Gendered experiences of disability

when it comes to disability, there is clearly a gendered divide. Women’s experiences differ significantly from men’s, pointing to the need for more specialized resources available to the disabled community.

Diane Driedger, provincial coordinator of the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities, University of Manitoba PhD graduate and author of the recently released anthology of Canadian disabled women’s experiences, Living the Edges, explains that women with disabilities experience double discrimination. “Men with disabilities just deal with the disability issue whereas women have to deal with discrimination based on gender as well.”

Violence is one of the most prominent issues that disproportionately affect disabled women. Driedger elaborates that violence can take the form of physical abuse, sexual abuse or mental abuse. Also common is economic abuse, isolation, neglect and poverty.

In terms of resources, there is a strong need for women-specific care. The formation of the Disabled Women’s Network of Canada (dawn) three years ago in Manitoba helped fill that gap. dawn acts as an advocacy group as well as a support network for women with disabilities. “One of the reasons it was started is because there are so few services that are acceptable to women with disabilities, even in the women’s community,” says Driedger.

She notes that access to health care is a major problem. “There are a lot of women who have never had a pap smear because there are no acceptable tables at their doctor’s office and the doctors won’t help them get up on the table. So we need to have these tables that move up and down, and there are very few in the city of Winnipeg.”

Another health related issue that Driedger says is at a crisis point is the refusal of doctors to take on disabled patients. “A lot of doctors are refusing to take on patients with disabilities because they say they take too much time and their needs are so complex and they want to get through as many patients as they can in a day so they can bill based on the number of patients that they see.” This is an unfortunate situation, particularly for women who face more chronic illnesses than men, and points to the need for systemic health care changes.

In terms of social stigmas, Driedger sees less blatant discrimination happening now than in the past. However, it is still happening, but has become more difficult to detect. “Now it has gone underground and sometimes it’s kind of hard to pinpoint whether one is being discriminated against or not and whether it is based on disability or some other issue.”

All of these concerns point to the fact that we still live in an ableist society, one where able bodies are privileged over all other bodies, to such an extent that we take this privileging for granted. “It is to be discriminated against solely based on your disability and because you are not able-bodied, like everyone else, you don’t appear the same, or your body doesn’t function the same, or you’re not able to participate in the same way, and it is really endemic to everything we think about.”

Driedger uses attitudes towards work as an example of ableism. “Things like how we work and what’s important about work, being seen to do it like everyone else or to actually get a job done, that is an ableist kind of assumption — that nobody can do anything differently.”

Furthermore, the categories of disability themselves can be questioned. “What does it mean to be able-bodied and does that even exist? It’s really on a continuum because someone may wear glasses and if they didn’t have glasses they wouldn’t be able to see properly — that’s a disability, and then there are people who are quadriplegics on the other end. So it’s a question of where do we draw a line about who is disabled and who isn’t?”