This post is edited notes from a panel presentation in conjunction with the Tirohia mai exhibition at the National Library September 28th 2013. The exhibition marks 120 years of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.
What does accessibility, in the broadest sense mean to me as a disabled woman? What does it mean to the wider community of disabled women? How can it be improved for all disabled women? What would make the greatest difference?
This exhibition is very important as it begins to give us access to some of our disability herstory 120 years after women in NZ were able to vote. Without the vision of curator Rosslyn Noonan we wouldn’t be there at all so a big thank you to her. The experience of contributing to the exhibition has been exciting, frustrating and moving in equal measure.
Thinking about our history, from nineteenth and early twentieth century institutions where if you were blind you had to ask for permission to marry. Women were locked away for life for behaviour seen as aberrant, or because they were diagnosed as being “congenital idiots”.
Technology and other changes both help and hinder – blind telephonists, mostly women, lost their jobs with technological change and changes to the public service in the late 1980’s. Some never worked again. We have been deinstitutionalised. The “bins” have been emptied. New Zealand Sign Language is a national language. We have all kinds of cool equipment, and our first openly disabled woman MP. But how much has really changed?
We are still struggling to get good personal care and support, and we are still being abused.
Some disabled women are not “allowed” to mother their children. Disabled girls still struggle to get a good education. Many disabled women live their whole lives in poverty as part of the growing inequality in New Zealand, part of the growing “precariat,” particularly as we age.
There are huge unresolved issues relating to body image, sexuality and the conventions around how a woman looks or should look. We are poorer, less employed, and more prone to intimate partner violence than non-disabled men. We have less access to sexual and reproductive health than non-disabled women, and some particular groups of disabled women have poorer general health than just about anyone else.
We are way behind other developed, and even some developing countries with the lack of attention and systemic indifference given to our concerns as disabled women.
So, for me access is about pretty much everything.
The Oxford Dictionary definition, (paraphrased) describes access as “the right or opportunity to benefit from something,” approach or see someone, to obtain or retrieve, to approach or enter a place.
Accessibility for me means I want access to the same as other women no less, as well as the supports I might need as a disabled women.
Among other things, accessibility means access to information, and physical access. It means being able to read the horrible signage on the Wellington buses. Reading the prices in the Supermarket is another. Health-related info is pretty important. It is an act of revenge when I go for a mammogram to ask about the availability of information in alternative formats? After all why shouldn’t they feel as uncomfortable as I do?
For all disabled women it means access to the support we need as women to enable us to live good, full lives whatever that might mean to us. We need access to the systems and structures that govern our lives, whether it is access to Sign Language in the workplace, or easily accessible information about candidates in the upcoming Local Government elections, a truly accessible voting process and access to standing for public office. I know of one disabled woman standing for a District Health Board. I hope there are others.
It means access to our children and the support we need to mother them and to deal with intimate relationships when they go wrong or where there is violence.
Importantly we also need access to initiatives for and progress made by all women. At present many of us are shut out.
We need access to the policy agenda that sees our interests and rights as women ignored and neglected.
We need access to information and to debates that affect us as disabled women as well as to the environment where these debates take place.
We need access to the women’s research agenda and to the research process itself. Even when research is conducted on our issues, it is frequently conducted from a non-disabled standpoint. It will therefore lack real validity.
We need more access to our own history.
We need access to the tools and resources that can challenge the systemic disadvantage and discrimination we as disabled women encounter on an everyday basis.
We need access to each other, and the skills and gifts and strengths we bring in all our rich diversity and intersectionality.
We need access to structures, tools and resources that will enable us to work on our own issues and choices. Together we can do it all.
We have the Disability Rights Convention, CRPD. with its twin track approach, including all of us and we have the Women’s Convention, CEDAW.
That is all very well. But what will make the greatest difference right now. Returning to the Tirohia mai exhibition. It has been very difficult to find information about our herstory. I was shocked that we could not even find a good quality photo of Dame Anne Ballin. We have discovered how woefully lacking we are in good quality, recent information about disabled women. It is outrageous that Statistics New Zealand has not produced any comparative disability gender analysis since 1996. This is shameful.
Having good, accessible comparative readily available data is critical for us to make real change. We need a comparative gender report from the current and all future surveys.
Working together on a disabled women’s agenda would also help. Disabled People’s Organisations are full of women. Many of us are leaders there, so how come we are not working on women’s issues. Do we not see them as important?
I was sad that the women’s caucus in the NEC of DPA has been abolished, and that VIEW has lost its founding fervour for change.
Nothing will be handed to us. While we will find allies in different places we have to drive the change ourselves, that is, if we really want it. As disabled women we have to keep saying “Nothing about us without us! and work for change together.