Tag Archives: Disability

Day 28- (Dis)ability

I apologize for the lateness of my post; I have been traveling today. Although it’s still the 28th in the US, here in Turkey it is the 29th and so I have failed in my attempt to write everyday, but I will write again tomorrow (today) and everyday until the end of the month. Thank you for your continued support!

“Tomorrow I am going to rewrite the English Language.
I will discard all those striving ambulist metaphors
of power and success
And construct new ways to describe my strength.
My new, different strength.

Then I won’t have to feel dependent
Because I can’t stand on my own two feet.
And I’ll refuse to feel a failure
When I don’t stay one step ahead.
I won’t feel inadequate if I can’t
Stand up for myself
Or illogical when I don’t
Take it one step at a time.

I will make them understand that it is a very male way
To describe the world.
All this walking tall
And making great strides.

Yes, tomorrow I am going to rewrite the English Language
Creating the world in my own image.
Mine will be a gentler, more womanly way
To describe my progress.
I will wheel, cover and encircle.
Somehow I will learn to say it all.”
-Tomorrow I’m Going to Rewrite the English Language by Lois Keith[1]

“Disability is a physical, social, mental or emotional condition which may or may not be handicapping.”[2] Many women who identify as disabled would agree that “people’s attitudes… are most disabling.”[3]

Maura Kelly explains how people’s assumptions about women with disabilities can be damaging “…what if I said I believed that prejudice expressed in subtle acts of misguided, uninformed “kindness” was not only equal to [hateful attitudes towards those of a particular race, religion or sexual orientation], but potentially more damaging and probably more difficult to change? …People can be so focused on my being in a wheelchair that they don’t even hear me saying I don’t need any assistance. This is the part that is so demoralizing…. I resent the people who feel the need to help me so much–though I am clearly not struggling–that I must wait and allow them to assist me, just to make them feel better…. Many of the people I come into brief contact with–it is clearly written on their faces–put me in an altogether different category than they do other people.”[4]

Kelly’s feelings clearly illustrate the need for women to be able to name their own identities and to group or separate themselves as they see fit. Judgments and assumptions based on physical traits–ability, skin color and sex–and not on merit or actions, have no place in an American society that touts democracy and freedom, yet they happen everyday.

The concept of passing, usually used with regard to race or sometimes sexuality, is based on these visual assumptions of physical aspects and can also be an issue in the disabled community. Kelly says, “Recently I was asked if I had trouble ‘passing’ since, other than being in a wheelchair, I don’t seem disabled…. I always associated [passing] with race or sexual orientation…. Usually the trouble is in getting people not to make assumptions about how little I can do.”[5]

Often women with disabilities are seen as doubly vulnerable because they are women and because they are disabled but many have proven their strength by organizing with the disability rights movement and by bringing information and support to others with disabilities.

Activist Anna Sullivan, after having her house blown up, was questioned by the police, “I tell them what I think, that it’s the work of the fascists…. Because of my anti-racist activity the fascists have threatened to kill me many times, now they have destroyed a part of me.”[6] While the blast did not physically harm her at the time, the trauma and stress of the event contributed to her condition- Myalgic Encephalomyelitis- making her vulnerable later in life to viruses and psychological illnesses.

Vulnerability, though not always present, can be a reality for women with disabilities as author Lois Keith shares, “I’m always nervous about going somewhere new. This anxiety is rarely a social one, it isn’t about meeting new people or feeling shy. I had thirty-five standing up years to deal with that one. This ‘normal’ anxiety is displaced for me by the sheer physical concern of going to a place I haven’t been before. Of finding a place to park, worrying about whether I can get out of the car straight on to the pavement, whether there will be kerbs [sic]. It’s anxiety about asking a total stranger (if there is a stranger to ask) to help me in some way. It’s the fear that there will be some obstacle no one has told me about – a step, a bollard, a pothole, a locked door.”[7]

Some women defy the vulnerable disabled woman stereotype, like Janice Pink, “When I was sixteen, nearly six feet tall, and still in pain, I went to another doctor…. Obviously, if you’re disabled, you should look fragile, which I didn’t then and never will now.”[8]

Other women who were involved in strategic nonviolent action when they were nondisabled may find it difficult to participate in the same way after becoming disabled but groups like the Disability Caucus of the National Women’s Studies Association can help ease the transition.

