WWDA Address to the Centre for Women’s Health Matters

This is a transcript of a speech given by Helen Skeat (past WWDA Executive Officer) at the 1997 Annual General Meeting of the Centre for Women’s Health Matters, Australian Capital Territory. Copyright WWDA 1997.

Firstly I would like to say that I am here from the National Office of Women With Disabilities Australia, with the permission of the Australian Capital Territory WWDA group. In talking about the health goals for women in the Australian Capital Territory to the year 2000, I think that one of them should be that by the year 2000, there is a whole selection of Australian Capital Territory women with disabilties, ready able and willing and resourced to present their issues at forums such as these. As it is, the time and energy poverty of women with disabilities often hinders them from presenting their views in forums such as this. As we know, poverty of all sorts is a result of social inequity.

Secondly, in looking at the themes of the speak out, I have to say – an old speakers excuse, that it was difficult to differentiate between them when talking about issues for women with disabilties, so I won’t.

OK, so who are women with disabilities? Well, there there are approximately 1.5 million women with disabilities in Australia – nearly 20 per cent of all women. They are anglo, of non-English Speaking Background, Indigenous, lesbians, straight, their impairments include psychiatric, phsyical, intellectual, sensory, brain injury and chronic illness. Their ‘disability’ stems from the responise of ‘our community’ to them.

Talking about women with disabilities and the health system is always problematic. On the one hand, women with disabilities are probably the most over-exposed, medicalised, reductionist group to come in contact with the health system. On the other hand, they find their access to the health system as WOMEN is often frustrating, exhausting, or impossible.

I know that this speakout is hoping to form some strategies to put into place locally, but I think it is important to look at where some of the problems stem from. Di Temby and Margaret Cooper, talk about the fact that in the reducationist and functionalist model of health care which prevales today, women with disabilities end up being classified as deviant – they deviate from the idealised norm. women with disabilities themselves pick up this attitude, and because there are few images to counteract this view, they themselves end up not relating to gender related health care issues and are thereby excluded from it. The incorporation of images of women with disabilities in gender related health care material such as this centre produces, is essential to counteract this view.

This exclusion was reinforced in the 1989 National Women’s Health Program, which found that women with disabilities lacked basic information and access to the most fundamental of women’s health concerns such as menstruation, birthing and reproductive health, apart from being overrepresented in areas such as poverty and unemployment. Yet the Program prioritised the needs, not of women with disabilties, but women as carers.

While there were problems with the National Women’s Health Program, women with disabilities have even graver fears about the effect of the proposed changes to the health care system. Broadbanding, devolution to the States, co-ordinated care and Case mix have the potential to benefit women with disabilities, but have the potential to leave cracks big enough to fall though and never be seen again. Assisting women with disabiltieis to be part of the planning of these changes is a valuable role that this centre can play.

More locally, I would like let you know what women with disabiltieis themselves have said about their own health and well being. For this I will draw on some research carried out by the Victorian Women With Disabilities Network, on women with physical disabilities and some information from Women Working Alongside Women With Intellectual Disabilities Women – women with intellectual disabilties in Brisbane and on the experience of women with disabilities in the Australian Capital Territory.

Women with disabilities, when asked to talk about what health meant to them, spoke less about sickenss, or disability- related issues, and were more oriented to a holistic perspective of physical social and spiritual well being.

The women named their greatest fears around their health as:

  • lack of self management,
  • fatigue,
  • increase in dependency,
  • loss of quality of life,
  • the loss of abiltiy to assert themsleves and not being seen and treated as rightful citizens in their society, and
  • fears of being ignored

As Di Temby says, “these fears are not born out of idol fantasies, but from witnessing the realisites of their peers and experiencing the social fincancial and polticial consquences of degrees of loss of abiltiy over time. They know what it means to be a female with a disability.”

Yet, you won’t find many of these concerns addressed in the libraries full of disabilty and health research. However, it is something that women with disabiltieis, in partnership with other women, can start to address themselves.

And what can be done?

Firstly, I would implore you to recognise the resource you have in women with disabilites.

If you want to ask a woman about the alienating effects of the health care system, who better than a woman who has endured intrusive medical procedures all her life, who goes to the doctor for assessment about obtaining a guide dog, and ends up being recommended, a tubal ligation.

Who can state her needs – that she has a memory problem, and will need information written down and will require long appointments, only to find that the current arrangements for billing can’t allow that to happen.

Or ask the woman whose very life has been deemed unworthy, because medicine has developed the means to eliminate her before she is even born.

If you want to know about disempowerment, ask a woman who is forced to live as a constant target of sexual abuse becausethere are no resources to remove her from institutional care.

If you want to know about body image, ask a woman who can’t even control her own body.

Ask thse women how they have developed strategies to cope and empower themselves in these situations.

Secondly, to recognise the effects of isolation, insitutuionalisation, poverty etc which go toward splintering a community, and to support women with disabilites in their efforts to form and maintain solidarity, through groups such as WWDA and others.

Thirdly, to work with women with disabiltieis to ensure that your programs address their needs. And that your programs become our programs.

Fourthly, to recognise the linkages between sectors and programs – the health and well being of women with disabilities is intrinsically linked to the availability of someone to come and help shower them, or someone explain to them what domestic violence is, or help them make their own mind up about sterilisation. Every cut in attendant care has devestating effects on their health and well being.

Fifthly, and more pragmatically, to look locally at services and see if they are addressing the needs of women with disabilites – for example, what happens to women who are not self managing, and who want to enter detox? Where does a woman who wtih high level quadriplegia get a pap smear done? How many women with intellectual disabilities know that they should be examining their breasts?