What is Ableism? Five Things About Ableism You Should Know

Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities, including the expression of hate for people with disabilities, denial of accessibility, rejection of disabled applicants for housing and jobs, institutionalised discrimination in the form of benefits systems designed to keep people with disabilities in poverty, etc.

1. Ableism has a dictionary definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the world ableism back to 1981; likely the word was in use amongst activists before then.

[< ABLE adj. + -ISM suffix, after RACISM n., SEXISM n.2, etc. Compare ABLEIST adj., and also earlier ABLED adj. 2, ABLED n.] orig. U.S. Discrimination in favour of able-bodied people; prejudice against or disregard of the needs of disabled people. 1981 Off our Backs May 39/1 ‘Ableism’that is, the systemic oppression of a group of people because of what they can or can not do with their bodies or mindsis the result of..ignorance. 1993 R. HUGHES Culture of Complaint iii. 162 But certainly clause (3) made it clear that he was against racism, sexism, ableism, lookism and any of the other offences against social etiquette whose proscription by PC was already causing such mirth and laughter among the neo-conservatives. 1994 Canad. Woman Stud. Fall 92/2 Just as there is racism in the feminist movement, there is also ‘ablism’. Able-bodied women have not fully accepted women with disabilities. 2006 C. OYLER & B. HAMRE in C. Oyler Learning to teach Inclusively viii. 145 Although racism and sexism..are recognized as serious challenges to fairness, equity, and democracy,..ableism is often not even acknowledged.

It defines ableist as “Characterized by or exhibiting ableism.”

I mention the dictionary definition because people often claim that ableism is a made-up word that internet activists created just to annoy them, as opposed to a word with history that people with disabilities ihave been using to define their experiences for at least 30 years.

2. Ableism can be deliberate.

A. The Canadian Government went to court so they could continue to make their web content inaccessible to screen readers.

B. Clint Eastwood argued vehemently that 10 years was far too short a period of time to expect that businesses would follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and painted himself as a little guy fighting back against the “sleazy lawyers” preying on “the disabled”, rather than as someone who had been breaking the law for 10 years and was now choosing to fight for his right in court to continue to do so. John Stossel argued earlier this year that the ADA might require businesses to be accessible, and this was unacceptable 20 years after the ADA had been passed. [Content warning: John Stossel]

C. Where’s the Benefit has spent the last few months detailing out how cuts in spending will affect people with disabilities. It’s hard to pick just a few examples. How about the Member of Parliament who declared that anyone who was on Twitter too much wasn’t really disabled. Or what Disability Living Allowance (DLA) actually does being misrepresented by both the government and the press?

D. Dave Hingsburger: Service Interupted:

‘Purposeful exclusion,’ I said, ‘there is no way anyone could design this, approve this and build this, without knowing that people with disabilities will never be able to use it. That makes it purposeful. The fact that only certain people can now use it make it exclusion.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she said but I interrupted.

‘This is bigotry in concrete, this is prejudice made of steel and glass, this is how builders and designers and hotel managers spit in the face of those with disabilities. They knew, they didn’t care, they did it anyways.’

E. Politicians across Canada, who make 30 second advertisements that are carefully scripted to make the best impact, don’t use the subtitling option when they upload those same 30-second scripted videos to YouTube. But I guess some politicians are okay with their videos looking like this (image description below):

Photobucket

Image description: Michael Ignatieff (older white dude in a sensible blue shirt and tie, his hair a bit windblown) with the caption “Don’t let anybody into Medicare”.

Actual quote: “Don’t let anybody intimidate you”.

3. Ableism has an academic definition.

Here’s a good example:

Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities that is characterized by the belief that these individuals need to be fixed or cannot function as full members of society (Castañeda & Peters, 2000). As a result of these assumptions, individuals with disabilities are commonly viewed as being abnormal rather than as members of a distinct minority community (Olkin & Pledger, 2003; Reid & Knight, 2006). Because disability status has been viewed as a defect rather than a dimension of difference, disability has not been widely recognized as a multicultural concern by the general public as well as by counselor educators and practitioners.

Laura Smith, Pamela F. Foley, and Michael P. Chaney, “Addressing Classism, Ableism, and Heterosexism in Counselor Education”, Journal of Counseling & Development, Summer 2008, Volume 86, pp 303-309.

