Women With Disabilities International Leadership Forum

In 1997, Glenda Lee represented Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) at the Women With Disabilities International Leadership Forum held at the Hyatt Hotel, Bethesda, Maryland, USA 15-20 June 1997. This is Glenda’s report from the Forum. Copyright WWDA 1997.


This report will give my perspective and overview of the Women With Disabilities International Leadership Forum held at the Hyatt Hotel, Bethesda, Maryland just outside of Washington DC. The Forum was organised as a follow up to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. The Leadership Forum was sponsored by the United Nations, the International Labor Office, Rehabilitation international, Disabled People’s International, the United States Government and various private organisations. The organisers were the World Institute on Disability, Rehabilitation International and Mobility International USA.

I was chosen to represent Women With Disabilities Australia and was funded through the Office of Disability (Department of Health and Family Services, Canberra). My work in the disability area involves employment at the Disability Complaints Service, South Australia; President of the Physical Disabilities Council of South Australia; membership of the Physical Disability Council of Australia; and membership of and involvement in, Women With Disabilities Australia and South Australia. I have a physical disability.

Six hundred and fourteen women with disabilities from eighty two countries attended and all continents were represented. The forum was held in a venue that was very accommodating of the needs of people with disabilities and well staffed. The program focussed on Speakers in the mornings, Workshops in the afternoons, various special sessions and meetings in the early evenings, and site visits, talent night, films and farewell party in the evenings.

The main topics covered by the Forum and addressed on separate days were:

  • Aspects of leadership
  • Education and Development Assistance
  • Health and Family Issues
  • Employment Strategies
  • Communication and Technology.

I will address each topic in turn.

Aspects of Leadership

Many assertive and inspirational women spoke on this day about their experience in becoming and being a leader. The speakers and Workshop leaders included:

  • Maria Rantho – Member of the South African Parliament;
  • Judith Heumann – Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitation USA;
  • Susan Daniels – Associate Commissioner for Disability of the US Social Security Administration, and
  • Venus Ilagan – Director National Rehabilitation Project for children in the Philippines.

Laura Liswood, USA, showed her film on 15 women Presidents and prime Ministers from various countries. The importance of role models was heavily emphasised. Another focus was that disability rights and women’s rights are human rights and they should not be allowed to be made separate. Maria Rantho informed us that the South African Constitution is the world’s first to outlaw discrimination based on disability.

Education and Development Assistance

Richard Riley, Secretary US Department of Education spoke about the recently re-authorised (first authorised 22 years ago) Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which ensures free and appropriate educational services to all children and youth with disabilities. Judith Heumann spoke about her own experience of education as a student and her fight to become a teacher in the face of disability discrimination.

The importance of role models and peer mentoring for girls with disabilities was heavily emphasised during this day. Girls with severe disabilities and girls in special schools were seen as at the greatest risk of disempowerment and disadvantage. Children with disabilities must not have their self-esteem and self-worth taken away from them. Children without disabilities must be educated about disability very early to ensure that negative attitudes and false ideas about disability are averted. Women with disabilities must be employed at high levels in government positions and in policy making areas. Close links need to be forged between the mainstream women’s movement and the women with disabilities movement. This can best be done by one to one contact.

Health and Family Issues

The main areas spoken about were:

  • the lack of access to mainstream women’s health services and information;
  • reproductive issues (especially in relation to ethical and genetic issues regarding childbearing); and
  • the lack of knowledge and understanding of disability by the medical profession, especially doctors.

Junko Sakaiya from Japan spoke about their fight against the Reproductive Law regarding the sterilisation of people with disabilities. Marsha Saxton, member of the Working Group of the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of the US Human Genome Initiative spoke about her work.

Over the whole day, there was a strong voice against abortion purely on the basis of possible disability of the foetus. The pressure or assumption that a woman would or should abort if genetic testing showed possible disability was seen as disability discrimination. It was felt that this whole process led to huge devaluing of people with disabilities and shaped society’s negative attitudes towards disability. Concern was also voiced about the perceived ‘thin edge of the wedge’ of voluntary euthanasia.

I was told by another woman that the ‘Ask the Doctor’ sessions in the evenings often found the doctors floundering and unable to answer questions put to them.

Employment Strategies

Shirley Wilcher, deputy Assistant Director, US Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs spoke on the law, section 503, regarding Affirmative action in relation to employment of people with disabilities. Any business with a budget over $50,000 must implement Affirmative Action.

