Happy International Women’s Day!
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about the celebration of Women’s Day at such a momentous time for the women’s movement, so many young women proudly owning their power, undoubtedly a very exciting time of progress.
Buy why do I feel slightly conflicted, a bit jaded, indifferent, even a little sad?
The reason is because as a disabled woman I simply do not feel included in this new wave, I don’t feel like the needs or nuances of women with disabilities are being considered, as with so many mainstream movements we are being excluded, which is kind of ironic given that we have many, many years of experience down in the trenches campaigning for hard won basic rights (which the current government is trying to remove again) and we continue to push against enormous barriers to equality.
Let me being with some harsh facts, disabled women and girls are more likely to experience abuse than able bodied women; disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic abuse from their partners than able bodied women, more severely and for longer durations. Vulnerable disabled women and girls are more likely to experience physical and emotional abuse from care providers than able bodied women. Disabled women are more likely to be unemployed and on a lower salary than able bodied women, disabled women are less likely to go on to higher education, disabled women are less likely to be represented in the mainstream media and consequently suffer from low self esteem and lack of confidence. If you’re in doubt as to how dire the situation is for women with disabilities, earlier this year the UN criticised the UK’s utter failure to uphold the rights of disabled people across education, social care, housing, health, transport and work.
Consider the experience of women with disabilities in developing countries, with zero access to any of the mobility aids or support that could improve their lives, countries with no funds to develop an accessible infrastructure, cultures with no understanding of physical disability and no tolerance for any intellectual disabilities or learning difficulties. Disabled women all over the world are many years behind their able bodied counterparts in terms of equality and inclusion, even in the US the government are trying to pass a bill to undo some aspects of the ADA which would effectively remove certain rights from disabled people in America.
Whilst I wholeheartedly support the fight for equality and am incredibly pleased to see so many use their voices for positive change, I can’t help but feel that some of us are tackling equally if not more important issues and we could do with the support of other women with bigger voices. A movement that prides itself on being diverse and inclusive is falling short of the mark. Most disappointing is when organisations or groups make a statement on behalf of all women then proceed to provide a list (women of colour, transgender women, cis women, lesbian, bi sexual, etc) but frequently disabled women are not on that list, if you intend to include all women then leave it as all women, a list creates segregation to those of us not on that list.
I’m so fed up of publications, brands, events, pop ups and campaigns patting themselves on the back because they are so on point with their inclusive approach to diversity, with their vivid celebration of different ethnicities, body types and abilities. Hmmm….I’m still not seeing disability included in that diversity roll call. I first appeared as a model with a disability in magazines way back in 1994, I thought this would be a change, other girls would follow and it would be the norm to see young women with disabilities in editorials. Nearly 25 years later and there has been very little progress made aside from when a brand wants to get a quick hit of positive publicity. Cynical, moi?
If you are hosting an event and you truly care about diversity, look at your speakers and your audience, is disability represented? Is your event accessible? Are you being truly welcoming and inclusive to all who may wish to attend? Have you added a note to let attendees flag any access requests? You’re not likely to know if you have any attendees who are hard of hearing and may need a BSL interpreter if you don’t ask the questions. There is no point proudly saying your event is open to all when I arrive and have to be carried up steps and there is no accessible loo. This goes back to my earlier point that we as disabled women are still fighting for the most basic rights, like the right to go to the toilet in private! I appreciate that some may feel safe spaces are necessary in public buildings but whilst some of us are still fighting for accessible toilets can we please put the safe space slightly lower on the agenda.
For years women have been silently angry and frustrated and are now speaking out, loudly, it’s fantastic. We too are angry and frustrated, but it seems that able bodied people get very uncomfortable around angry disabled people. Why?? Why are people so fearful of anger, why do we compliment those who suppress their anger and frustration? It’s an emotion like any other, a response, a reaction and can be a positive tool to galvanise and motivate people and organisations into action. However if you are disabled, it’s a problem; angry or confrontational disabled people must be bitter about their disability, every emotion we feel must arise because we are bitter about our disability. Newsflash, this simply isn’t the case. What frustrates me is attitudes and access, I’m totally fine with my disability, I just wish everyone else could be too.
I’ve read pieces by women saying they felt that for years their default approach was to be quiet, apologise, be grateful, make themselves smaller. I have to say I have never felt the need to this as a woman, perhaps being the eldest girl with three younger brothers and very encouraging parents I’ve always been outspoken as a girl and woman. However I have felt the need to do all of those things because of my disability…to make able bodied people ok with it.