Lizard Johnson explains, “I had thought everything was possible, right down to nonviolent revolution. In moments of enthusiasm, I thought I could start the revolution by myself. Now I think: can’t do that by myself, can’t do this by myself. Certainly can’t start the revolution by myself.”[9] Relearning how to participate in activities that previously did not have to be given any thought can be very challenging for people who become disabled later in life.

These challenges can be exacerbated by other aspects of women’s identities as well. Carol Anne Roberson navigates the complex paths of disability, gender and race everyday as a white, quadriplegic woman with mixed-race (black and white) children. Hermina Jackson is another example of the intersection of gender, race, class and ability and proves that even though sexism, racism, classism and ableism are still in place, with hard work they will eventually be eradicated. She is working to do just that as a black, quadriplegic woman. As a member of a number of organizations in her local community that deal with the issues faced by women, black people, and disabled people, she shows that one person can be all of these things, and overcome the isms she faces daily.

“As a member of the Black United Front, Hermina is interested in the issues and needs of women, especially women with disabilities. She aims not only to get information for women with disabilities… but to educate the community about disabled women and what they need and how they feel.”[10]

Civil rights investigator Adrienne Asch, a blind woman who helped write legislation in New York to include protection from discrimination against disability in hiring practices, explains how her role as an activist helped to change her role as a disabled woman, “Had I not had a history of political activism, in civil rights for blacks and in opposition to the Vietnam War, I might not have been so ready to fight for my rights as a person with a disability. I realized I would have to take the energy I had put into social change for other people’s benefit and use it to benefit myself or other disabled people.”

Asch goes on to explain how her disability relates to other aspects of her life, “Disability is neither at the center or the periphery of my life. It’s just sort of there. I’m not saying blindness isn’t an important fact about me or that it doesn’t affect a lot of things, but it’s not part of my self-definition. If it’s part of the world’s definition of me, that’s the world’s issue.” [11]

The overwhelming message disabled women have for young women and girls who are facing a disability is not to ignore it or dwell on it, and to be realistic about how it will affect what kind of work one wants to do, but not let it be the only consideration. Anna Sullivan admits, “The rise of fascism again, and the many terrible things that are happening in the world, make me feel that I should be out and about organizing, but I know that I can’t do it any more.”[12]

It is true that some things are more difficult for disabled people to do but the kind of disability a person has greatly influences the ease or difficulty of a particular task. A common assumption about physically disabled people is that they are also mentally disabled and so infantilized as if they are not capable of thinking for themselves. Part of the work feminist groups must do in organizing any kind of event, from a rally to a phone bank, is to make sure that the venue is accessible for all kinds of women and to properly value the identities of all the women (and men) who will participate.

Not Dead Yet is one such group of disabled and nondisabled people that utilizes “shouting slogans, singing songs, blockading doorways, [and] being rude to cops” to protest physician-assisted suicide. Another activist group is riot grrrl, which awakens many young women to “the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression.”[13]

One of feminism’s greatest virtues is that it does value every woman’s experience, and thus should learn from every woman about how to make society more inclusive. Teacher Kate Bromfield, after battling Multiple Sclerosis for years, found hope, “I’m beginning to feel again that I can function as a responsible adult, in spite of illness, that my lifestyle can be as viable as anyone else’s.”[14] And lifestyle greatly depends on one’s ability or disability; deaf women may have no problem navigating a flight of stairs but it may be nearly impossible for someone with arthritis. A woman in a wheelchair may be able to read to her child at night but a woman with a learning disability may not be able to.

The one universal thing that disabled women are assumed not to be able (or have any desire) to do is have sex. That disabled people in general, and disabled women in particular, are often seen as asexual beings[15] may seem surprising at first, but makes total sense in the hierarchy of patriarchy: disabled women may not be able to function in some ways as nondisabled women do and therefore are demoted from the “normal” status of women in American society of sex object to something even more passive.