Pauline Winters, New Zealand, Chief Executive Officer of Workbridge (a training and employment organisation for people with disabilities) spoke about her organisation and its success especially with doubly disadvantaged people such as Maori people. She spoke about the excellence of technology in relation to disability in New Zealand.

Susan Daniels said that 70% of people with disability are unemployed in the United States. In 1987 there were 5 million people with disability out of work. Ten years later the figure has risen to 10 million! She asked why this is the case considering all the advances in technology, education, civil rights, etc. Susan said that civil rights are not enough. Anti Disability Discrimination Law is the key to unlock the door but then the effort is needed to push the door open. Susan used a simple exercise to show how the needs of non-disabled people are automatically accommodated with no questions asked about the cost. She then made the point that this is how it must be for all people.

Communication and Technology

This day focused on the representation of people with disabilities in the media and society’s perceptions of people with disabilities.

Rina Gill, UNICEF, Bangladesh, spoke of her work to help UNICEF improve their audio-visual and print communications about women and children with disabilities. She talked about a research project which concerned itself with the best way to encourage immunisation of children. This research showed that it is best to show images of people (including children) with disabilities talking for themselves and informing others about the consequences of not immunising than showing non-disabled people talking about the sorry spectacle of the disabled child and tut tutting about the lack of immunisation.

Images of people need to be positive, neither heroic and brave nor pathetic and helpless. People with disabilities must be included in all media including tourism promotion.

Deborah Kaplin, USA, spoke on her work in relation to legislation incorporating the needs of people with disabilities into Federal Standards and requirements for new communication and information technology. Deborah especially spoke about the concept of ‘universal design’ which is design that works for everyone.

Much of the Forum was spent in celebration of women with disabilities. Celebration of our particular talents and abilities. Women from South Africa and South America brought some of their work to sell. A group called ‘Whirlwind Women’ gave a celebration of their wheelchair building. A talent night was held on Tuesday night with poetry, recital, dance, comedy and music. Interviews were held with individual women for an anthology and some were videotaped. These will be available later.

Lizzie Mamvura from Zimbabwe told us how she manages with no funding, to coordinate, visit, and support a network of pressure groups which are spread across a vast area of land. These groups, which also act as support groups, meet at least once a month and more often if there are special issues that require action. Train the Trainer groups are organised so that women can train people in their area. Children with disabilities (3-5 years) are actively integrated with non-disabled children. AIDS education for women with disabilities is prominent in Lizzie’s work because they are especially at risk. Men believe that women with disabilities will be free of the disease because no-one would want them and consequently these women are taken advantage of. Sometimes men with AIDS are advised by witch doctors to have sex with girls aged 5-10 years as this will cure them of the disease!

The Media Workshop I attended was very interesting and informative. Barbara Kolucki, Rehabilitation International, who has worked on the Sesame Street Program, was also involved in a project for UNICEF in Nepal. In this project they tried to create a ‘culture of media for children’ representing all children so that children could see themselves. The three components were:

  • media about children which taught early childhood development;
  • communications for children which portrayed their own culture and their country’s culture, incorporating two messages: ‘I am important (self-esteem) and ‘I can help others, I can learn’ (respect for others);
  • communications by children.

Barbara stressed the need to ensure that attitude development must be attended to very early. It is much easier to create a positive attitude than to eradicate a negative one.

Sian Vasey works in the Disability Programs Unit of the BBC which has many disability related programs. Fatima Matsuri of Pakistan who has worked in media for 37 years said that all media must have ‘disability policies and that people with disabilities must be proportionally represented in the media. There needs to be collaboration between disability organisations and government for projects such as paying ordinary people with disabilities to go to schools to talk and to educate children.

Due to the large number of women attending and the full program it was difficult to seek out or form particular interest groups. The Workshop on Advocacy that I had booked into was cancelled. I attended an Internet workshop and explored the Net for the first time myself. From my short experience and talking with other women it seems that the Internet is well used by the disability movement. Most organisations see email as an essential and efficient part of communication today.


The Forum was an excellent opportunity for women with disabilities from different political and economic cultures to exchange information and ideas. We discovered that our experience as women with disabilities are common to us all. We agreed that we are definitely doubly disadvantaged and must share knowledge and skills with each other and women without disabilities to eradicate that disadvantage. There was a strong and consistent voice throughout the Forum that role modelling and peer mentoring is essential for the growth of women with disabilities and especially girls with disabilities. It was agreed that people with disabilities must be the ones to educate about disability. Finally, that people with disability are a normal part of society and must be accepted, included, appreciated and allowed to contribute fully so that society is whole.