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Disability: the Cinderella of feminism?

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Jane Osmond
WVoN co-editor

Today, I wrote an article about the appalling situation Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson found herself in recently when she had to throw her wheelchair onto a rail station platform and crawl after it.

I contacted Philippa of the feminist blog site the F-Word for her comments on this situation from her point of view as a disabled person: see WVoN post here.

During the conversation, we touched on disability as a feminist issue, something I had already come across in a blog post written by s.e.smith. Smith talks about ‘intersectionality - the idea that overlapping and interconnecting systems of oppression are involved pretty much anywhere you feel like looking’:

‘The short version of the reason that disability is a feminist issue is that some people with disabilities are women. I know, shocking! But I’m here to tell you that it’s true.’

This is something Philippa concurs with:

‘I think it is basically the fact that if it affects women it is a feminist issue.  Fundamentally, just like I think racism is a feminist issue because it affects women, feminism should be always advocating for people who are disadvantaged in one way or another.  It is about social justice really.’

Obvious, right?

Well, maybe not.

As Philippa says, although there are pockets of feminist spaces that try hard to be inclusive, there are also those that are not.  And this usually takes the form of a woman’s disability being seen as secondary:

‘Something that I have come across when I have tried to talk about disability in a feminist context is that disability can be seen as a “diversion” from proper feminist issues.

‘For example, if a disabled woman is attacked, talking about the disability aspect of the attack should not be seen as a diversion – it is a key part of what is happening.’

And, it seems, the biggest problem is also obvious – access. As someone with a minor knee disability I am hyper-sensitive to non-accessible places – lots of steps, long walks from public transport to venues and, as I get older, heavy doors that are difficult to open.

This also resonated with Philippa who said:

‘The other aspect is that in practical terms lots of feminist groups meet in upstairs rooms and pubs and, while I fully appreciated that they use those spaces because they may be free, and accessible spaces often cost, I also think this is increasingly unacceptable.

‘I think a feminist group that does not take accessibility into account is not only NOT representing lots of women, it is physically not letting lots of women in.’

This is a theme that is echoed in the blogosphere.  With this quote a Corkfeminista blogger with a disabled son, hits the nail firmly on the head:

‘I’d love to join everyone for an evening of story-sharing at the Metropole Hotel [to celebrate International Women's Day] but I can’t, and why I can’t is part of my story…the story of disability as the Cinderella of feminism.’

Thinking that electronic communications could help address this for those who find it difficult to leave the house, I asked Philippa if, in her experience, e-comms were an adequate substitute for attending events in person:

‘Disabled people are doing some amazing campaign work online. What has been going on with Twitter in the disability community has been amazing: for example, it is really including people who might not be able to sit up in bed but can tweet.

‘The creativity I have seen in the online activism is brilliant. Also, a lot of the feminist conferences will have a hash tag, live tweeting and video-links which is good.’

However, Philippa does not feel that e-comms can replace the actual attendance at an event:

‘I don’t think “you can’t come but you can watch” is an acceptable compromise.’

And, for the Corkfeminista blogger, the pressures of disability caring means that there is ‘precious little time for online presence.’:

’80% of unpaid disability carers in Ireland who are women frequently remain isolated and unheard and the 20% who are men suffer the same fate for engaging in what State and society alike still consider to be low-status women’s work.’

So what can feminist groups do to address this?

Philippa suggests the following would be a place to start:

  1. When planning an event, build in the questions surrounding access right from the beginning
  2. Don’t assume you know what the issues are, ask disabled people themselves
  3. Include information about access in the press release for the event
  4.  If you are planning a march, perhaps offer a shorter version or a different meeting place.

An example of a well-planned conference is Intersect in Bristol on 19th May.

Beginning with an open debate entitled ‘How do we create a more inclusive feminism?’, the conference has been set up in response to feedback from groups who feel excluded from mainstream feminism.

And, in keeping with the theme of the conference, there is a dedicated accessibility page which outlines the following about the venue:

‘Hamilton House is fully wheelchair-accessible, with a ramp to the front door and internal lift. We are aiming to provide British Sign Language interpreters throughout the conference.

‘The conference will be live-streamed so that people who can’t attend may still watch and anyone watching online (or anyone at the conference who does not wish to speak publicly) may tweet questions to the speakers during the Q&A sessions.’

Further:

‘INTERSECT will be a safe space. This means it will be an event where everyone can feel welcome and respected.

‘No form of discrimination will be tolerated and may result in your removal from the conference.

‘Do not use aggressive, disrespectful, oppressive or exclusionary language.

