March 8, 2022

Breaking the Bias: Re-thinking the social status and position of women with disabilities in Canada

As a disabled woman living with cerebral palsy who was born in the 1980s, it is likely that I avoided institutionalization and also benefited from integrated schooling. I was also able to find role models in the disabled community because of early disability organizing and disabled feminist activists and leaders such as DAWN’s own Bonnie Brayton. Disabled women make space for and elevate other disabled women, and the work of disability organizations such as DAWN as well as the Independent Living movement have set the stage for myself and other disabled women to sit, stand, or lay in our power.

However, there is still work to be done.

In considering this year’s International Women’s Day theme of Breaking the Bias, I am called to reflect on my own experience as a woman living with a disability. I find it fascinating when I meet someone who is impressed by someone like myself performing mundane tasks, or when my very existence is questioned. If I am by myself, I am asked if I am alone and where my helper or support person is. People are often surprised that I work, live alone, and have friends. I have noticed that my able-bodied friends will be asked common questions such as what they do for a living or where they live, whereas I am asked about how I fill my days and who takes care of me. When I tell people that I spend my time working and that I take care of myself, the response is often “Good for you!”

While these situations can be explained away with assuming that certain individuals are simply ignorant or are in the minority, all people understand the world through their own lived experience. If individuals regularly greet me with confusion about my participation in the world as a disabled woman, it speaks to how common it is for disabled women to be erased in everyday activities. While this experience happens to women in general, such as with women in leadership roles or in male-dominated careers, the erasure of women with disabilities is almost ubiquitous. Even so-called “traditional” roles for women are assumed to be too complex or inappropriate for a woman with a disability. Disabled women are not considered as mothers, partners or care workers. Disability scholars Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asch (2018) characterize this as a “rolelessness” experienced by disabled women. They acknowledge that able-bodied women experience a narrow or reductive position in society that may confine them to roles of care, beauty or support, yet disabled women struggle to be understood as human or as women at all. Women with disabilities are invisible in everyday life. Despite trails blazed and strong historical movements, women with disabilities are absent from the thoughts of most individuals when they consider women in general.

Three ways to #BreaktheBias

As a disabled person: 
Know your power, know your value! Take up space in any way you want. Engage online, write an editorial, join a justice group or give yourself permission to rest.  Living a happy and fulfilled life with a disability is a radical act!

As an individual who does not identify as disabled:
When you meet someone living with a disability, assume competence and value. When interacting with someone who is disabled, ask questions you would like to be asked in conversation. Make a connection based on symbiotic value and understanding, rather than pity or obligation. Speak up against ableist assumptions, inquire about access, lead by example, be a community connection and an ally. 

As an organization:
Create policies that expect and assume there will be members of your organization with disabilities. For example: hold meetings in accessible places (even if no one has requested it) and have accessibility “baked in” to your terms of reference. Hire facilitators, entertainers, and other merchants who represent diverse or equity-seeking groups. Recruit diverse membership and advertise accessibility policies. 

To break a bias is to first become conscious of it. Question why it exists and then build individual practices, spaces and communities that disrupt it. The revolution is now. 

Happy International Women’s Day!

Samantha Walsh is the incoming National Director of DAWN Canada and a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Toronto OISE. She will defend her PhD on March 22, 2022. Samantha has published on the topics of accessibility policy, motherhood and disability, as well as her own narratives about living with a disability. 

Fine, M., & Asch, A. (2018). Disabled women: Sexism without the pedestal. In Women and Disability (pp. 6-22). Routledge.