Intersectionality 101 – sexism / ableism

Intersectionality 101 – sexism / ableism

 by Christina Ryan

Women are taught from a young age that we should be nice, pleasant, calm and polite when we want to speak up. Often we are encouraged not to speak up at all and to let others have the opinions. Women everywhere know that they have to fight hard to build courage to say what they want to say and to be taken seriously when they say it.

It is very common to be told we are being emotional when we speak articulately and passionately about something, when men are never given such tags. Rather they are applauded for being clear minded and having something to say.

This is basic sexism and we’ve all experienced it.

For women with disabilities there is an extra and very deep layer of prejudice added to the sexism experienced by all women.

People with disabilities are conditioned to be passive and grateful recipients for the support that we get. We are so “other” that many of us feel the need to apologise: for our difference, for taking up too much space, for interrupting someone to ask for assistance. We are made to feel awkward and people find us a bit scary.

Our community doesn’t value the opinions of people with disabilities, certainly doesn’t see us as equal participants in public debate, and rarely seeks our opinion about anything. There are few community leaders with disabilities in Australia, and those that have come and gone have mainly worked in the field of disability. The parliaments, judiciary, public sector and corporate world all display a dearth of disability, and particularly at the top. In Australia the few that have risen to leadership positions have also mainly been men. The same sexism that works in the wider world is also at work in the disability community.

The most common presence of people with disabilities in the public domain is in the media via case studies used for dramatic effect in various tragic stories of lack of support or terrible disadvantage. These stories only reinforce the pathetic and passive stereotype of people with disabilities that the majority of the community holds. Think about the last time you saw a person with disability on the news or current affairs – were they there as an expert social commentator or as someone who was having a hard time personally?

Something that is less obvious is that most of these stories are also about men with disabilities. Why? Because it is much more likely that the family of a man with disability will stick by him and advocate strongly for his needs than it is for any woman with disability. Our families are more likely to advocate for their sons. So, the invisible nature of women with disabilities is perpetuated and the prejudice about us being hopeless, passive, incapable, and un-opinionated continues because there is nothing out there to counter it.

So, we are silenced.

For over fifteen years the figures on who gets disability support haven’t changed. Sixty to seventy per cent of disability supports in Australia, both state by state and nationally, go to men with disabilities. So, women with disabilities are less likely to be out and about getting an education, getting employed, developing skills and confidence, and becoming respected.

End result; we stay invisible in the public domain and the public discourse because we don’t have what we need to be visible.

Early indications from NDIS launch sites are that this gender discrepancy won’t change. It is families of males with disabilities who are applying for their sons, and applying for more supports. Women with disabilities are being left to apply for themselves, or seek formal services to do so for them, and then they only ask for some basic necessities rather than for everything they need. Unless strong mechanisms are built into the scheme which monitor the gender discrepancy AND work to address it nothing will change and women with disabilities will remain invisible.

The result of this continuing invisibility, and lack of equality and respect, is that women with disabilities are not valued when we do speak.

If women with disabilities assert our view, question what is happening to us, or develop an opinion about politics or world affairs we are silenced, sometimes brutally. We must not have opinions, certainly shouldn’t air them, and if something needs to be said someone will say it for us. We must be good little girls, stay nice, and modestly accept our lot.

A further element of this intersectional discrimination is that we are childified. Many women with disabilities, including myself, speak of being treated as though we are children. It is very common for women with disabilities to be referred to as “girls”, as someone who is still young and must be looked after. Women experiencing this are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, yet they are still treated like 16 year olds.

Why does this happen? Because young women are less threatening, they will be less experienced, and the community can discount their opinions as naïve.

I work in disability advocacy. It is my job to speak up about what is happening to people with disabilities and to do something about it. This is quite confronting for those that I speak to as I also have a visible disability. Someone like me shouldn’t be articulate, shouldn’t have an opinion, and certainly shouldn’t hold down a job running an organisation.

Women that my organisation advocates for have an even more challenging time of it. Many live in residential care (small institutions) and require daily support to get by. When these women question their support they are silenced in more overt ways. The two most common forms of silencing are chemical restraint (drugging them quiet) and guardianship (handing their decision making over to someone else).

So, let’s go back to the beginning: as a woman you already need to get some courage together to ask your question, speak your mind, and assert your position. Yet when a woman with disability does this she is either drugged into submission, or her decision making is legally handed over to someone else so that she doesn’t have to be listened to ever again.

We must remain childlike, good little girls, who don’t question and don’t rock the boat. Everyone else knows best and will do what is right, we don’t have to worry about it, and we aren’t welcome to worry about it.

Most other women in our community are actively encouraged to find their voice and use it, but for women with disabilities the opposite applies. We are actively discouraged and actively silenced when we speak up.

Intersectionality is a vital tool for women with disabilities. It is central to explaining the multiple forms of discrimination that we experience every day. By looking at our lives through an intersectional lens we are able to understand that it isn’t just about the sexism that all women experience, but about disability discrimination as well. Through intersectionality we can consider all of these discriminations working in concert and work to address them.


4 thoughts on “Intersectionality 101 – sexism / ableism

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