‘If you disagree with someone’s ideas, do not attack them personally.

‘Be mindful of people’s personal and emotional boundaries.

‘Be aware of the privileges you possess and listen to people with other perspectives.’

Today I have written about only two issues in relation to disability and feminism, but there are many more.

As Philippa points out – how much more difficult it must be to escape domestic violence if the abuser is also a carer and could withhold meds, and communicating with an outside agency is difficult due to deafness, for example.

Then there are refuges not being accessible, the impossibility of fighting back against rape if you are unable to move without pain, difficulties attending healthcare appointments, the list goes on and on.

But in essence – how much more difficult just to be HEARD when you have a disability that makes accessing mainstream events and communications difficult.

Surely, as feminists, we owe it to our disabled sisters to make sure that not only are their voices heard, but that their physical presence is encouraged?  Only then can we call ourselves a truly intersectional movement.

  1. While I agree with everything to do with accessibilty and ableist exclusion, this article reeks with women’s activism, and not feminism. Issues regarding disability aren’t feminist because some women are disabled – they’re feminist issues because people with disabilities are affected by the same structures of oppression as other marginalised groups. ‘Disabled sisters’ is essentialist, painfully exclusive and cissexist. This is giving the impression that you wouldn’t care about disability if there were no disabled women, and that it’s only the women with disability you care about. Intersectionality: practise what you preach.

    • Jane Da Vall says:

      What a bizarre interpretation, I read quite the opposite, that feminism was not being inclusive enough by disregarding the fact that some women are disabled. Feminism is about women’s rights, therefore disability is a feminist issue, by definition, if it affects women. That doesn’t mean people who are feminists don’t also care about disabled men, or any other marginalised group. As a matter of social justice, they are, I would say, more likely to be sensitive to others who suffer discrimination.

  2. Hi Alex,

    I think the article did touch upon the fact that disability is a feminist issue not just because some women are disabled, but also because it is a social justice issue, which means recognising that disabled people are affected by the same structures of oppression as other marginalised groups, to my understanding anyway.

    I am not sure how the author having said ‘disabled sisters’ is supposed to imply that she wouldn’t care about disability if there were no disabled women.

  3. As the 24/7/365 disability carer/Corkfeminista blogger quoted in this excellent article I regret I can’t take time out of my responsibilities to say all I would like to say in response to the above comment…please see The F word’s Facebook page for my views.

    • Jane Osmond says:

      Hi Gaia, When I read your original piece I was struck by what you had said and went back to it when I was writing this piece. You have a good writing style.

  4. Hi Alex

    I am confused. What is the difference between women’s activism and feminism, in your opinion?

    I have experienced feelings of exclusion from feminism, personally, because I have not been educated within that area and I think a lot of academic, feminist arguments require a certain level of understanding. That, for me, is a barrier to having my opinions heard and for me to gain an understanding of others opinions – emotionally I can feel embarrassed admitting that. I can only imagine this becomes increasingly difficult for those women who have language barriers, learning difficulties, have had difficult childhoods etc. Now, this is a different context but I see similarities in what the author has written; remove barriers to participation in order to let women have a voice, whether that is jargon or a staircase.

    What does essentialist and cissexist mean, to you? My understanding is cissexist has something to heterosexual privilege?

    • I am an ex-academic and I REALLY agree with your viewpoint Sam.I’m starting a publishing venture this year which is specifically dedicated to the idea of ‘accessible ideas’….putting them where they need to be, in an accessible form into the hands of EVERYONE !

    • Hi Sam,

      In my understanding, the term ‘cis’ has appeared over the past few years (at least, I’ve only noticed it during that time) mostly in feminist blogs and activist circles in response to the fact that there was nothing to designate the group that is the opposite of ‘trans’. The lack of a term for this meant that trans looked like the opposite of ‘normal’, so someone came up with ‘cis’ (I think linguistically it’s got Greek roots; I’d only encountered it in chemistry classes previously) to mean a person who identifies with their assigned gender.

      It hasn’t caught on yet in popular discourse, not even in the lefty newspapers; it may eventually, but at the moment ‘cis’ does seem like an exclusionary term because the people who understand it tend to have backgrounds in academic feminism.

      Personally I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘sisters’. To me it sounds a little old-fashioned, partly from my subjective writing style preferences, but mainly because – and I agree with Alex here – it covers up the extent to which gender issues affect men as well as people who don’t identify with a gender, in a second wave kind of way. However I don’t think this is what Jane intended and it is nit-picking a little bit with an excellent article.