Author of Disabled, Female, and Proud! Harilyn Rousso explains, “One of the myths in our society about disabled women is that we are asexual, incapable of leading socially and sexually fulfilling lives. When I was growing up my parents and I accepted this myth without question. We simply assumed that because I had a disability, I could not date, find a partner, or have children.”[16]

Oddly, the possibility that disabled women may be physically weaker than nondisabled women is often cited as a reason they should not be mothers (even though the reality is that this bias is an extension of seeing disability as a barrier to sexuality and taking away agency from those who have a disability), yet being physically weak (compared to the able male norm of reference) is expected of all women.

See this story and previous posts regarding sexuality and violence for more information on the imposed horrors disabled women face at the hands of cruel people.

Gohar Kordi, a blind Iranian immigrant, tells of feeling her son’s pain at her disability, “He wants me to be like other mothers in his school, sighted, English.”[17] She is one example of the intersection of ethnicity and ability. Suna Polio exemplifies another intersection, “To the public eye I looked an unlikely candidate for motherhood. The wheelchair disqualified me.” She goes on to explain how her lesbianism and her disability intersect to unnecessarily complicate her life even further.[18]

Some disabled lesbians explain that where their lesbianism and their disability activism meet is to see “that the whole is really greater than the sum of its parts and that a better situation for everyone is possible if we see our interdependence.”[19] Not until April 15, 2010 was this interdependence starting to be recognized by the federal government. That is when same-sex partners earned the right in the United States to visit their partner in the hospital.

President Barack Obama issued a memorandum stating, “…gay and lesbian Americans… are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives — unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated. For all of these Americans, the failure to have their wishes respected concerning who may visit them or make medical decisions on their behalf has real consequences.”[20]

While corrective rape for lesbians seeking treatment for mental illness is no longer practiced in psychology in the United States,[21] disabled lesbians in the United States still face difficulties unique to their situation. Many women who identify as lesbian feminists, like Lizard Jones, have fought for the better part of their adult lives for economic and social independence, but adding disability to their identities makes life entirely more complicated.

Jones poses, “Maybe the struggle for lesbians with disabilities is categorically different from many other disability struggles because we have to convince our chosen families not to let us out, but to take us in.”[22] Social worker Joyce Peltzer admits, “It took me longer to deal with my feelings about being a lesbian than about having a disability….. All ‘isms’ are alike and you have to struggle with the internal attitudes developed by living in our culture. To be an integrated person, you have to accept your wholeness. We cannot be compartmentalized people. I had to integrate everything. I am a person who happens to be a lesbian, who happens to have a disability, but most importantly, I am a whole person.[23]

Vicky D’aoust, a deaf lesbian activist who uses a wheelchair, summarizes the disability and LGBTQAI rights arguments nicely: “I want to be who I am without fighting every step of the way…. We need actual change in how communities think, behave and act. Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is that… attitudes are what prevent us from being whole.”[24]


[1] What Happened to You? Writing by Disabled Women Ed. Lois Keith. The New Press: New York. 1996.

[2] Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability Eds. Victoria A. Brownworth and Susan Raffo. 1999. Seal Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Keith, 1996.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Brownworth and Raffo, 1999.

[10] Disabled, Female, and Proud! Stories of Ten Women with Disabilities Harilyn Rousso. Exceptional Parent Press: Boston, MA. 1991

[11] Ibid

[12] Keith, 1996.

[13] Brownworth and Raffo, 1999.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See “Loss” by Anne Macfarlane in Keith, 1996.

[16] Rousso, 1991.

[17] Keith, 1996.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Brownworth and Raffo, 1999.

[20] Obama, Barack. 15 April 2010. “Memorandum for the Secretary of Health and Human Services.” Federal Register. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House: Washington, D.C. 9 June 2010. http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/04/15/2010rightspatients.mem.final.rel.pdf

[21] Until the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV was published in 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and women who were diagnosed as lesbians were sometimes raped to “cure” them of their homosexuality. This practice is still common in some parts of the world, especially South Africa.

[22] Brownworth and Raffo, 1999.

[23] Brownworth and Raffo, 1999.

[24] Ibid.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 548 other followers

%d bloggers like this: