This is an edited and updated version of a speech given on a panel at Rehabilitation International Seminar, Embracing the Opportunities April 16 2014, held in Wellington.
Disabled women in New Zealand have made progress but there is still a long way to go. I will not outline yet again in detail the many inequalities faced by disabled women. For many disabled women the playing field is some distance away, never mind whether they can access it, or whether it is level or not.
In 2014 disabled women in New Zealand are still relatively invisible and our interests, rights and perspectives are still neglected. We are still generally left off the agenda.
There is still systemic discrimination and a lack of understanding of the issues we face as disabled women, for example, mothering our own babies, the right to found a family, or for some women, sterilisation without their consent, a subject which has been in the news lately, relating to Article 17 of the CRPD the integrity of the person. Women’s health and other important information and services are still quite inaccessible to us. A Google search for disabled women in New Zealand finds very little.
The current debate about social and economic inequality is exclusive of disability generally, never mind disabled women.
To continue the sporting analogy we are way behind the eight ball in international terms. That includes being behind some developing countries where disabled women are finding a strong voice.
Green MP Mojo Mathers’ message to disabled women at a celebration on International Women’s Day in Auckland earlier this year was reported as “Speak out when you see or experience injustice, identify potential partnerships to strengthen your voice and lobbying power and believe in your ability as women to make change happen.” The message was to ”inspire change.” Celebrations are important, as is inspiration. But right now much more is needed. We need concerted and collected action.
Disabled women today
There is no longer a women’s caucus in DPA. That’s not because there is nothing left to do. DPA has a policy on women. I know there is one because I and other disabled women helped to write it a long time ago. There is now only one woman on the National Executive. What is the situation in other Disabled People’s Organisations?
Vision Impaired Empowering Women, VIEW was founded as a move for progress and a voice for blind and vision impaired women. It is now a localized support group.
We are forgetting our history. The inclusion of disabled women in the 120 years celebration of women’s suffrage Tirohia Mai exhibition, last year, was an attempt to reclaim it. But after the disabled women’s presentation alongside the exhibition the following discussion was more about disability history generally than about disabled women’s history or rights. It is clear that the energy of the eighties and early nineties has been dissipated.
Ironically this has happened at a time when we have more tools for progress at our disposal than we have ever had.
Tools for change
We have protection under the Human Rights Act and the Health and Disability Commission Act.
Objective 14 of the Disability strategy says “promote participation of disabled women in order to improve their quality of life.”
The CRPD takes the “twin track” approach” with Article 6 focusing directly on rights for disabled women and with disabled women’s issues threaded throughout. Our government is obliged to pay attention to disabled women’s rights. And there are the other UN conventions such as CEDAW, the women’s convention and CROC, the children’s convention.
We have the Office for Disability Issues which has always been headed by women, and the Think Differently campaign.
There are also less formal, but potentially powerful tools available, in the form of the arts, the media and the Internet and the range of social media. Women With Disabilities Australia are a great example with their networks, web site, research, and publications. There are many excellent disabled women bloggers here and elsewhere. Social media are a very valuable tool for the growing International network of disabled women.
But in practice in New Zealand every other issue always seems to be more important and little work has been done on analysing what the twin track approach of the CRPD might mean today in a New Zealand context. There is no focus point for disabled women’s issues.
Sometimes in the disability world it is difficult to focus on the gender issue. Violence against women in a disability context tends to be lost in the compelling wider issue of general violence and abuse of disabled people, or issues for other, non-disabled women.
Disability is complex and nuanced, but we can no longer avoid the need to unpick these complex issues.
The intersection of disability and gender seems to create a barrier to the collective imagination. I am not sure why, since other groups of women are confronting intersections of gender and race for example, with some vigour.
In New Zealand we have not developed any widely accepted discourse on women and disability. We have not applied a gender analysis to disability or a disability analysis to gender, never mind other intersections.
Disabled women are leaders, but we are expected to lead on behalf of all disabled people, or to be content to see leadership as individual personal achievement.
Ageing disabled women
But action is becoming more urgent. As the population ages and women, disabled and non-disabled, live longer the numbers of disabled women are outstripping the numbers of disabled men. There will be more increasingly frail older disabled women who are living in poverty because of a lifetime of limited education and employment options.
The need for data
The response we often get is that there is no information about disabled women. That is not good enough. When the Disability Survey results from Statistics New Zealand come out next month we should expect and demand that all reports include gender analysis. We have to demand the same from everyone who collects any disability data, from MSD, the Ministry of Health, service providers and anyone else who collects and analyses population and other related information. Good information provides a strong foundation for us to build a level playing field.
Nothing will be handed to us. Without action from disabled women the playing field will remain the same as it has always been, distant and lumpy. It needs leadership from us. We have to make our voices heard and work together across disability groups. Let’s not be seduced by individualistic approaches to progress. We may have to do things differently.
We can look for opportunities to add a disabled women’s perspective, as well as identifying and prioritising particular issues of importance to us. For example, there are opportunities for a gender perspective in the new government action plan for disability? There are also people who can be strategic allies and supporters, disabled and non-disabled. We have to find them and enlist their support.
Disabled women need an active and strategic voice to make change. How we develop that voice is the question. How do we develop a feminist and disability analysis for the twenty first century? I am interested to hear what disabled women think on the topic. This is a challenge to action.