      I can’t help with your question about the difference between women’s activism and feminism. I don’t know what Alex means here.

      I would add that I’ve been having this academia/feminism conversation on another blog lately and would say that any academic who genuinely wants to help feminism and to share their ideas would try hard to use accessible language, so that it’s not just an elite who can benefit. I certainly am very conscious of this.

      • Hi Hannah,

        Thank you, I think your understanding is similar to mine, with regards to CIS. I struggled (still do) to understand how this article could come across as cissexist. My understanding is that cissexist people regard transexual people as inferior.

        Granted, the term “sisters” may stand to exclude people who identify as male,transgender or intersex but I think Jane’s intentions were to help women with disabilities to feel included, not excluded, especially given the context of the article.

  5. Thanks for this artice, Jane. I work for a disability organisation in Sydney, Australia, and these are issues we face everyday. Australia, unfortunately is well behind most of Europe in it’s accessible spaces, public transport you can absolutely forget about it!

    Just want to point out to readers that it is not only people living with physical disability that are marginalised and discriminated against. People with sensory disability, especially vision impairment, people with intellectual disability with low literacy, and people with psychiatric disability also need to be considered.

  6. Jane Osmond says:

    Alex: I can’t say that I have ever made a distinction between women’s activism and feminism – perhaps you could expand? And yes, issues around disabilities are feminist because of the structures that perpetuate oppression. However, why is the term ‘disabled sisters’ cissexist? I understand the term to mean belief and treatment of transgender and/or transsexual people as inferior to cissexual (non-trans) people: I don’t think I made any such distinction in my article? Meanwhile, your final point – I care about everyone who is disabled and suffering discrimination, but this article is specifically about disability and feminism, so by default concentrates on women. I would welcome your thoughts.

  7. Jane Osmond says:

    Thanks for your comment Philippa, and Melissa: sorry to hear Australia is even worse in terms of accessible spaces and public transport. Also, people with sensory disability, especially vision impairment, ‘people with intellectual disability with low literacy, and people with psychiatric disability also need to be considered’ – yes indeed they do. In fact, my argument is that this is where any structural design should start from, whether it be public transport, or service industries, because this makes life easier for everyone. Universal design principles should be employed as the default position in my view.

    • I just wanted to add to your point about low literacy – after studying for longer than I should probably admit at university, most of my friends are highly literate, while even at school I didn’t know people who had very low levels of literacy. From talking to housemates doing placements in social work and nursing I’ve recently become aware of how different my experiences are to those of many people. It is disheartening to hear how much many people struggle to fill in local authority forms written in language that is much more complicated than it needs to be.

      • Jane Osmond says:

        Yes that is very true. Literacy is kind of assumed I think. Which is why the UK benefit system is a nightmare due to the pages and pages of information they demand.

      • Hi Hannah

        With the introduction of universal credits it is possible that things will become a lot worse. All applications will have to be made online and there will be no (or very little) help; through face to face communication and/or via the phone.

        It is not just those who struggle academically who will struggle, those without access to a computer, or knowledge of how to use a computer, speakers of other languages, those with physical disabilities and so on.

        • Jane Osmond says:

          Thus bringing the benefit bill down hey Sam?

          • My understanding is that the intention is to bring the benefits bill down (or the administration costs attached to the current system) although I do not think the coalition government will state that they are planning to bring down the bill by making it difficult for people to claim.

            My understanding is that there will be *some* face to face advice but it will be minimal and it may be tendered for – probably situated within the local authority buildings.

            A “super computer” is currently being designed to allow for online applications. I, personally, see the benefits of having an online system; no queuing in the benefits centre, applications made from your sofa, reducing the duplication of tasks – similar benefits to online baking maybe? And that was very controversial years ago, especially with issues around data protection. It may even lower some barriers to accessing benefits – people who struggle to get on a bus and go into the town centre (mums with pushchairs, those with physical disabilities, agoraphobia). For more info:

            http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/universal-credit-chapter4.pdf

            More in-depth detail will be announced at some point in the future so it is a case of constantly searching for up-to-date information. The cutting of administration costs should not mean cuts to accessibility though – there should be provisions in place to ensure EVERYBODY can gain access to benefits.

            Another con to the “super computer”; what happens to all the staff currently working in housing benefit departments?

        • Hannah says:

          Hi Sam, thanks for this information. Useful to know, if another reason to despair…

  8. Piece by Eleanor Thoe Lisney on disability and intersectionality – some good points here:
    http://sisofrida.org/2012/04/24/being-a-torch-bearer-mixed-feelings-and-intersections-29/

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