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20 May 2014updated 05 Jul 2017 11:13am

“It’s not only steps that keep us out“: mainstream feminism must stop ignoring disabled women

In matters of sex, sexuality and political campaigning, the resurgence of mainstream feminism overlooks disabled women, who are left with the “half-life” of slicing their identity.

By Frances Ryan

I was a disabled feminist around a decade after I knew I was disabled and a feminist. In retrospect, I can only think I wasn’t paying attention. Or perhaps I was and that was the problem. The girls around me were not disabled. At school, or the rooms and streets at the start of adult life. I could, with no obvious contradiction, be different on a daily basis and have very little awareness of difference. When the crowd is big enough, it is easy to get lost in it.

I thought about that a few years later, as feminism made its resurgence in the mainstream agenda, but did so seemingly without the faces and lives of disabled women. I thought about it again as disability rights campaigns began to get attention, but framed as separate and foreign to what matters for women. Could I be disabled on a Monday and a woman on a Tuesday? Slicing an identity has the result of a half-life – and perhaps, crucially, the movements that attempt to improve those lives failing to acknowledge the particular way being unequal in one affects being unequal in another.

This falls both ways. Issues labelled as “disability” – for example, cuts to carers’ allowance – end up rarely being seen as feminist, and feminist campaigns – such as domestic violence – existing without mention of disabled women.

In her excellent piece on being a black feminist, Lola Okolosie describes how white, middle-class and young women are often seen as the ones at the forefront of feminist activity. “The problem is not that these [new wave of] campaigns exist, but that they are given a focus and attention that overshadows other work feminists are engaged with.” If the problem comes for black feminists in having their work overshadowed by (what is viewed as) mainstream feminism, the problem comes for disabled feminists in not having their work or lives seen as feminism. It’s not only steps that keep disabled women out.

“Feminists are grappling with issues that disabled people also face in a different context,” Susan Wendell wrote as far back as the 1980s.

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When we don’t acknowledge this – when we see feminism and disability rights as separate campaigns and separate lives – we split a person down the middle, we make political movements that cancel out the lives of certain women and cannot represent every woman. “We need a feminist theory of disability,” Wendell implores. “Both because 16 per cent of women are disabled, and because the oppression of disabled people is closely linked to the cultural oppression of the body.”

Feminist and disability rights are born from a similar cloth. They are battles to acknowledge that oppression doesn’t come from a biological reality but a socially constructed inequality. They are concerned with idealised human bodies. They fight the structures and power that wish to control them; in sex, in work, in reproduction.

For disabled women, sexism and disability meet to mark lives in particular ways. Increased threat of sexual and intimate partner violence. Our forced sterilisation. A workplace that physically excludes us. The denial of our right to sexual support and education. The shaming of our bodies. 

There are conflicts, of course. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson suggests in Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure, it isn’t only that feminist assumptions can fail to take into account disabled women’s situations, it’s that some of the differences that disability provokes can complicate feminism’s understanding of female bodies and the oppression of them.

Caring responsibilities still fall predominantly on women, allowing disability to escape institutions but keeping women in their traditional role and poverty. (What is liberation for the one being cared for can be oppression for the one doing the caring.) Losing the lads’ mags shows us sexual objectification, but for disabled women, the degradation can be a-sexualisation. Are disabled women part of the story or a different story altogether?

The plot never seems more riddled than with abortion, perhaps. Foetuses with abnormalities are routinely held up as “justified” abortion stories, managing to fall into the sexist trap of telling women only some of their choices are acceptable and the ableist trap of using disability as the nightmare consequence.

I went to a conference at the University of Sheffield last week entitled “Gender and Disability: Asking Difficult Questions” (and abortion, in a rare room of a majority disabled women, was mentioned more than any other issue.) The title was apt. These are difficult questions. But I would like to ask them. I would like to say I feel no better seeing pro-choice campaigners use disability as the literal crutch to convince doubters of the rights of women than I do seeing anti-choicers using it to take those rights away. When I defend a woman’s choice over her body on any grounds (including disability), as a disabled woman, I feel the conflict and – at various corners – the anger. At assumptions, at hijacking, at misunderstanding (of both the negatives and positives and complexities) of disabled reality.