You can also get a degree in Disability Studies. There is a Disability History Association. There are several academic list-serves dedicated to discussion disability. You can go to disability-studies focused conferences. You can go to Deaf-studies focused conferences. You can get a degree in Deaf Studies. You can read a wide variety of academic books that discuss the history of ableism.

Or you could read people talking about their lives on their blogs. There are a lot of blogs where people talk about experiencing ableism.

4. Ableism can be accidental. This doesn’t make it okay.

A. I don’t think Google woke up one morning and decided to make some of their products completely inaccessible to certain users. I know they managed to pull it off anyway.

B. I don’t the mainstream media woke up one morning en masse and decided to ignore protests in support of the Community Choice Act. I know they managed to do it anyway. More than once.

C. I don’t think Canada’s Minister responsible for Disability-related issues deliberately sought out a wheelchair-inaccessible space for her constituency office. I do think continuing to have it 7 months after this was pointed out to her in Parliament is deliberate, though.

5. Ableism kills.

Record of the Dead: October 2010
Record of the Dead: September 2010
Betty Anne Gagnon and Murder Most Foul
Quick Hit: Parents of Disabled Children
Tracy Latimer is dead because her father is a murderer

They Call it ‘Reverse Discrimination’

Affirmative action has to be among one of the most contentious, controversial, and misunderstood social policies. I encounter all kinds of bizarre attitudes when it comes to talking about affirmative action, not least of which is people who insist on calling it ‘reverse discrimination’ in some sort of backhanded attempt at suggesting it’s just as evil as denying people opportunities on the basis of being female, say, or a person of colour, and should be abolished on those grounds. Because, oogity boogity, under affirmative action, all people are not considered blank slates with universal experiences, and thus, it’s a discriminatory policy.

Here’s what affirmative action is: A policy and programme adopted in many regions of the world to encourage employers and educational institutions to consider the history of discrimination against certain classes of people when it comes to admission and hiring decisions. Such policies usually cover women, people of color/nonwhite people, and people with disabilities. The goal of affirmative action is to counteract the effects of centuries of discrimination to create more opportunities for oppressed groups of people by not shutting them out of education and employment opportunities, acknowledging that prejudices are often deeply internalised and people can’t overcome them by sheer force of will. (And are often not aware of how deep they run.)

Here’s what it isn’t: A demand to always hire/admit the marginalised person, no matter what. Yet, it’s often framed that way, as seen in the ‘reverse discrimination’ slang. Everyone, it seems, has a sob story about how ‘someone they know’ didn’t get a job because there was a less qualified Black woman or disabled man or someone else who was there to swoop in and take the employment opportunity away, riding smugly on a cloud of affirmative action1. I have had dyed in the wool liberals informing me with clear, innocent faces that their white, middle class, nondisabled, heterosexual, cis friends and relatives have been horribly oppressed by being passed over in favour of ‘underqualified’ marginalised people who just happened to compete for the same jobs/places at school. They inform me that this is unfair and awful and should stop immediately because it’s wrong.

People. No.

Here’s what affirmative action is about: When you have, say, an employer who is considering a group of job applicants, that employer is asked to consider the applicants equally. Not to, for example, throw out an application from a woman who uses a wheelchair for mobility because it will be ‘too hard’ to accommodate her. To give everyone reasonably qualified a chance to interview and to honestly and fairly evaluate applicants for a job, rather than deciding that someone is automatically unfit on the basis of personal characteristics. And, yes, if you have two equally qualified candidates, one of whom happens to be a member of a dominant group and one of whom does not, to consider preferentially hiring the person who has not benefited from discriminatory practices throughout life. No affirmative action policy demands that people hire the less qualified people, deciding whom to hire solely on the basis of who is the most oppressed.

People talk about ‘quotas’ and they talk about how businesses and educational institutions ‘get in trouble’ if they don’t have enough ‘token minorities’ and they miss the  point entirely. I see this depicted everywhere from pop culture (Cuddy yelling at House for not having a female physician on this diagnostic team) to casual interactions with people who inform me that they ‘would’ apply for a job somewhere but ‘some Latina will probably snag it from me anyway because they’re worried about not having enough brown faces behind the front desk so what’s the point.’ Actual cases where businesses and schools have been punished for failing to adhere to affirmative action policies haven’t involved a government auditor checking to see how many marginalised people they have, but documented discrimination against marginalised groups in interview and admissions policies.

