Feminism and disability

Intersectionality is a big trend in feminism at the moment.  It is a sociological concept which recognises that people can experience multi-faceted oppression.  For example a black, bisexual woman experiences oppression differently to a white, straight woman.  There are different levels of privilege in the world.  You can have two women who both experience gender oppression but one may feel that more intensely or differently because of their race, sexuality, class, disability etc.

The earliest academic work that I’m aware of around feminism and disability was about community care in the 1980s.  The main argument was that women (non-disabled) were getting a raw deal out of the community care acts.  The move from institutionalisation to living in the community was a major change and feminism didn’t seem on board.  In a nutshell, their concern was that non-disabled women were shouldering the burden of this.  The care they were required to give to disabled and elderly relatives meant that they couldn’t work.  They were demanding economical equality.  Which sounds fair enough.

However, this research and campaigning focused purely on care givers and at no stage included the disabled people themselves.  Arguments were made that perhaps disabled people should be returned to institutions and/or that disabled people’s benefits should go straight to care givers because disabled people weren’t responsible or able to handle this.  The movement towards carers rights (which I’m all for, when done right) relied heavily on the image of the dependent, burdensome disabled person.  In advocating for the rights of women and carers, the feminist movement further oppressed disabled people.

It also failed to acknowledge the complexities, many women who are disabled and receive ‘care’ (in whatever form), are also ‘caring’ for family members.  Think of a disabled mother – she is both carer and caree and therefore is completely disregarded by the model that feminists were using.

They also failed to look at the wider picture.  The narrative of disability and feminism focussed heavily on care, ignoring many issues which are more uniting than divisive such as improved public transport on the dark evenings, pressures to conform to a certain model of femininity etc.

“Repeatedly, feminist issues that are intricately entangled with disability – such as reproductive technology, the place of bodily differences, the particularities of oppression, the ethics of care, the construction of the subject – are discussed without any reference to disability.”

Rosemarie Garland Thomson

It’s not just issues of research and policy and ideology.  There are other issues which arise when discussing feminism and disability.  All the practical barriers which prevent disabled people from having the same daily experiences as non-disabled people still exist.

If I want to attend a feminist meeting I have to ensure that the venue is accessible (for me this means wheelchair access, for someone else it might mean a quiet venue due to hearing issues), if it’s in the evening I would have to attend in my pjs because of when my carers come.  There are barriers to information – if you can’t read well or if you can’t read heavy academic books, you are at a disadvantage.  If you can’t cope in crowds, you probably won’t be able to attend a march… and so on and so on.

And feminists, as people who live in our society, often have their own prejudices and assumptions about disabled people which are evident in use of ableist language and ignoring disabled people, their voices and their needs.

There has been progress and there are some great examples of inclusive feminism however I worry that there is also a hang up about calling out lack of intersectionality rather than addressing the issue of inclusively.  Not being an intersectional feminist is often used as an insult from one feminist to another.  And it’s great that we are noticing when feminism isn’t being inclusive but name calling doesn’t progress the movement.  And some people are so hung up on calling out none inclusive feminism that they fail to do anything about making the movement more inclusive.

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