Missing Voices at the Table: Women with Disabilities

By Lisa McClain*

In July 2010, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’d like to encourage activists, advocates, academics and public policymakers to ensure that people with disabilities are included in all debates about issues impacting women and girls. This means that disability issues get meaningful discussion time in all policy, human/civil rights and gender debates, as well as line items in budgets and written policies in resulting documentation. It also means that individuals with disabilities have a seat at the table and a voice in such conversations.

Approximately 15% of women and girls in the US identify as having at least one disability, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Such disabilities include a variety of physical, cognitive, sensory, and mental health impairments. Since the passage of the ADA, many aspects of daily life have become more accessible to such women and girls. Much, however, remains to be done.

In my opinion, the need for inclusion of women and girls with disabilities on policy and human/civil rights issues is greatest in three areas: poverty, violence, and technology. A greater proportion of women than men live in poverty in the U.S. It is also true that poverty and unemployment impact people with disabilities at a much greater rate than fully-abled individuals. Women with disabilities are thus doubly disadvantaged in their efforts to support themselves and their families. Few discussions on women’s poverty, however, specifically address the particular concerns of women with disabilities. Simultaneously, few debates surrounding the intersections of poverty, unemployment, and disability include dialogue about gender.

Violence against women and girls with disabilities is another area in which our conversations must be broadened to include issues specific to victims and survivors with disabilities. Studies have been conducted in many states and countries that confirm the high occurrence of physical, emotional, sexual, and disability-specific domestic violence against women with disabilities, equaling and in many cases exceed rates of violence against fully-abled women. A need exists for services for such women, but abuse often looks different and goes under-recognized among such women. Moreover, the service needs of women with disabilities may not be the same as the needs for fully-abled women, and women with disabilities often underutilize services. Very dedicated individuals and organizations throughout the US work hard to provide domestic violence services and disability services, often with very little funding. There is often little overlap of such services or communication between providers. We need open dialogue among these groups about gendered violence and accessibility as well as institutionalized policies and budgetary allocations to meet women’s needs.

Finally, technology development and usage must include the needs and participation of women with disabilities. Education and employment often hinge on an individual’s ability use technology. Universities, for example, frequently market online classes to women who cannot easily attend classes in a campus setting due to family or other reasons. Such online courses theoretically increase access to education by women with disabilities as well. Few academic institutions, however, have a centralized review process of online courses to ensure accessibility. When the Campus Computing Project surveyed 183 colleges and universities, they discovered that just 16% of responding institutions employed such centralized review. Additionally, university students who were visually impaired did not experience full programmatic accessibility when the Kindle was a required purchase for certain courses. These accessibility issues surrounding technology, the Internet and education are likely to increase, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as technological sophistication increases.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of issues in which gender and disability intersect. But with 15% of US women and girls identifying as having a disability and the recent 20th anniversary of the ADA, we are powerfully reminded of the need to ensure all our sisters have a place at the table and a voice in our work.

* Dr. Lisa McClain is an Associate Professor of History and the Director of Gender Studies at Boise State University. Dr. McClain researches the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault perpetrated against women with disabilities.

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