Do affirmative action programmes in colleges and universities ask for more leeway on things like test scores? Yes, they absolutely do, and there’s a reason for that: People in oppressed classes are less likely to do well on standardized tests, for a whole lot of reasons ranging from unequal access to educational opportunities to biases built in on the tests themselves. This means that, yes, when an applicant identifies as poor, for example, that the school will weigh that in the student’s application and will consider the impact that poverty might have on test scores and academic performance. The school won’t say ‘oh, we should let a clearly unprepared student in because she’s from a lower class background,’ but the school will say ‘this student clearly has potential, even if she’s not there yet, so let’s give her a chance, given that she’s had an uphill slog to get to the point where she can even apply for college.’

What this asks people to do is to consider the historic role of discrimination in access to everything from education to employment, to recognise that because of the widespread and deep biases in society, some people can’t access the qualifications/experience that others can. And, yes, affirmative action does ask people to consider marginalised people preferentially, in the hopes of balancing out internalised biases and attitudes; trust me, people, in terms of how people actually behave, it’s a wash.

People say this is ‘unequal treatment’ and that ‘if you want to be treated like everyone else, you need to be held to the same standard.’ What they miss is that the standard is inherently discriminatory and biased. Holding everyone to the same standard is effectively an act of discrimination, because it demands that people fit into a mold they can never fit into, reach goals they can never attain, because the deck is stacked against them from the start.

It’s an attempt to compensate for privilege to say that the lived experiences of applicants should be considered to contextualise their applications. Not an act of discrimination. A corrective measure, an attempt to address and rectify an entrenched culture of prejudice by creating more chances for people who have historically been denied those chances, is not ‘reverse discrimination.’ And I’d like to humbly suggest that people retire that particular slang term, post haste.

  1. I note that this usually includes the assumption that the marginalised candidate was automatically, inherently, less qualified.

Recommended Reading for 19 November, 2010

Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

little light at Questioning Transphobia: clamavi ad te. Please note that the post discusses suicide, abuse, and murder of trans people. If you think you can handle it, though, it is powerful reading, as is everything little light writes.

When you have been told you are less than human–less than sacred–less than beautiful–your community has failed you. When you believe it, it is because your community has failed you. I do not intend to mince words. … You deserve better. Because you are not the problem. You are not broken. You are not worthless. You are not a problem and you are not a mistake.

Liz at Dis/Embody: Thoughts on World Usability Day:

Now, of course, usability is not the same as accessibility; it is focused on ease of general use, for a mass audience. And, usability doesn’t always incorporate a universal design perspective in which the needs of those who face the most challenges are centered, with the understanding that products designed for that group may also be more usable by others.

That said, usability and communication is an interesting theme, as it seems to implicitly tie back to media accessibility in particular.

Interviews conducted by Meena Bakhtash at the BBC: Voices: Disability and the Hajj to Mecca:

The annual Hajj pilgrimage – a religious duty that every adult Muslim is expected to do once in their lives – can be a tough challenge.

But the obstacles are infinitely greater for Muslims with disabilities, who choose to take the journey.

Melissa Jenkins at the Sydney Morning Herald: Disability package gets tick:

The Victorian government is taking the right approach by directing the majority of its disability package towards early intervention, advocacy groups and unions say.

Kirsty Whalley at This is Local London: Disabled girl from Norbury a “health and safety risk”, says school

A disabled 11-year-old girl has been rejected by an academy school because she poses a “health and safety risk” to other children.

That’s all for this time. Send your links to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com. Let us know if/how you want to be credited.

Twice in one day

Do you ever have one of those days where you just want to shake a fist in the universe’s general direction?

A few weeks ago, I had the fairly weird experience of two different people trying to make the fact that I use a cane a topic of conversation (?) on the same day. Usually, when people feel the need to point out the obvious to me — that I use a cane as a mobility aid due to chronic pain — it happens pretty infrequently, maybe once a month. Twice in the same day, though, just felt strange.

