Disability, Uncategorized

International Women’s Day 2021 – My thoughts and experiences on what it means to be a disabled woman

Today is International Women’s Day. A day to recognise and celebrate all the amazing things women have achieved throughout history, the barriers they have faced and overcome and pushing for more equality for women throughout the world, both for now and the future.

I have to admit, although I’ve always happily ticked the ‘women’ box in surveys relating to my gender/sex, being a woman is not something I’ve really sat down and thought about in detail or shouted from the rooftops. In terms of my own identity, my disability has always been the thing that sticks out like a sore thumb in my mind, the label I always feel judged by. In many ways, societal stereotypes and internalised prejudices around disability have often made me feel objectified if anything. Throughout history disabled people have been stereotyped as asexual beings, having no want or desire for sexual feelings and incapable of having romantic relationships or producing offspring. I know that that old fashioned myth is not true, especially in today’s more liberal, accepting society; yet with a severe lack of representation of disabled people in the media (a report in 2015 showed that only 2.5% of all speaking and named characters in films had a disability) -especially in comparison with other minority groups – and living in a world that isn’t always accessible to our needs , it can be difficult to feel that we too are living, capable human beings who should be able to live our lives the way we want as much as we can.

There are times when acknowledging my female biology, the fact that I have breasts & a vagina like millions of other women on this planet, has actually helped me with my own sense of identity. When I’ve been depressed, anxious and coping with negative aspects of my disability, my mind has led me to believe I had none. I may feel that I am different from everyone else, that people may unfortunately judge me on my disability alone and presume I am not capable of basic things that others take for granted, yet my body also shows that I am female, and have something concrete in common with a lot of the population, even if they feel uncomfortable with my disability.

I know this kind of opinion probably flies in the face of modern discussions of gender identity, where it is viewed that gender is a social construct and defining yourself as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is considered separate from the biological sexes (male & female) and based on personal feeling and self identification rather than physical attributes. But I struggle to understand how you can define being a ‘woman’ (or a ‘man’) without including physical, biological or hormonal factors in the definition, or resorting to gender stereotypes (e.g. women are feminine, emotional, wear dresses and make up), which I think does more harm than good for the advancement of gender equality. In my view being a woman isn’t about how you act, what you wear or how you feel. I’m not sure how you can define it without referencing biological factors in some form, but the fact that around the world millions of girls and young women are denied an education and expected to bare and raise children because of their sexual anatomy and having to carry the baby in their womb for months shows that many cultural traditions and attitudes towards women are based around biological attributes (i.e. sex). I find it incredibly hard to separate the notion of gender from the physical aspects of biological sex, and although I acknowledge that there are transgender women out there who don’t feel right in the male bodies they were born in, I personally can’t explain why I identify as a woman without referencing my biological sex and struggle to understand how people are able to self identify as women (or men), without wanting to change or modify aspects of their biological sex.

As a disabled woman, I do sometimes feel that my needs and issues as a woman are neglected due to my disability. It is a lot harder for someone with a physical disability, particularly one as obvious as mine, to actively seek romance and find a potential date or partner. Not only can this be due to the inaccessibility of traditional social venues like pubs, clubs and restaurants, but it can also be due to ignorant outdated attitudes of disability of society at large and from that your own internalised worries that people won’t find you sexually attractive due to your disability. In February, BBC journalist Lucy Webster tweeted that she had a response from a dating agency advising her not to sign up for their service because the agency believed that “achieving good outcomes for full-time wheelchair using clients can be challenging” and they advised her to wait for them to set up a service specifically for disabled people.

Stories like this really add to my fear that I’d struggle to ever have a relationship and find someone who loves me for me. I don’t want to suggest that being a woman is about the ability to experience romantic love and sexual pleasure, far from it! But when you are identified as being disabled and you have a medical condition that affects your ability to move and require more support from others, it is something that makes others assume that you are not capable of or interested in taking part in that kind of activity in any shape or form.

The medical profession don’t often fare much better in terms of acknowledging your sex, gender and sexuality as a disabled woman either. Many women, including myself, are unable to undergo regular smear tests to check for cervical cancer due to inaccessibility, difficulties and pain undergoing the test due to your physical condition, or both. There’s been campaigns in the media to encourage more women to go for regular smear tests, exclaiming how its nothing to feel embarrassed about and that its a quick and relatively pain free process. According to Sam Renke in her article on Cervical Smear Tests, although there are articles and information available for people with learning disabilities, there is much less information available for those with physical disabilities. Due to my Cerebral Palsy and the extreme spasticity and tightness I can get in my body, having a smear would be something I would find incredibly difficult and painful without using some form of pain relief or anaesthetic. I think there are many understanding doctors and medical professionals who would go out of their way to help you access such a service if you requested it, but with these accessible services not being advertised or the concerns of people with physical disabilities not acknowledged in campaigns and information. It would be brilliant if things begin to change in the next few years and disabled people are consulted more on issues related to sexual and gynaecological health in the future, and finally acknowledging that disabled people are able and willing to have a sex life and relationships too!

One final point to mark on this International Women’s Day is that I have recently joined and been involved with the Women’s Equality Party. The party was set up and co-founded by author & journalist Catherine Mayer and broadcaster & author Sandi Toksvig in 2015. Their aim is to unite “…people of all genders, ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs and experiences in the shared determination to see women enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men – so that all can flourish.”. The party have run many campaigns on issues affecting disabled people and their families, including their current campaign #MoneyForValue “You CAN put a price on care” calling on the government to give care workers pay parity with the NHS and at the very least a real living wage! It has been great joining in with WEP’s Disability Caucus and being able to share my experiences with others in similar situations and become involved in campaigns that I am passionate about.

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