Tag Archives: disability

Reflections on International Women’s Day 2014 (or the only X in the village)

Reflections on International Women’s Day 2014 (or the only X in the village)


Christina Ryan

This week women all over the world have celebrated International Women’s Day. As usual I spent the week attending various functions in Canberra. This year included the launch of Australia’s new Global Ambassador for women and girls, and lunch at the National Press Club. There is more to come with a breakfast next week.

I enjoy attending these events. They bring together all sorts of women and provide a real opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements while catching up with old friends and acquaintances.

This year, though, I finally got really tired of being the only (evident) woman with disability in the room. Sure it’s been happening for years, but you never get used to it. I don’t feel token – I’m there in my own right as a woman of achievement – but you bet I’m the token crip, oh yeah. Without me there would be no women with disabilities, so I provide a handy way of ensuring that we don’t look forgotten by the various powers that be. Although, truthfully, if we weren’t there I don’t think anyone would actually notice.

So, why did it hit home so hard this year? What finally got up my nose when I should be used to what’s going on?

It was the talk of gender equality. We have a new Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women (yes that mouthful really is her title). I’m not sheeting the blame home to her, absolutely not, but the conversation has shifted a bit with the new government as it always does, whoever that government is. New governments always bring their own rhetoric and language with them, and that helps to look at things with fresh eyes. This is a good thing, but it can also highlight intractable issues.

At the launch of the new Ambassador I was in a room full of impeccably dressed well educated (mostly) white women in impressive footwear. The talk was about gender equality, a key focus for our new Foreign Minister. At the National Press Club diversity of women was slightly more evident, but effectively it was still a room full of privileged well educated white women. The young women were private school girls or similarly constituted NGOs. Once again the term gender equality was thick in the air.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all fine women, they do amazing things, and they are very pleasant to talk to. I congratulate every single one on their commitment to gender equality, their preparedness to call themselves feminist and celebrate International Women’s Day. I genuinely do.

How many of these women are aware that 15% of the world’s women are women with disabilities? In Australia it is closer to 18% of women who have disabilities. Yes, close to 1 in 5 women in Australia have a disability, yet I was the only one in the room. What?!

So, for all the language of gender equality and ensuring that women are in the room and part of the decision making, almost 1 in 5 of our women are not there. We don’t even get factored into the decision making. When all of these women have a picture in their head of what Federal Cabinet, or ASX company boards, should look like, does that picture include any women with disabilities? I bet it doesn’t.

What they probably see, and yes I guess I’m projecting, is a room that is equally split between privileged white well educated men and privileged white well educated women. How is this gender equality? How is it actually progress? What has really changed?

Can these women speak for the 1 in 5 of their Australian sisters who have disabilities? No, and nor should they. Just as they shouldn’t speak for our Aboriginal sisters, or our LGBTI or culturally diverse sisters. The experiences of women of diversity are different and relevant. We bring enormous depth and difference to any conversation on any issue. Most importantly we aren’t just focussed on our own space. Just as women generally will talk about finance, geopolitical events, and architecture (for example), and not just stick to childcare or maternity leave. Women of diversity will talk about finance, geopolitical events and architecture, but we will talk about them with very different eyes and understanding.

Equality means a presence of diversity in every room and at every level. If the women’s movement isn’t fighting for this then something has gone seriously wrong. Broadening one privileged group by adding another will not add diversity to the outcomes of decision makers.

At the National Press Club lunch ABC journalist Virginia Hausegger suggested we should be asking “where are the women”. What I want to know is “where are ALL of the women”. Just as we expect men to do something about the lack of women in Cabinet or in board rooms, women with disabilities expect women of privilege to do something about the lack of diversity in their rooms. I am not responsible for the lack of women with disabilities in your room, you are, do something about it.

I will not turn into a white well educated woman of privilege to gain access to your room, why should I? Rather I will bring me and all of my value to the conversation and you will love the richness that this provides. Some of it might be confronting and tough to hear, you will need to learn to stay quiet and think, but these are good skills that we should all have to learn. Don’t be frightened of them.

Until ALL women are in the room, have a role in decision making, and are present in numbers there can be no gender equality. I expect my privileged white well educated sisters to get this (quickly given your levels of education) and to do something about it. It is up to you to make sure women of diversity are invited to sit with you, are invited to talk, and are invited to join your networks. It is up to you to make space and to listen.


Gender Based Violence meets Disability Violence

Gender based violence meets disability violence


Christina Ryan



The intersection of gender based violence and disability violence is the single biggest issue for women with disabilities globally. Across all of our cultures, our circumstances, and our levels of activism, violence tops the list every time. Yet little is being done to combat this major element in the lives of women with disabilities.


