Report on the International Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities

In 1997, The Global Fund for Women (United States) provided funding to Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) to attend the International Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities, which was held in Washington DC, 15 – 20 June 1997. This is the report to the Global Fund for Women from one of WWDA’s representatives at the International Leadership Forum, Ms Vicki Toovey. Copyright WWDA 1997.

Conference Attended

The Conference attended was the International Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities, held in Washington DC 15 – 20 June 1997. This Forum was held in the Hyatt Hotel Bethesda, Maryland which is just outside of Washington DC.

In 1995 the United Nations Conference on Women was held in Beijing. This Forum was organised as a follow up as significant issues had been highlighted for women with disabilities at this time. These included the marginalisation of issues for women with disabilities in the women’s movement and the need for opportunities and support for women with disabilities in leadership. The Forum was organised by the World Institute on Disability, Mobility International USA, and Rehabilitation International.

Each day the Forum focussed on key areas with lecture style presentations each morning and workshops in the afternoon. There were some 600 women from all over the world in attendance. It was important to see women with disabilities from many countries taking leadership roles as well as strong support from key women particularly in the United States. The key issues covered were:

  • Leadership
  • Education
  • Health and Family
  • Communications and technology
  • Employment

I represented Women with Disabilities Australia, the peak organisation in Australia. WWDA is an organisation which seeks to ensure equal opportunities in all walks of life for all women with disabilities. In this it aims to increase awareness of, and address issues faced by, women with disabilities in the community. WWDA has an important role in maintaining or raising issues for women with disabilities within the disability movement, the women’s movement and in the mainstream of life.

Current Relationship with the Organisation

As a women with a disability I have been a member of Women with Disabilities since its inception in the early 1990s. I have mainly acted in an advisory capacity to the organisation with regard to proposals, consultations and strategic directions. Recently I have been involved in the establishment of a State Branch of WWDA in South Australia and participated in the Steering Committee for the development and selection of a project to address the issue of women with disabilities’ access to refuges and the development of a Disability Action Plan which would provide a model for use by other services.

I have been an activist/advocate in disability issues and women’s health issues for some ten years. I am the Director of Women’s Health Statewide in South Australia and have been the Chairperson of many advisory bodies in both women’s issues and disability issues at both State and National levels. Most recently I was the Chair of the Australian Disability Consultative Council and a member of the Women’s Advisory Council (SA).

Why did you believe it was important to participate in this Conference?

I believed it was important to participate in this conference to connect with other significant women in the disability movement. For many years I have believed that women have often been silenced within the disability movement. Men have often dominated in leadership roles and the movement has reflected the gender discrimination of our society. Women with disabilities have often had less access to education, health, rehabilitation and employment and their opportunities to take up leadership roles have been severely restricted.

The disability movement in Australia has gone through some major changes in the past few years including the loss of a strong Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) presence. This has offered an opportunity to rethink the processes of advocacy and the relationship of the various players within the disability advocacy movement.

WWDA is at a critical stage in its development due to these changes and others. There have been many changes in the political parties in power in Governments, both State and Federal in Australia. With this has also come changes in philosophy, funding processes and the processes by which the Government seeks advice on disability issues.

The International Leadership Forum offered the opportunity to look at the key issue of women with disabilities in leadership and how other countries and organisations had supported this to occur. As WWDA represents women with disabilities broadly and is not disability specific it has an important role in maintaining a non-medical focus and looking at women’s issues from a holistic perspective. I believe that understanding, asserting and using our strengths as women with disabilities and opportunities being developed for mentoring and provision of role models for younger women with disabilities is key to our continued success.

What did you learn at the Conference that has been useful to the organisation?

There were some key areas of learning at the Conference.

We need to support women with disabilities to gain leadership positions in all walks of life. This means that we do not solely focus our attention on disability issues but take a more holistic view. This is in keeping with the way I work within women’s health. That is, from a feminist perspective with a social view of health. This recognises that women’s position in society is critical to many of the outcomes in our lives and that our health is influenced by many factors including social and economic factors, environmental issues, sexuality, disability and cultural diversity. Our efforts in working with the disability movement have to be balanced with our efforts with more mainstream aspects of our society. In doing this we will also be broadening the understanding of our issues to many other groups.

One of the great models which encapsulated many of these ideas was evident in the presentation from Whirlwind Women. This is a group of women who have made their own wheelchairs. As a model of community development, empowerment of women, skill building and breaking down of stereotypes it was amazing. It gives the women greater control in many areas including designing chairs suitable for their needs, able to carry children with them, as well as being able to maintain and repair their wheelchairs. I am keen to discuss this issue with others in WWDA and talk about our international responsibility and how we could possibly work with an agency such as Community Aid Abroad to use this model in the Asia Pacific area if people with disabilities in this region thought that it would be valuable.