Incident one: As I am waiting for the elevator in a building on my university campus, a young woman approaches me and asks me why I use a cane. She’s curious about it, she mentions, because her mom uses one. I reply that I use it because I have chronic pain, and this seems to satisfy her curiosity. I feel oddly relieved when the conversation stops there.

Incident two: I am walking to a coffee shop, and I pass a row of garbage and recycling containers out on the sidewalk on a busy street. A guy rummaging through one of the containers picks that exact moment to look up; he sees me and yells out, “You’re a YOUNG DISABLED LADY!” I am too confused to respond, and keep walking.

I can hear the refrains now: Those people were just trying to be friendly! They didn’t mean anything by it! They were just trying to start a conversation!

Maybe, but that doesn’t stop having the fact that I move differently from most other people pointed out to me in a very obvious manner (as if I don’t already know that, what with using a cane and all) from being annoying as all get-out.

So, the next time you see a person who uses a mobility aid, service animal, or other assistive technology, please remember: If you have the urge to point it out to them and/or try to use it as a conversational springboard, chances are that you probably do not have to do this. We know that we use assistive devices, and that said devices may look odd to people who are not disabled. It’s cool. We totally get it. And, even if you don’t “mean anything by it” by pointing it out to us or trying to tell us about someone you know who also has a disability, we might read your enthusiasm as something else entirely.

Signal Boost: Web Survey on Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Students in Special Education

Via Finding My Way: Journey of an Uppity Intellecutal Activist Crip
Web Survey on Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Students in Special Education

My name is Mary Lou Bensy, and I am a Doctoral Student and researcher at Hofstra University, located in New York. As part of my Doctoral Dissertation, this ground-breaking research and survey is being conducted to help us learn more about the sexual harassment and abuse of special education students in schools. We need this vital information to help protect this victimized population. The survey is designed primarily to gather information on individuals with disabilities who have ever been sexually abused in school.

Parents, guardians, advocates and caregivers of students with disabilities are asked to respond on behalf of ONE victimized student per survey. If an individual chooses to respond on behalf of more than one student, he/she can feel free to take the survey more than once. Adult survivors are asked to complete the survey for themselves.

Note: Gender binary, US-centric so likely best for US residents to answer, TRIGGER WARNING for the questions, survey ends with link to sexual abuse resources, highlights that you can skip questions you don’t want to answer. The disabilities you can select flagged up to me as problematic groupings (“emotional disturbance”?) but this may be that I come from a different educational background.

As always, I cannot answer questions about this survey.

By 18 November, 2010.    signal boost  , ,  



Recommended Reading for 18 November 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.
Inclusion Europe: Czech District Court rules on full restoration of legal capacity

A court in the Czech Republic has ordered that a woman with intellectual disabilities should have all her legal rights restored.

This is important because this is the first time that a Czech court based its decision on the concept of supported decision making.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says that people with disabilities must be able to live an equal basis with others in all ways.

The woman, Renata, lived in an institution but with the help of a support person is capable of living an independent in the community.

Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology: Quality of Captioning, Exemptions & News Captioning Rules Up for Refresh by FCC

On October 25, 2010, the FCC issued a new Public Notice seeking comment on the closed captioning rules that have been in place for the last twelve years. While the FCC has received over a thousand comments and petitions to address these older rules, they now intend to refresh and likely issue updated or modernized captioning rules. Comments are due by November 24, 2010, with Reply Comments due December 9, 2010. The dockets are CG Docket No. 05-231 and ET Docket No. 99-254.

Access Tourism NZ: New USA Laws Affect Tourism and Travel for People with Disabilities

The law will make it easier for people who are deaf, blind or have low vision to access the Internet, smart phones, television programming and other communications and video technologies. It will also make sure that emergency information is accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision. In addition, $10 mil lion per year will be allocated from the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Services Fund for equipment used by individuals who are deaf-blind.   The law also applies to on-board entertainment in airline travel, which hasn’t been captioned for deaf travellers as of yet, despite the fact that all movies and TV shows must be captioned (the airlines actually remove them). “Finally, 30 million Americans with hearing loss will be equal to the rest”, writes Kennedy.  Meanwhile a new website called “Fix the Web” has launched in the U.K. which allows people to report inaccessible web sites after which volunteers will report complaints back to site owners.

