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Women with Disabilities: "Nothing About Us Without Us"

Disability Rights are Human Rights
At the recent Gender, Disability and Development Institute (GDDI), organized by Mobility International USA (MIUSA), Judy Heumann [1] reminded the participants, gathered from around the world, of the year 1977. In April 1977, demonstrations were held across the United States to get section 504 regulations of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act signed into law. Section 504 was closely modeled upon US civil rights legislation and laws that protected women and minorities; it prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of federal funds [2]. The demonstrations were publically symbolic of the beginning of the Disability Rights Movement and today, section 504 is widely recognized as the first civil-rights statute for persons with disabilities.

Source: AWID
03/12/2010 2:00 pm
FRIDAY FILE: On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, AWID revisits struggles and gains for the indivisibility of rights.

By Lejla Medanhodzic

Aside from the legislative precedent set by section 504, the achievement is notable for another reason: it came about not only through solidarity among disability rights activists, but also because of support from media, labour unions, church groups, farm workers, government workers, local legislators and politicians. At a special congressional hearing convened in response to a sit-in of disability rights activists, a prominent spokesperson [3] noted, "These kind of issues, the issue of civil rights, of human rights, are not issues that people with disabilities can compromise any further." [4] 504 meant human rights for all.

Circumstances for Women with Disabilities Today
Since then, many gains for the rights of disabled people have been achieved. Countries across the globe have passed laws and policies, imbedded within constitutions, bills of rights, or specific decrees that protect rights and give equal access to opportunity for individuals with disabilities. A few examples include the Canadian Human Rights Act (1977), which aims to ensure freedom from discrimination in federal jurisdiction; the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons (1992) in the Philippines; the Nigerians with Disability Decree (1993); the South African Constitution (in force since 1997) which prohibits discrimination against anyone, including on the grounds of disability; and the Law No. (4) On the Rights of the Disabled in Palestine (1999) which sets out to describe the rights of persons with disabilities and state obligations to secure the realization of these rights.

Nevertheless, in the above-mentioned countries and in many parts of the world people with disabilities still face exclusion, discrimination, harassment, segregation and lack of equity, due to failed implementation of existing laws, stigmatization, and institutional and social barriers, which include and are also a consequence of certain attitudes towards individuals with disabilities.

According to the UN Enable statistics, 10% of the world population (650 million) are people with disabilities, making this group the world's largest minority [5]. Furthermore, worldwide, three-fourths of the disabled people in low and middle income countries are women and between 65% and 70% of these women live in rural areas [6].

Poverty levels among women with disabilities are higher than among men with disabilities or able-bodied women, and women with disabilities are further disadvantaged when it comes to education, employment, and health opportunities and are more likely to face gender-based violence than able-bodied counterparts [7]. This is largely the case due to the discrimination of disabled women both on the grounds of their sex and also their disability.

Given the widespread differences in how disability is experienced and how disability rights are construed, women's rights advocates have been adamant in supporting the social model of disability, which distinguishes between impairment and disability. According to this framework, while impairment is a biological condition, institutional, economic, cultural, and religious barriers produce disability. Because of this, disability can be addressed by eliminating barriers to equal access of opportunities and resources and redressed through laws and public policies, including those in regards to education, health and employment. The social model of disability stands in contrast to the traditional medical model that views people with disabilities as deficient and in need of being "repaired."

Similarly, historically, legislation related to equality for persons with disabilities has focused on overcoming barriers to physical access, but rights activists also stress that policy shifts in cultural and social attitudes are equally important. A key part of this shift includes viewing people with disabilities as individuals with agency and a full range of human desires and experiences.

For example, in a number of cultural contexts where women's identities are viewed through their roles as wives and mothers, women with disabilities are assumed not to be fit for marriage and childbearing, assumed not to need reproductive health care and assumed not to have any sexual desires, including desires for same sex relationships, and therefore not in need of sexual rights. Consequently, their families, education and health institutions strip away their agency in these and other aspects of their lives. In these contexts, approaches to disability tend to be charity-based, with people with disabilities often pitied and sometimes infantilized. [8]

Perspectives from the GDDI
At the GDDI, women with disabilities strongly expressed not wanting to be looked upon as unable, or less able to engage in society than other able-bodied people. They also pointed out that they are not simply a group existing on their own and asked to be included in other social movements (including women's rights movements) as equal leaders, actors and decision-makers - a still rare situation. For example, one activist pointed out that many women with disabilities are excluded from the mainstream women's rights movement in India, which also tends to exclude groups such as sex workers and transgender people. Another explained that women with disabilities are marginalized within the mainly men-led disability rights movement in Botswana.