The representation, or lack of , some groups of women with disabilities at the Forum was of concern. It reflects the marginalisation of some groups within the disability movement and the lack of voice for them. WWDA has tried hard to incorporate the full range of disabilities in its membership but we need to be vigilant in ensuring that we truly represent women. This was particularly evident in the area of head injury, intellectual disability and psychiatric disabilities. Not only were these women not present and visible but they were often forgotten in presentations and discussions.

The opportunity for discussion and debate is very important. At a large conference such as this one this was not always possible. I am concerned that we look at ways of fostering debate in an open and participative way so that women can feel included. Some areas where this needs to continue to occur are sexuality, euthanasia, abortion and genetics. These are complex issues and we need to have our voices heard as women and feminists with disabilities.

How has your participation at the Conference affected your work with the organisation?

My participation at the conference has provided me with renewed energy and especially a feeling that there is a women and disability movement worldwide which I, and WWDA are a part of. As the Director of a State women’s health service I have particular access to working with key women in mainstream areas and promoting attitudinal change. The experience at the conference has renewed my commitment to this. Also it has given me a sense of our responsibility as a community on a worldwide basis to continue to be involved in human rights issues and other issues such as promotion of the banning of land mines and the search for peace and justice in the world.

Attendance at the Forum offered the opportunity to reflect on priorities for WWDA. The obvious one is the issue of the promotion of leadership and support through mentoring to all women in our organisation. This may mean that we need to provide opportunities for women to reflect on what they would like to achieve and how they would like to be supported to get there. We are not often given time out of our busy lives or the support to undertake this sort of discussion.

Maintaining the visibility of women with disabilities’ issues is vital and we need a range of strategies to achieve this. This means continuing to work with the disability movement to achieve change and providing a strong focus for women in this. In particular I believe we need to provide a focus on our many roles as women and how we participate in these as strong women with much to offer our communities. Our connections with the women’s movement must be strengthened and we need to look at different ways of doing this. One of the things the Forum gave to me was to change the way of looking at this. That is. To talk about what we have to offer the women’s movement through the strength and diversity of our experiences and not to focus so much on what they offer to us.

Information technology and communication issues will be important for us to maintain our own networks, skills as well as our international connections. Having a presence in the world of IT will be vital for WWDA. I will be suggesting that we look at the development of a Home Page and establish some key contacts to support our priority areas. Women with disabilities need to be supported to use the technology to connect with others, gain information and of course skills which may be useful for employment and education. WWDA needs to investigate funding opportunities to support this development.

Meeting women from throughout the world gave me a sense of how we can focus on the issues of women with disabilities by having a presence in mainstream areas. By being involved in political activity broadly such as human rights enables us to provide a focus on women with disability issues at the same time as enhancing the desire for social justice in the world.

Was the amount of funding adequate?

The amount of funding was more than adequate. We had allowed funding for a carer to accompany the delegate, but as it turned out this was unnecessary. As the attached correspondence shows, we were able to use some of the money left over to fund some leadership work in Australia, disseminating the information from the International Leadership Forum and building on it in an Australian context. This was most well received, and we plan to professionally publish the report and edit an accompanying video is planned, to spread the information even further.

Did you have an especially rewarding experience that was an outcome of the Conference?

There were many rewarding experiences at the Conference. In particular it was very important for me to feel connected with other women with disabilities throughout the world. It gave a real sense of a strong worldwide movement. In my work and social life with women with disabilities I have always felt an immediate sense of connection, that there were things we understood which did not need to be spoken, experiences we had all had which we did not need to articulate but that we knew were a part of each other’s being. I felt this very strongly while I was part of this group of some 600 women in Washington.

An important experience and then reflection for me was to meet and hear from women with disabilities who had become disabled through war. This was both shocking and outside my own limited experience of life. However what I learned through hearing and meeting with these women was that they will and do provide a new face and strength to the movement of women with disabilities. As they had been active in political causes, fighters for freedom and committed to seeing change occur in their communities , they bring different skills to our cause. That is, they bring an experience of political activism which is beyond disability and based very firmly in their belief in just causes, women’s place in these issues and knowledge of political strategies which can only be of enormous benefit to women with disabilities.

A further aspect of this was to meet and speak with women with disabilities who are Members of Parliament. This provided recognition that women with disabilities have the skills to take up important positions and that it is possible for countries, governments, and political parties to support women with disabilities to take up leadership roles in their communities.

Vicki Toovey