Written by Emma Coady Södergren
Throughout the course of our lives, we are constantly participating in a socialisation process. We learn what is appropriate, what is desirable and what is not. This varies across cultures and societies, influenced by history and politics. However, much like how our history and politics shape our current state structure so do our beliefs and attitudes. These unspoken beliefs and attitudes that us as a society possess deeply affect those who are seen as the “other.” Who are the “other” people? What criteria do they possess to be viewed as “them” rather than “us?” How do we categorize these people? What language do we use when referring to “them?”
In a study by Gold & Auslander in 1999 a comparison was made between the media coverage of people with disabilities between Canada and Israel. The findings were quite appalling, suggesting that women who suffer from a disability are dually oppressed (Gold & Auslander, 1999). Gold and Auslander found that in the 3 months they conducted the study, 63% of articles in which the gender was specified were about males, and 37% were about females. While the articles’ placement, size, terminology and length were similar, personal information about the person in focus were different (Gold & Auslander, 1999). When it came to males, their occupation was the main focus of the article whereas when the women were interviewed, their marital status, number of children, behaviour and ethnicity were the main focus.
The study also showed that disabled women were twice as likely to be subjected to physical and sexual violence than women without a disability. If these women chose to speak out about it, they were less likely to be believed than those without a disability. Furthermore, in some cases, the women are told that the perpetrator did them a favour because no one desires a disabled woman (Gold & Auslander, 1999). Moreover, women with a disability have a lower employment rate, minimizing their chances of changing their economic status, due to the negative attitudes and stigma surrounding them. This is a result of sexism and able-ism (Gold & Auslander, 1999). However, this is not a one-way street; women living in poverty have a higher chance of becoming disabled due to malnutrition and lack of healthcare in developing countries for example.
Taking this information Gold and Auslander provide us with, we can see a clear relation between disablement, gender, and complete participation in society. Women’s rights have progressed immensely during the past century, but disabled women are left out of the public discourse. Ignoring the additional dimension of difficulties they face leave them with little to no support. These women face the rejection of their bodies, often reinforced by the media and the stereotypes of what a desirable woman should look like. Hence, these women are facing social, economical and political barriers. How do we move forward and change this? The sexism and ableism women with disabilities face has a long history behind it.
Consequently, it is embedded in our culture today. I challenge today’s discourse regarding women with disabilities. It is not enough to label a demographic as the “disabled.” By doing so, these people are marginalized without anyone to hold accountable for it. How can you defeat the structural challenges you face without the support of your community and society? If and when you receive media coverage, rather than it being an opportunity to promote your political views and thoughts, the reporter chooses to focus on how many children you have and what your ethnicity is.
Additionally, these women have to struggle with their body image. Although it may seem trivial compared to the political and economical challenges, it interplays with our daily lives. To be told that someone who sexually abused you was doing you a favour is horrifying. Everyday, we are surrounded by media and advertisements that tell us all to look a certain way. If you deviate from this, you are not considered to be desirable in our society, something that is internalized in many. I believe that this is yet another subtle way to silence the voices of disabled women. They are not welcomed into the public discourse; rather they are seen as “them.” This dehumanizing, degrading view compresses these women’s identities so that they can be easily labelled.
Now, in 2015, with so many progressive steps behind them, my wish is for women to broaden their horizons. It is important that we continue to focus on gender equality, but the discourse needs to expand to women of all demographics. When I walk past women’s shelters in Toronto, my first thought is that in many cases there are stairs leading up to the shelter. How is a woman in a wheelchair going to access this shelter? These women are marginalized and silenced in too many areas of their lives, and whereas they receive pitiful, sad looks and empathy, not much is done about it. I encourage all members of society to expand their views and thoughts on the lives of disabled women, and start a dialogue. Do not categorize or draw assumptions upon the wishes and lives of these women, but rather invite them into the public discourse.
- Auslander, G. K., & Gold, N. (1999). Disability terminology in the media: A comparison of newspaper reports in canada and israel. Social Science & Medicine, 48(10), 1395-1405. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(98)00442-0