Disability: the Cinderella of feminism?
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.
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.’
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:
- When planning an event, build in the questions surrounding access right from the beginning
- Don’t assume you know what the issues are, ask disabled people themselves
- Include information about access in the press release for the event
- 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.’
‘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.