disabilities should respect an individual’s rights of privacy and confidentiality.

Attachment 2: National Agenda for Women

Women with a Disability

Women with a disability experience barriers to full participation in society because of attitudes and prejudices both about disability and about women.

Discrimination against women with a disability is often quite explicit with many being denied basic human and legal rights.

Women with a disability often accept society’s image of them and have low self esteem. Assertiveness training, advocacy and women consumer representation on service organisation management are central tactics in the strategy of improving disabled women’s sense of self worth.

Women with a disability have low participation rates in employment. Approximately one third of disabled women are in paid employment, compared with 50 percent of men with a disability.

Compensation records show that women receive an average of 23 percent less money from compensation payouts and that their cases take 13 percent longer to process to completion.

Until ten years ago women had little access to Government rehabilitation services whose focus had been on returning blue collar men to the paid workforce.

Eligibility criteria were altered but little publicised. In the past two years the Commonwealth Government has increased the accessibility of rehabilitation services to women and participation rates are rising.

The Commonwealth has recognised the under use of Rehabilitation services by women and over the past two years has actively developed new rehabilitation programs relevant to women. In moving away from centre-based medical rehabilitation towards regionalised social and vocational rehabilitation the Government’s services are becoming more accessible to women.

Sexuality is a central issue for women with a disability. They have been vulnerable to rape, abuse and sexual harassment in institutions and in the community. Forced sterilisation and contraception have been amongst the worst features of institutionalisation for disabled women who have traditionally outnumbered men in institutional care.

When they face sexual abuse, women with disabilities are less likely to know about and have the confidence to seek assistance from women’s refuges, rape crisis centres and women’s health centres.

Mothers of children with a disability often nurture and completely care for those children into adulthood. The intensity of care required generally excludes these mothers from the paid workforce and their role in life often focuses on attending to the needs of their disabled children. This can place considerable stress on family relationships.