Several events lately have caused me to reflect on the invisibility of disabled women in New Zealand, and to think about how that might change. This year is the 120th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. The Women’s Studies Association conference will be held in Wellington this weekend. I won’t be attending. What follows explains why.
Interests and rights neglected
The interests and rights of disabled women have been neglected by the women’s movement and successive New Zealand governments for many years. In my long history of working in the disability world, and of disability activism I have been frustrated by the lack of any real inclusion of disabled women in women’s rights initiatives and progress.
The few initiatives have never been sustained or updated, or been retained in the collective consciousness, so every time a group of women with the least power and energy, and the least access to resources wants to do something they have to start from scratch. Those of us who have attempted action have been met with indifference, opposition, and even hostility, sometimes from our own community.
It is discouraging to note that our issues are still subsumed either into those of disability generally, or into women generally, thereby becoming invisible. While other intersections such as race, poverty and LGBT are now being explored, disabled women are still not in that loop. Disabled women are often invisible within these intersections as well.
Left off the agenda
It isn’t for want of trying on the part of many of us. Yet it is extremely hard to get on to the feminist, or any other agenda for that matter. It is so hard to find any useful data or relevant research, especially where our situation can be compared to non-disabled women. Feminist academics and writers studiously ignore our experience and perspective in their work. There is little comparative data available on almost anything. Attempts to find or create any are ignored. An example – Despite the length of time these programmes have been available it is impossible to find any information on disabled women’s access to and uptake of cervical screening and mammography programmes compared to non-disabled women. Research and related contributions by disabled women to a funded research programme into violence against women was strongly resisted, and the results reflected this.
Does no one care that birth mothers who are disabled women can still have their children taken from them simply because they are disabled, or disabled mothers are more likely to have their children seen to be ‘at risk” and taken away by CYF, or that disabled men are able to adopt with non-disabled partners but disabled women with non-disabled partners can’t?
Analysing the problem
We have to find answers to this question of invisibility of disabled women and our issues.
Here is an attempt to start to tease out the problem:
- There is a lack of access in the broadest sense of disabled women to information and to the debate. (Disabled women in Australia have just produced a report on the digital Divide for disabled women.)
- New age ideas that we are all individually responsible for our own destinies and disability is our own fault. See also some religion.
- Policy makers and activists don’t see intersections, or see them as too hard.
- Our sexuality and rights to be mothers are not recognised by systems, structures and policy implementation.
- Disability itself is not a “sexy” issue, never mind disability and gender.
- Agencies with responsibility for all women take little or no account of disabled women.
- Lack of political will.
- Does feminism itself disable us?
- The work of the few disabled feminist researchers is not valued as “real” feminism or “real” research.
- The personal is political has excluded and denied our experience.
- Feminists in the “caring” professions are part of the problem, and issues for carers eclipse ours.
- Feminist writers and academics ignore us, our place and our experience. Their research is from a non-disabled perspective.
- Non-disabled women construct gender and disability in different ways from disabled women. These constructs are damaging and disempowering.
- We are not “real” women so we can be safely ignored.
- Our experience of the behaviour of non-disabled feminists indicates they are ambivalent about disabled women and our issues.
- Other intersections such as race and class “trump” disability when the chips are down.
- A perception by other women that we are “less than them” and might drag the cause down or cost too much, or make women generally seem “not able.”
- Perhaps we represent some kind of atavistic reminder of something seen as dreadful and unwomanly – even as feminists age or acquire impairments they don’t generally apply feminist analysis to their disability status.
- Body and other differences are problematic.
Disabled women ourselves
- Our impairments mean we don’t have the energy of other women.
- There is a lack of our own discourse on disability and feminism.
- Are disabled women too busy just surviving, or too apathetic?
- In a small country we are isolated from each other and don’t have enough critical mass.
- We are seduced by individualistic approaches to progress.
- The siloed way disability services and resources have been and still are provided – divide and rule – has led to disunity and insularity in our own community of disabled people and of disabled women.
- Disabled women leaders have been expected to lead all disabled people, not just women.
- There is competition among impairment groups that diminishes energy and dilutes resolve and direction.
Is it about systemic issues? Is it about us, disabled women, or is it about other women and feminists? Or is it a bit of both, or all of the above. Or just maybe no one else cares, and I am wasting my time and energy.
This is a big picture view and I am not criticising any individual, including a few staunch allies, or any initiatives. I want to break this resounding silence once and for all, and begin some genuine, constructive and respectful discussion to find real answers to this problem of invisibility which I am beginning to fear won’t be solved in my lifetime.