Women with Disabilities in the Modern World: A Brief Introduction

This article was originally posted on Yahoo! Accessibility.

The modern web is full of great advice for the modern woman. There are lots of lifestyle sites to be found, a plethora of “mommy blogs”, and a cottage industry of communities for women from all walks of life, like our friends at the all-encompassing BlogHer.com.   There are countless campaigns promoting issues specific to women’s health and wellness, self-esteem, human rights and abuse, and in this age of social media, they are able to receive the exposure they well deserve.

What many don’t realize as they seek advice, share stories, commiserate, and fund raise with other women is that (at least in the United States), as many as 1 of 5 of their fellow moms, aunts, sisters, colleagues, and friends is a woman with a disability.

Why would they necessarily realize it? Many of us who are women with disabilities are  busy enough just trying to live our lives the way any woman would, with the same stresses, stories, and successes as our non-disabled neighbors.  We are similar in as many ways as we are different, so self identifying as a woman with a disability doesn’t always come up.

And yet, there are some important ways in which we’ve discovered attention should be paid to the lives of women who also happen to have disabilities.  As women with disabilities, we’ve got a responsibility to ourselves, our loved ones and our communities, to understand some very real dangers that come with the territory of being who we are. People who don’t have experience with disabilities in their lives should also be aware of what is out there, because without allies, there will never be enough awareness to change some of the disturbing facts we’ve discovered over the years.

Here are just some of the US-based statistics we’ve encountered:

  • At least 20% of U.S. women have some kind of disability. Women with disabilities face the same issues all women do, but generally at higher rates and with additional barriers.
  • Women with disabilities struggle with poverty, as do many women in this world, but more than 2 1/2 times as many live in poverty as women without disabilities. That is more than a quarter of all women with disabilities, which is a rate higher than men with disabilities in every age group according to the 2003 U.S. Census.
  • According to Smith and Ruiz (2009), studies have shown that women with disabilities are more likely to have healthcare coverage (92.1% vs. 86.9% women without disabilities). However, women with disabilities are much less likely to gain access to healthcare services due to additional costs, limitations in coverage, and inaccessibility
  • In a Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD) study on access to healthcare, nearly 1/3 of women polled stated they had been denied access to services solely because of their disability even though it is illegal to do so.
  • The rate of abuse of women with disabilities is similar to that of women without disabilities (52% over the lifetime of a woman). Rates of abuse can be drastically higher among women with certain types of disabilities. If you take women with disabilities as a whole, however the abuse tends to be more frequent, over a longer period of time, and by more people within that individual woman’s life. To women with disabilities abuse is not only physical, mental, and financial. It also includes prolonged lack of assistance with activities of daily living like eating, bathing and using the restroom (neglect), and withholding assistive devices (walkers, wheelchairs, etc.) or medication.
  • Women with disabilities also have fewer opportunities to leave an abusive situation. Medical and mental health professionals frequently do not understand the breadth of abuse, nor do law enforcement officials and social workers involved in providing assistance and refuge. Studies by CROWD show battered women shelters do not provide adequate disability-related support services (other than support for mental illness) that would allow a woman with a disability to access these services (such as attendant care, and other supports needed to function and deal with the trauma of abuse). There is also a severe lack of outreach by shelter programs geared toward women with disabilities, even if accessible services are available.

Women with disabilities often face these challenges in silence and isolation.  Disbelief that such abuse and discrimination are possible, failure to recognize that people live at the intersection of class, ability, and gender oppression, and lack of education about the issues are prevalent even among dominant feminist and disability communities.

What else have we found out? Despite all of these challenges, or maybe because of them, women with disabilities are vital individuals that have the ability to create not only their own life and identity, but also have much to offer the world.

These statistics, and even more than that, the conversations and stories that we share, teach us that there is a wealth of experience among women with disabilities across age groups, cultures, and many other identifiers. Along the way, we discover differences, as well as some common ground among many of of the women we’ve encountered:

  • Many of us have the ability to see the world as both the caregiver and receiver of care at a younger age, giving us a broad understanding of the cycle of life not understood by many people until the end of life.
  • We have the ability to see our bodies as unique and powerful, as well as see the uniqueness in other bodies that society deems unworthy.
  • We can also, if we so choose, sexualize our bodies despite the dominant voices of society telling us we are unattractive, undesirable, and incapable of sex or being sexy.
  • We can give birth and raise children despite medical professionals and society telling us it is impossible.

Our negative statistics seem to go on and on despite the data being incomplete, while the positive discoveries never seem to be enough at times. This is why as a group, we challenge ourselves to face these realities head-on. To admit them to ourselves, and to share them with others. We encourage women with disabilities to educate themselves, be proud of who they are and how far we have come, and also to fight against stigmas and statistics that follow them. There is a delicate balance between living our lives and fighting for them, and too often, too many of us are fighting. In a more perfect world, this balance would be different but for now we need to focus on the commonalities we have, and stick together through the fights we must face, as well as the great joys in life we share.

Source material: Sunday, November 22, 2009 – Virtual Praxis II – Women with Disabilities Event Resource