I am a feminist. I feel reassured that more of us are speaking about women’s rights and gender equality. I feel proud that my female friends are rejoicing in their independence and are upholding narratives that describe them as strong, empowered women. However, it is difficult to balance being a disabled person and a feminist without feeling as though I need to split myself in half to wear both identities.
As a woman with a disability, I notice mainstream feminism can leave disabled women feeling forgotten, particularly when we continuously talk about being strong and independent, celebrating women who demonstrate these traits and strut along their own paths. Yet, I am dependent and incapable of looking after myself without the help of my husband. Affected from the age of 16, I’ve never tasted independence and continue to grieve for what my life could’ve been. Feminism talks about women having choices, that women may chase after any career they so choose. However, women with disabilities may only work part-time, or only within jobs that are manageable for their condition, or not at all (or, like me, may only be able to work part-time from home). For many women with disabilities, choices are limited. Without including disabled women or acknowledging our unique situations, mainstream feminism often excludes us.
Without feminism, women would still be expected to be homemakers and to prioritise tasks such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children (of course, this expectation hasn’t entirely diminished). However, my own condition prevents me from carrying out domestic chores and children may not be a possibility. In a patriarchal, traditional world, what use would I have? My womanhood or femininity would be called into question as I’d be unable to fulfil my ‘purpose’ as a woman. Feminism is essential as it gives women the option and the right to be more than what the patriarchy wants to make them. But if it chooses not to address or discuss disability, then those with disabilities may feel fragmented – still unable to embrace themselves as the women they are. Where do disabled women belong in the modern world raising up empowered women to believe that they can do it all? We need to occupy some space in the discussions.
Physical accessibility can also prevent disabled women from engaging in feminism. A commentator on a feminist website said she was able to physically attend feminist group, however, she required her male carer (her boyfriend) to accompany her. Each of her local feminist groups said he wouldn’t be permitted to attend as the groups were for women only. While it is understandable for feminist groups to be restricted to females, there needs to be some flexibility or policy implemented to allow disabled women to participate.
Feminism cares deeply about preventing and punishing sexual assault on women. Statistics on women in the US show that the disabled community experiences one of the highest rates of sexual assault and yet disability is not often included in conversations around sexual assault. Women, especially with invisible disabilities, also struggle with not being believed when they talk about their medical problems. A recent example involves Jameela Jamil, who was accused of lying about her conditions by Piers Morgan. These conditions include Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and POTS which are not visible yet can dramatically affect a woman’s life.
There are other ways in which mainstream feminism needs to consider disabilities. For example, feminism promotes body positivity and works towards ending the sexual objectification of women – something we need to see the end of. Interestingly, women with disabilities, especially visible disabilities, are desexualised by society and are never looked upon as sexually desirable.
This means feminism cannot be a one size fits all. While able-bodied women are dealing with sexualisation, disabled women are not considered sexual at all and are dealing with entirely different challenges, yet still ones that are degrading and harmful. Furthermore, we are encouraging women to accept their bodies and this is wonderful. However, for some reason, we aren’t including women whose bodies don’t function in the usual way. Disabled bodies are a taboo topic. Feminism is helping so many women to feel comfortable in their skin, and now, we must extend our reach to include women who aren’t able-bodied.
Women with disabilities need feminism as much as other women. As feminists, we must involve disabled women in our conversations and hold awareness of how different issues affect women with disabilities. I am a feminist and a disabled woman, yet there seems to a conflict – a wave of tension, between the two identities, and I wish to be able to reconcile them, confident in the knowledge that feminism is for all women, including women like me.