Sunday, December 02, 2007

Perspective: Getting Into a Feminist Disability Rights Frame of Mind...

Over the last two years that FRIDA has maintained this blog, I've been very pleased to see that, across the digital world, people have been thinking a lot more about feminist disability rights and the relationship between what we in FRIDA call "mainstream feminism" and the disability rights movement. I was looking at this post at The Curvature This writer made me very happy because she really batted .500 in terms of connecting the feminist struggle with an ongoing issue in the disability rights movement.

Lest readers think that all we disability rights activists care about is the Jerry Lewis/MDA problem, let me provide a list of feminist disability issues that are also shafting people out of full and equal lives:

Domestic violence and sexual assault services are generally not accessible to people with disabilities, though we've been been advocating for access for thirty years;

Parents with disabilities still often face the possibility that their families or social services will take their kids away just because the mother (or father) has a disability;

Women with disabilities are more likely to suffer physical and mental abuse;

Girls with disabilities are more likely to become pregnant in high school;

Women with disabilities are generally considered less attractive dates and partners;

The rights and experiences of women with disabilities who are institutionalized are by and large unexamined;

People with disabilities have historically been denied reproductive rights and bodily integrity through forced sterilization;

Women with disabilities experience bias in receiving medical services; such as inaccessible examining table and incomplete medical records (because "why would she care anyway? she's retarded!");

A lack of qualified personal care assistants and in home services forces many women with disabilities to stay institutionalized;

Deaf women who use sign language lack access to information and programs because the people who provide such services don't know how to locate and pay for interpreters;

Captioning is not provided on many informational programs designed to empower women;

Women with disabilities, especially young women with physical or cognitive disabilities, are patted on the head and spoken to like children;

Women with disabilities who are institutionalized are not provided with training on how to manage their periods, or are left to sit in their blood and feces until an attendant can get to them, which often takes hours;

Regardless of ethnic or sexual identity, women with disabilities are usually considered among the least of us, not only because they are women but because they are disabled.

There are about 28.5 million women in the US with acknowledged disabilities. Our disabilities range from diabetes and HIV+ to deafness, blindness and physical disabilities like spina bifida. Somewhere between 60 and 70% of us are unemployed. A number of us are in jail or prison. A lot of us have kids. Some of us are sex workers.

Engaging with disability rights in a meaningful way is critical for feminism. What's interesting is that we have a lot of powerful women advocates with disabilities and a powerful body of knowledge, so in reality, when disability rights activists engage with feminists, we really are not starting from square one but have a great deal to discuss and exchange. The problem seems to be just opening that door. I don't think we are faced here with an issue of yet another identity group clamoring at feminism's door-because we're doing that already! we ARE feminists; rather, I think the issue is for us instead to be asking each other, is feminism including everyone? Are we actively asking questions, instead of busying ourselves with gatekeeping "FEMINISM"?

In my own life, while I grew up with parents who role modeled advocacy and empowerment, to be honest it is disabled feminists who I have found most challenging and most helpful to my feminist personal growth. There are a lot of strong disabled women, and not just women but disabled people with a feminist outlook, who are actively fighting to live the lives they want. I say "fighting" because they are being kept from making certain types of choices by social and bureaucratic barriers. A lot of them are members or allies of FRIDA.

Most of us FRIDA people are not feminists by scholarly training or women's group training. I am not. I think we are people who instead seek to be able to make choices; to be independent rather than dependent; who want to love our bodies and love other people's bodies; who take pride in ourselves and in being together in a feminist cause; who take offense at injustice and look at things by asking, "Is it fair to ask women with disabilities to put up with certain things when the rest of the world can do as they choose?" I think FRIDA women also have a lot of guts---because we ask not only what is good for us, but what is good for society, and we try to do something about it.

And if you want to DO something small to learn about society's struggles with women with disabilities just for today, go and Google the names of the following: Carrie Buck, Elizabeth Bouvia, Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson, Tracy Latimer, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, Terri Schiavo, Haleigh Poutre, Ashley X, Katie Thorpe.