CBC News: Chinese court endorses HIV discrimination

A Chinese court ruled Friday against a man who filed the country’s first lawsuit over employment discrimination against people who are HIV-positive, the man’s lawyer said.

The man, identified only by the nickname Little Wu, brought the suit in the eastern city of Anqing after being refused a teaching job because he tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS.

ABC Capricornia: Disability to PossAbility: Expo a hit

She says the expo aims not only to make people aware of the services offered, but to not become complacent with what is available.

“It’s encouraging people to not accept what is currently there, look at what we can use that is existing in the current community but how we can tweak it a little bit so that it’s more inclusive for all people,” says Jenni.

Rockhampton Manager for the Endeavour Foundation Lyn York says the expo is long overdue and the event has grown out of frustration.

If you’re on Delicious, feel free to tag entries ‘disfem’ or ‘disfeminists,’ or ‘for:feminists’ to bring them to our attention! Link recommendations can also be emailed to recreading at disabledfeminists dot com. Please note if you would like to be credited, and under what name/site.


By 18 November, 2010.    recommended reading   



Action Alert: United States: Congressional Hearing on ADA TODAY

*** HEARING THURSDAY ***

Landrieu to Chair Hearing To Examine Regulatory Burdens Facing Small Businesses

WASHINGTON – United States Senator Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., Chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, will hold a hearing Thursday, November 18, 2010 entitled “Next Steps for Main Street: Reducing the Regulatory and Administrative Burdens on America’s Small Businesses.”  This hearing will give small businesses the opportunity to discuss federal regulations resulting from labor and workplace safety law, environmental protection laws, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Committee will also have discussions on the Form 1099 reporting requirement taking effect in 2012.

Your coverage is invited

Who:

U.S. Senate Small Business Committee Chair Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Small Business Committee Members

What:

Hearing entitled, “Next Steps for Main Street: Reducing the Regulatory and Administrative Burdens on America’s Small Businesses”

When:

Thursday, November 18, 2010
10:00 a.m. EST

Where:

Russell Senate Office Building
Room 428A
Washington, D.C. 20510

More information at the Justice for All Website. ht/ @lizhenry.

Bingo?

I came across this on tumblr and rolled my eyes so hard they just about fell out of my head. I feel like I should get bingo just for looking at it:

a clip from tumblr. there is a photo of a young man face down on asphalt, surrounded by beer bottles. there is text below the photo.The text reads “Even though autism can cripple communication, Paul managed to overcome his disability and save a teens Life. Seeing a 17 year old lying on the ground because of Alcohol poisoning, he went over to him, asked him how he was doing and called 911. To read more click here: [link].”

Inspirational crip! Using the word “cripple” to describe the effect of autism on communication! He “managed” to do something! And thus overcame the immeasurable burden of his disability!

This was posted on the tumblr of the organization “The Friendship Circle,” whose goal is “bring[ing] together teenage volunteers and children with special needs for hours of fun and friendship. … Our special friends blossom and gain the confidence they need to make the most their abilities and talents.”

This has got to be bingo. Someone give me a prize.

By 17 November, 2010.    For Cereal?, language, media and pop culture   



Recommended Reading for November 17, 2010

Your friendly neighbourhood Anna is out of town at the moment. Please enjoy this recommended reading post from the future.

Lindsay at Autist’s Corner: Doubly Deviant: On Being Queer and Autistic

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This is a very long, rambly autobiographical post about being bisexual and being autistic: it compares my experiences coming to terms with both of these facts (always knowing about the autism, vs. having to figure out the sexual orientation; and also, doubting the possibility that I could *have* a sexual orientation because I thought autistic people didn’t date or have sex, or even want to do either of those things) with those of Amanda Forest Vivian, who is a lesbian, and autistic, and has written about those things at some length at her own blog. I also discuss the ways being autistic has complicated being gay for me — besides my initial difficulty realizing that what I felt about girls was, in fact, sexual desire, there was also a profound isolation from the larger Gay Community, which I never felt like I could (or would want to) join.