The first stage, like all things I think, is an awareness of the women who are caught within the debate and an inclusion of their voices. The next stage – at least for this difference – is seeing the issue is not simply the way disabled people are included in abortion debates but that concern for reproductive rights is often almost exclusively about abortion.  A full feminist campaign for reproductive rights would go beyond abortion rights to the coerced sterilization of disabled women, the rights of disabled women to raise their children, and the ever-shrinking support for parents of disabled children. There are women experiencing it even if we don’t talk about it.

Importantly, these experiences can be specific to the lives of disabled women but simultaneously touch on wider oppressions marking all of us. I think about our bodies and the hatred and shame of it and the constant discussion of this in all types of feminism. For disability, the figure of the disabled woman “is a cultural third term, a figure constituted by the binary pair of the masculine figure and the feminine figure,” writes Garland Thompson. “… She is not only defined against the masculine figure, but she is imagined as the antithesis of the normative woman as well.”

Sexuality itself is taken. Disabled people generally are excluded from society’s understanding of sexual desires. For disabled women, it can be a life in the crack of two failings: as a woman, you are sexualized, as a disabled figure you are ignored. There is autonomy in neither, of course. There is a particular unique lack of power in at once being a used slut and sexually useless.   

“In the dis/ableist cultures in which we live, disabled people’s sexual selves are seldom acknowledged. We are, almost routinely, ascribed an asexual identity, where we are assumed to lack any sense of sexual feeling and desire,” writes Kirsty Liddiard for the disabled women’s network Sisters of Frida. “We are… deemed sexually inadequate because of the ways in which our distinctive sexual pleasures and practices, and Othered bodies and minds, contradict deep-seated sexual norms.”

This is particularly damning in a sexist culture that seeks to police and shame women generally – holding up a version of sex, in addition to bodies, that is acceptable (and that all other women but you are said to be enjoying).

Tom Shakespeare, in Disabled Sexuality: Toward Rights and Recognition, calls it the “Cosmo conspiracy of great sex”. The (false) idea that all people are having incredible sex, all of the time – a spontaneous, lampshade-swinging jump with no communication, planning, or development. (An idea not unfamiliar to mainstream feminism.)   

Liddiard, who conducted her doctoral research in exploring the relationships between disability, sex, intimacy, and love, found this “conspiracy” was felt particularly by disabled women. While both men and women expressed great frustration at typically ableist (hetero)sexual norms – norms which dictate a fully-functioning, autonomous, mobile, ‘sexy’, strong and supple body for physical, penetrative, goal-orientated and genitally-focused activity – disabled men, for the most part, could negotiate a more empowering sexual role within their sexual lives and build a positive sexual identity.” 

Further, she found this permeated care provision itself. “Disabled men’s greater social and sexual power… ensured greater practical sexual support from attendants, carers, and parents, which enabled better access to sex and sexuality than disabled women,” she says. “In contrast, the majority of disabled women didn’t have the esteem or confidence to negotiate a desired role in sex; nor could they find a route to body confidence and self-love. Many women reported receiving little support within their sexual lives, saying that their desires were often overlooked by the people who provided their care. Most felt unfulfilled, inadequate and frustrated. All of these issues are compounded for LGBTQQI2-S disabled people (particularly disabled trans people).”  

In her description of women subverting the sexuality dictated to them – be it by getting off through having their arms stroked (when common erogenous zones were damaged in spinal injury) or finding pleasure beyond the traditional aim of orgasm entirely – Liddiard paints a picture of women challenging prescriptive ideas of body and sex. Disabled women’s experiences, “emphasise how crucial it is for disabled women – and all women and girls – to reclaim ‘sexy’ from the deeply oppressive ways in which it is proliferated and maintained in our cultures: a mode of sexuality that is considered ‘natural’ but is, in reality, anything but, being routinely learned and relearned; taught, policed, and regulated throughout our lives.”

Disabled women’s experiences reflect the bigger picture of what it is to be a woman in this society – and, in their own right, tell us about other women who also matter. There should not need to be a disabled girl in the room to know they are out there. Different women, merging into the sameness of the dominant crowd. Feminism, in all its parts, will only be richer for noticing them; listening to voices silenced by others and welcoming bodies often excluded. 

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