So how are this equality and inclusion to be attained? What are the ways in which way we can best provide access to resources? How do we collaboratively work with different political and social actors (civil society organizations, foundations, universities) to involve women with disabilities in strengthening their own voice when demanding accountability from governments and other institutions in shaping and enforcing already existent laws on the rights of people with disabilities? And furthermore, as Heumann asked participants at the GDDI, What happens if disability is not part of the global development agenda?

Gains Forward
Advocates and organizations are already making advances to respond to these questions. For instance, the Youth Association of Blind in Lebanon works on mainstreaming disability and on inclusion of visually impaired at all levels of society. According to Nagata, "these young assertive women with disabilities believe that the Lebanese women's movement and the disability movement have both gained increased visibility and empowerment through networking and alliances across the sectors, overcoming political difference." [9]

Similarly, the Lebanese Sitting Handicapped Association began promoting the idea "that disability is not a problem in itself" but rather socially constructed when society "cannot integrate disabled people within its structures and institutions." [10] In Australia and the Pacific region, the organization People With Disability Australia Incorporated (PWD) works on ensuring inclusion of women with disabilities within the region, by incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities, as well as other organizations in the Pacific to "develop a regional organisation of Pacific people with disability (the Pacific Disability Forum, or PDF)." [11]

In India, CREA works at the intersection of different rights, organizing an annual Sexuality, Gender and Rights Institute, which includes content on sexuality and disability. In, Palestine, the Stars of Hope Society works on affecting systemic change for women with disabilities and so works "with all levels of government in order to influence policy and legislation that incorporates the needs and issues of women with disabilities." The Stars of Hope Society also collaborates with international organizations (such as Handicap International) in raising awareness (through workshops and trainings) and furthermore with mainstream organisations in Palestine to ensure that these work towards eliminating discrimination against women with disabilities. [12]

1977 and 2010
Since the demonstrations in 1977, the 23 years of work and struggle to get the disability rights recognized as indivisible from human rights and to include issues and perspectives of people with disabilities in other social movements have yielded tremendous achievements. However, there is still work to do to raise awareness around what access and inclusion mean, and how these can be achieved by and for people with disabilities. This, as the struggle for getting the 504 regulations has shown, requires a collective effort and an ongoing commitment to the indivisibility of human rights.

Note: The author would like to thank Shatha Abusrour for providing feedback and material on women with disabilities, as well as WILD Women 2010 (from the MIUSA GDDI Institute) for sharing with AWID their experiences.


[1] Special Advisor to the U.S. Department of State on International Disability Rights, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/biog/144458.htm

[2] http://www.ok.gov/abletech/documents/Section%20504%20of%20the%20Rehab%20Act.pdf

[3] Ed Roberts (1939-1995), one of the leaders in the disability rights movement

[4] Power of 504 Documentary, Part 2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiScXKt_BhI&feature=channel

[5] UN Enable, http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=18

[6] US AID, http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/cross-cutting_programs/wid/gender/wwd_statistics.html

[7] US AID, http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/cross-cutting_programs/wid/gender/wwd_statistics.html

[8] Abou-Habib, Lina. ''Women and disability don't mix!': Double discrimination and disabled women's rights' ,In Gender & Development, Volume 3, Issue 2, 1995. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all?content=10.1080/741921809

[9] Nagata, Kozue Kay. Gender and Disability in the Arab Region: The Challenges in the New Millennium. In Asia Pacific Disability Rehabilitation Journal (2003). http://www.aifo.it/english/resources/online/apdrj/apdrj103/arab-region.pdf

[10] Oxfam, Developing Rights: Teaching Rights and Responsibilities for ages 11-14. 2004.

[11] Sands, Therese. A voice of our own: advocacy by women with disability in Australia and the Pacific. In Gender & Development, Volume 13, Issue 3, 2005. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a744079028~frm=titlelink

[12] Stars of Hope Society, http://starsofhope.org/

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