opinion

"No one is listening." When it comes to gender equality, disabled women are being left out.

We live in a society where the rights of women are more openly being discussed. From marches on the steps of parliament, to seeing women around me finally rise to higher ranks – it’s a beautiful thing to behold. We are on the cusp of radical change, but then I remember that I am a disabled woman and my life is different.

I worked part-time briefly before I had my children at a young age. Like most mothers, this became my full-time job. It was a job I loved. Once my boys grew up and time was accommodating to enter the workforce, my body was not. My disability prevented me.

With the gender equality debates that fill our Facebook feeds, podcasts and political discussions, I question where I fit. I hear these terms daily – gender pay parity, women’s superannuation, inclusion and diversity – all layered upon this fundamental belief that finally, women really can have it all. But as a disabled woman, none of it resonates. I don’t feel like a woman in the same right as other women.

It’s hard for me to notice being bothered when it happens every day. The reality is that most of the time I passively accept what’s in front of me. As disability activist, the late Stella Young quipped, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs ever made it turn into a ramp.”

I never got to meet Stella. Living under a dark cloud of men’s violence for a decade meant that many of my disabled friends and allies were people I never got the chance to see or meet.

Australian comedian, journalist, Stella Young was highly regarded as a disability rights activist before she passed away in 2014. Image: TED.com
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Yet her words ring true for me. It’s not a problem of what we as disabled people can do about it. It's more that no one is listening. And why is it our fight alone? What will me getting angry at the person at reception do? It won’t change what I’m facing. They didn’t build it, and they mean what they say when apologising for something not of their doing and out of their control. So as a woman, and a mother, I reassure this individual that it’s okay,  just help me find another way in.

When confronted with an inaccessibility issue, remember that we’re not angry at you. Disabled people are not precious divas after individualised treatment, we are just a little tired from dealing with these obstacles every day.

Life as a disabled woman has meant I couldn’t work full time. I tried working part-time. I lasted a year. My body couldn’t do it. As my body wore down so did my mental resilience. And then the disability you don’t see came to the fore - “mental health”. I live with a chronically low mood, anxiety, and the trauma of surviving a 10-year violent relationship. These all play a part in the mental landscape inside my head.

Being seen as 'the woman in the wheelchair' only adds to this. I’m either not seen when I need to be seen, whether it’s in a coffee shop or almost anywhere that I am trying to hand over money. Or worse, I am “seen” when I don’t want to be seen: “What happened to you? How did you end up in a wheelchair?”

I’m not seen in the boardroom. My ideas go overlooked. I am underestimated as an anti-violence advocate where disability excludes me from womanhood, and overlooked in favour of a narrow idea of what it means to be a woman. People with disability can be seen as complainers, but sometimes I feel no other choice but to shout and rant to be heard until my head is spinning and full of noise.

This is me. A woman. A disabled woman. Someone who feels exhausted on a daily basis. Even still, I would not stop what I’m doing. Campaigning to end violence against women when you’ve been the victim of men’s violence becomes non-negotiable. For myself, and others, not doing anything is not an option. Despite the personal cost.

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This is where gender, disability and violence intersects with the cost of being disabled. And so I remain adamant that disability must be included as part of discussions and debates of gender equality. Just as every diversity should be included. But these are repeatedly left out. Even by some of the most progressive politicians and changemakers.

As a woman, I want to be independent. I want to have autonomy and agency over my place in the world, just like any other woman. I want to be financially independent, to earn my own money, pay my own way, and to feel proud and empowered.

As a woman, I want to contribute to my home, my family and my society. But without the ability to work full-time, or consistently commit to part-time, feeling purpose over my place in the world becomes a luxury.

I can’t change these factors. So I shift my concept of what it means to be an “empowered woman.” I’m trying to accept that the contribution that I have to offer is my time. My energy is poured into advocating and campaigning for a better society for future generations. Changing my mindset has been the way I have turned disempowerment into empowerment.

It’s taken me to the age of 40 to see the value in myself as an individual. That I’m smart, worthy, valued and loved. I don’t need to fight being disabled, while it’s weird to think of it as part of my identity. I cannot extrapolate it out of my existence.

Although life would be simpler without disability, and the adversity I’ve faced, it has shaped who I have become. Someone I can now respect.

Gender and disability and the way the world interacts with me are all intertwined. Being a disabled woman is complex, it is exhausting, and it is uniquely beautiful.

Nicole Lee is an advocate for disability rights and the prevention of family violence. You can follow her on Twitter Twitter @_Nic_Lee. 

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