For Feminism To Truly Be Intersectional, It Must Do Better To Include Differently-Abled People

woman-in-wheelchair

Intersectionality is the most important part of modern feminism. With all the misconceptions about the movement as a whole and opinions that state feminism is no longer relevant since, oh ya know, women have the right to vote, open bank accounts, run for office, and own property. So we’re good, right? Wrong!

When scholar Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” back in 1989 in an essay, it was a way to point out the many types of oppression that a number of groups face. Her argument specifically honed in on the number of ways black women are discriminated – based on gender as well as race. With that in mind, the concept that women and indeed anyone can be discrminated against for a number of reasons is what makes feminism important today.

If we truly hope to achieve the social, political and economic equality of all genders, we absolutely must address issues that face the LGBT community, minorities and differently-abled people. With any movement that is constantly growing and evolving, there has to be room to for that growth. While we have seen a huge increase in the way feminism has included issues about immigration, transgender rights, the racial issues are still problematic. Nevertheless, the fact that it is at least being discussed and wrestled with is a start.

However, the fact that the disabled community doesn’t have as big of a voice in modern feminism as it needs to, must change. We think it is important to include ALL people in the modern intersectional definition of feminism, which means we need to be willing to learn about the needs of different groups. Not everyone experiences discrimination in the same way.

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In the fashion industry, we have seen some rather impressive moments where designers and fashion shows are making a huge effort to include differently-abled models. Carrie Hammer and FTL Moda are two design houses which have made history simply by being inclusive of a community that is typically not represented on the runway. Model Jillian Mercado is arguably one of the most visible faces of the disabled community in fashion, and she is signed to the same agency as Gisele Bundchen (IMG).

Over in the UK, an organization called Models for Diversity is campaigning for the government to make a law stating that every modeling agency must represent at least one disabled model for every five able-bodied models. According to model Stacy Paris, the lone Scottish model part of this campaign, one in six people in Britain has a disability, but this is not seen on runways or in fashion campaigns.

But the disabled community should not just be a fashion statement. In her brilliant and funny TED Talk at TED Women in 2014, comedian and actress Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, pointed out that people with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, as well as the most underrepresented in entertainment.

If feminism truly cares about ending domestic violence and sexual assault, consider that 80% of disabled women are sexually assaulted, and the rates are even higher for women with cognitive disabilities. Disabled women are, in general, 40% more likely to be violently treated—usually by their male partners, but also by caregivers and family—than non-disabled women. In the US alone there are more than 27 million women with disabilities. This is not something we as feminists can ignore.

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Suzannah Weiss at Bustle lists a few reasons feminism must do a better job of addressing ableism. She talks about sexual objectification. Disabled women experience this differently. While many women are fighting against being over-sexualized, disabled women are fighting to even be recognized as sexual at all.

“While women all over the world are waiting for people to stop seeing them as sex objects, women with disabilities are still waiting to be seen at all. We are less than a woman, somehow–certainly less than “slut.” Too often we are viewed as pitiable, pathetic and devoid of desire. We could never be ‘sluts’,” wrote Jennifer Scott for Ms. Magazine, in response to the Slut Walks spearheaded by Amber Rose.

The second reason which is on more of a practical level, is the inclusion of wheelchair ramps and/or disabled access to feminist meeting spaces and events.

“If feminist conferences do not have entrances that accommodate wheelchairs, they are only available to feminists who can walk. And if feminist videos do not have transcripts, they are only available to feminists who can hear. When we don’t make feminist resources accessible to women with disabilities, we only allow privileged groups of women to participate and benefit from them,” writes Suzanne Weiss.

“When it comes to intersectionality, it seems that many feminists simply forget that disability and therefore ableism are issues which feminists should care about,” writer Elsa S. Henry, who runs the popular blog Feminist Sonar, told The Daily Beast.

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The third reason, and this is very important, has to do with reproductive rights. If you are familiar with any of our articles about abortion and the fight for women to make their own reproductive choices in the US today, you will know that this has become a banner issue for the movement and has been since the second wave in the 1960s and 70s. But with this issue comes the need to address the ableism that sometimes creeps into feminist arguments.

“Every time that we see abortion policies in the news, someone inevitably brings up the fact that abortion should be legal so that people can abort their disabled babies,” Elsa Henry said.

This should not be happening and as pro-choice activists we want to ensure our readers are aware of this problem when it comes to defending abortion rights. On the same token, forced or coerced sterilization of disabled women is a problem that has been overlooked by some feminist advocates. In Australia, laws state that the court can determine whether an intellectually woman should be sterilized if she cannot give consent herself. This deliberate move to take away a woman’s right over her own body is both disgusting and pervasive.

Both the Human Rights Watch and United Nations say forced sterilization of women with disabilities and mental illnesses is a global problem, and consider it a form of torture. As feminists we need to unite and stand against this blatant hijacking of women’s autonomous rights.

This is a call to action, for all of us as women, as feminists and as people who care about everyone having their voice valued in society. Feminism has fought long and hard for women to have control over their bodies, their sexuality and their reproductive health, it’s time for us to do a better job at recognizing how these issues affect us all differently and stand alongside those in the disabled community.

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