Why? Is it that it’s too hard? Is it that it’s not being approached through the lens of intersectionality? I would argue that it’s a bit of both, but it’s really the lack of an intersectional approach that is the biggest problem. The women’s movement forgets that women with disabilities have disabilities, and the disability movement doesn’t like to look at gender based violence. So, we’re stuck in the middle and get nowhere.


The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Their Children (the National Plan) lists women with disabilities as one of the key demographic areas requiring significant attention. Yet only one small project was funded under the major funding round in 2012 to support the Plan achieving its targets. Not because good projects weren’t put forward, there were plenty, but because other areas of work have higher profiles, more political pressure attached to them, and are less uncomfortable to talk about.


You would think that the appallingly high rates of gender based violence experienced by many other Australian women might cause a similar effect, but somehow the 90% sexual assault rate for women with cognitive disabilities (Valenti-Hein, D. & Schwartz, L. 1995) trumps the lot when it comes time to look the other way. People really don’t want to know, much less do something about it. And the women who are affected are not women who are getting out in the street, or writing blogs, or being high profile about the need to make change. Many of the women affected are unable to get out in the street without the perpetrator supporting them to do so.


90% is just one statistic in this field but it’s pretty appalling.


Another one to look for is the incredibly high rate of rape and sexual assault for women in institutions and residential care – the women with disabilities who need high levels of daily support to survive. The UN CEDAW committee told Australia in 2010 that the level of violence perpetrated against these women needed to be urgently addressed, yet the National Plan hasn’t done anything about it, and nothing is currently being worked on. It’s not even recognised by the law as domestic violence.


In the end Women with Disabilities Australia was asked to provide evidence of the levels of violence, and its widespread nature despite two decades of work, research and publications about the issue. After some intense lobbying a project to gather evidence was funded.


One of the biggest barriers to addressing violence against women with disabilities is the lack of understanding about what it looks like. Sure, there is the same horrific gender based violence that all women are at risk of experiencing, but the added layer of disability violence changes the picture entirely. That 90% figure doesn’t come from nowhere, it’s about an extension of the power dynamic that is gender based violence, and how it intersects with disability violence and its dehumanising of people with disabilities.


Women with disabilities experience violence in a number of ways, some of which are not even recognised by government policy makers as “violence” and this is part of the problem. If policy makers won’t even recognise that this is a form of gender based violence then we will continue to get nowhere.


Women with disabilities are physically and chemically restrained, have their aids and equipment withheld, are told they are “ugly sluts” yet are raped at higher levels than other women, have their disability used against them through either verbal or physical abuse, are sadistically experimented on to “see what happens”, are sexually coerced and exploited, are raped after being immobilised by drugs or having their mobility equipment taken away, are locked up in back rooms,  are gang raped in their workplaces, have their children removed, and are sterilised.


Gender based violence uses power as its ultimate weapon. Disability related violence uses the person’s disability as the weapon by turning it back on the person with disability. Women with disabilities live with a combination of the two forms of violence perpetrated by those most close to them on whom they must depend on.


Many many women with disabilities are not safe in their homes or places of residence, and are not believed when something happens. Many are disbelieved or accused of crying wolf to get attention. It is quite common for the perpetrator to also be the person who facilitates contact with the outside world, so the women is left with no option but to stay silent. Worse still these places are often not covered by domestic violence law (pg8) as they are not defined as “domestic”, despite being where women with disabilities live, so the exit pathways are limited to common assault with its heavier burden of proof.


Families keep their daughters locked away for “safety”, or put them under guardianship to prevent them being anywhere they don’t know about, or tell them to “move on” if they have been raped. The barriers other women face in speaking out about rape and violence are compounded by the need to seek permission from families to speak out. Many just bury it and try to forget, or don’t bother speaking up next time it happens.


Ultimately, gender based violence towards women with disabilities is very hidden, rarely responded to by the justice system, and poorly responded to by both disability services and women’s services. Recently there has been substantial work done to increase the capacity of women’s services to respond to women with disabilities but these systems still rely on women who are able to initiate their exit pathway and who can operate fairly independently.


I work with women with cognitive disabilities and am daily confronted by the 90% sexual assault rate. Some years ago I realised that just about every women I came into contact with through my work had most likely been raped or assaulted, sterilised, had her children removed, and/or been sexually exploited at some time in her life. Most women experience many types of violence and more than once. Disturbingly, many women know something is wrong (pg7), feel uncomfortable about it, but accept that this is just what being a woman with disability is about.


Until violence against women with disabilities is responded to through an intersectional lens, which recognises that this is about both gender and disability at the same time, it is unlikely we will make any progress towards addressing what is going on. We need a disability sector which understands gender based violence, and a women’s services sector which has a better handle on understanding disability. There is no other way. We can’t just keep pretending it isn’t happening and hope it will all go away.



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.