This International Women’s Day I’m thinking about my sister Zoe as a young, disabled woman, and the often overlooked crossover between gender and disability. Zoe has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects her muscle control and movement, which she has had since birth. She has complex physical needs and learning difficulties, but she finds joy in the ordinary and never complains about her disability. With a smile, she simply loves everyone.
It takes Zoe more than an hour to get to the special educational needs school that meets her learning requirements. What if all school children had to do that? What happens when she finishes her formal education? Her complex needs will make it difficult, or near enough impossible, to find work. Also, living in a rural area will make it harder for Zoe to access resources as she relies heavily on transport, which is made even more challenging under government cutbacks making her increasingly isolated. Leading disability charity Papworth Trust produced a report on key facts and figures concerning disability in the UK. There is a 30 per cent gap between the number of disabled people of a working age in employment and non-disabled people of a working age in employment. For a disabled woman, these statistics are sadly entrenched with gender inequality. While disabled men experience an 11 per cent pay gap compared with non-disabled men, this doubles to 22 per cent between disabled and non-disabled women.
In our inclination to draw attention to gender inequality in the work place and elsewhere, are we overlooking the inequality experienced by disabled women? There is a risk of double discrimination – being a woman and being disabled. In the quest for greater equality, it’s paramount to include all women. In the words of charitable organisation Feminism in London: “Feminism must include all women or it is not feminism at all.” Guardian journalist Frances Ryan addresses this by saying that the “concerns that are currently at the forefront of disabled activism – whether that’s carers’ allowance or social care cuts – are too often seen as if they have little relevance to women’s equality, but are actually key feminist concerns: control over our bodies, genuine choice, and socio-economic independence.”
Zoe is fortunate to have access to physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians and other healthcare professionals in the National Health Service. She benefits from respite care, the support of a social worker and opportunities to volunteer with her school. All of this has a very positive impact on her quality of life. However, this is not the experience of the majority of disabled women across the world. Internationally, 80 per cent of those with disabilities live in developing countries and most cannot afford the necessary rehabilitation and health services that they need.
One woman has made a difference to those affected by disability in the poorest parts of the world. Joni Eareckson Tada is the founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Centre. Part of their work includes ‘Wheels for the World’, which has delivered more than 100,000 wheelchairs and Bibles to poorer nations globally – meeting their physical and spiritual needs. No stranger to disability, Joni is a quadriplegic who paints with a brush between her teeth, is a speaker, writer, and hosts a radio and television show. Her heart for God and people with disabilities brings hope to millions of lives.
International Women’s Day 2016 should move us to action by raising awareness of issues around gender and disability in the UK and internationally. Both Zoe and Joni highlight the challenges and triumphs of being disabled women. Poverty adds to the struggle between gender and disability. There are opportunities to make a difference by supporting charities like Christian Aid and Tearfund who are addressing some of the root causes of poverty including gender inequality. Charities like Prospects and Liveability are contributing towards a better quality of life for disabled women in the UK by promoting inclusion, personal care and support to individuals and families, and resourcing the church to become more accessible to all members of the community.
Will you dare to be doubly different by supporting gender justice and helping to create an intentional, inclusive community for those with disabilities?
This post is part of our week-long series on womanhood and feminism, curated by Dr Claire Rush.