I’ve apologised for the space my wheelchair takes up, I’ve apologised to idiots walking slowly in the street texting on their phone oblivious to me trying to get past, I’ve apologise for the noise a squeaky wheel made in a library, I’ve apologised to the guy who fell over my wheelchair in the supermarket last week, I’ve paid to drink in bars and dine in restaurants who have failed to invest in a ramp or an accessible toilet. I rarely speak out about the discrimination I face on a daily basis because I choose to focus with living my life rather than exhausting myself yelling at the woman in the disabled toilet at work changing into her cycling gear while I’m desperate to go to the loo before heading into a meeting.
A while ago I attended a Q&A with a popular feminist author and although the venue was accessible that attitude was not, I have rarely experienced so much negativity, simply trying to navigate the foyer was a trial, people tripping over me, being slow or reluctant to pick their bags up off the floor so I could move past, and a look of shock when turning around upon hearing me say excuse me may I get past. Really people?? A woman in a wheelchair is a surprise, I thought everyone was ‘woke’ now? I thought the sisterhood was supposed to be all inclusive, celebrating everybody regardless of physical ability or appearance, I also thought the Paralympics had educated you all that many of us leave the house and have active lives now, it was so disappointing, it felt like the purveying message was we only want feminists that look like us.
I’m not looking to create tension or divisions, I’d like us to unite, to work together to improve things for all women, after all there is strength in numbers, but we too need to be heard, our opinions considered, our experiences acknowledged, but this can’t happen until we are invited, included and given a voice. I might not be articulating this as well as I would like to, it’s a complicated issue but it’s like there is a divide between myself as a woman and myself as a disabled person and to be honest, the disabled person is the one who has felt discriminated against, vulnerable, insulted, patronised, excluded and forgotten.
I pitched something along these lines to a national publication a few years ago, but it was rejected, I worried that I just sounded like an angry disabled woman having a rant, I doubted myself and thought I must be only disabled woman feeling this way, maybe there was something problematic with my opinion. That was until I read the word intersectionality, I hadn’t heard about intersectionality, it was an entirely new concept to me until I read a number of pieces by brilliant black women writers, much of which enlightened me to be more aware of my own privilege as a white woman, but also described many of the feelings I felt as a disabled woman, intersectionality explained what I had been feeling, a kind of segregation from this new mainstream celebration of feminism. So this time I’m putting it on my blog, if even one organisation reads it and changes their approach to be more inclusive it’s an achievement.
I was overjoyed to see a film about a young deaf girl, The Silent Child, win an Oscar at the Academy Awards this week, and thrilled to see Rachel Shenton sign her acceptance speech, a worldwide audience seeing inclusion in action. (Less so for The Shape of Water, but that is whole other blog post.) Consider for a moment the positive message that sends to young hearing impaired girls, you too can do this. As an actress I’m aware that many of the roles I have played don’t accurately reflect my experience as a disabled woman, for a start I’ve only recently played a character who has a job, yep, all previous roles were characters without a job. We need to address the stories we are telling and what messages we are sending our young girls.
When Frances McDormand accepted her Oscar, that moment when she asked all the other nominated women to stand up was fantastic, she said we all have stories, they need to be shared, and as a woman with a disability I’d like to add our voice, we have stories to tell too. She also raised the issue of inclusion riders, a contract clause that requires a production meets a certain level of diversity ensuring inclusion of under represented groups in cast crew. A brilliant move on her part to publicise the existence of such a clause (though only the big players will have the bargaining power to insist upon it in their contracts). What was infuriating was some of the reporting explaining an inclusion rider, some articles explained the purpose of the rider and then went on to list the diverse groups that should be included; women, people of colour, LGBT but didn’t include people with disabilities in their list, for crying out loud, either include us in the list or don’t set out a list!
It’s exhausting having to shout up, to repeatedly raise your hand and ask what about us? With a little consideration we can easily be included and contribute to the current movement; we want to be part of it and celebrate being a woman too!
So what’s my overriding message here? Able bodied women: You’re frustrated, you want to be heard, you want change, you want equality, you want to be part of the progress, you want to contribute to a brighter future for the next generation of girls. Guess what? #MeToo