Have we linked to High Functioning yet?

A list of different ways people use the word “high-functioning” about people with developmental disabilities; an attempt to figure out what it actually is supposed to mean.

Interested humans–people with disabilities, staff, family members, allies, and people who are more than one of those things–are invited to share different ways they have heard the term “high-functioning” be used.

Amanda Forest Vivian at I’m Somewhere Else: 12. Bird Brains

The classic example of impaired “social skills” in people with “Asperger’s” is a person who constantly talks about their favorite subject, and doesn’t notice other people’s boredom or discomfort. I will explore this by presenting two people who like to talk differently.

Shiva at Biodiverse Resistance: Call for Papers – * Critical Autism Seminar Day * Tuesday, 18th January 2011 (UK)

Keynote speaker: Anne McGuire* (Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, Canada). Anne’s doctoral research analyses the social significance and productive effects of cultural representations of autism produced and circulated by individuals and collectives engaged in autism advocacy in the contemporary West.

Our aim is for this conference to be as inclusive as possible. We welcome activists, undergraduate and postgraduate students, practitioners and academics to join us.

Melissa Mitchell at Service Dogs: A Way of Life: Book Review: MAKING THE MOVE TO MANAGING YOUR OWN PERSONAL ASSISTANCE SERVICES (PAS): A Toolkit for Youth With Disabilities Transitioning to Adulthood

(includes PDF link to download of book)

This in-depth 69 page guide covers this ins and outs of personal assistants for youth with disabilities utilizing the stories of youth with disabilities to illustrate topics related to utilizing, hiring, and selecting personal assistants. Pages 10-12 talk about Service Dogs and an option for meeting personal care and assistant needs. The section is clear, honest and bringsup many good points people who are new to dogs often don’t realize.

US: National Federation of the Blind: Penn State Discriminates Against Blind Students and Faculty

Baltimore, Maryland (November 12, 2010): The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the nation’s oldest and largest organization of blind people, announced today that it has filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, requesting an investigation of Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) for violating the civil rights of blind students and faculty. The NFB filed the complaint because a variety of computer- and technology-based services and Web sites at Penn State are inaccessible to blind students and faculty. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public state universities to offer equal access to their programs and services.

This is being discussed as well at the Chronicle of Higher Education: Penn State Accused of Discriminating Against Blind Students. Please be aware that the comments are… Well, they’re internet comments in a place that isn’t exactly disability-friendly, although there are many people pointing out that blind students would like to be able to get classroom material as well.

Anyway, I have just realised that I am actually writing this from the past – I always get confused when I travel if I’ve gone forward or backward in time.

Disability Is A Feminist Issue: Gendering Health Access

When I tell people I write for a feminist site focusing on a disability issues, one of the most common responses I get is confusion. ‘What does disability,’ people ask me, ‘have to do with feminism?’ I’ve written before, very topically, about why disability is a feminist issue, and I’d hope that a lot of the content on this site backs that assertion up, considering that we’ve talked about a number of issues considered important in the feminist movement, like reproductive rights and rape, just to name two examples.

But I’d like to spend a little time drilling down into some specific aspects of disability and living with disability that tie in with feminism, very strongly, because I continue to encounter pushback when it comes to integrating disability into conversations about feminism.

Today: Gendering when it comes to access to health care and disability services. Gender inequality is a core issue in feminism and it can be seen especially clearly when it comes to disability issues, which is one reason I’m always surprised to see that people don’t consider disability a feminist issue. I’m not talking here about the gendering of disability itself, which also occurs and is a separate issue that really needs its own post to do it justice. I’m discussing gendering when it comes to who can access health care and what kind of health care people can access, and how that plays out for people with disabilities.

Let’s start with the fact that, in the United States, to access health care, you need money. You need money to pay out of pocket, or you need money to buy insurance, or you need the kind of job that includes insurance as a benefit (we’ll talk about who can access government assistance, including health care, in a moment). Guess who is likely to have less money? Women. Women of colour and nonwhite women in particular are on the bottom of a pretty incredible income disparity as a result of intersecting oppressions. When women get sick, when they are injured, when they acquire disabilities, they are less likely to be able to access treatment because they cannot afford it, they are less likely to be able to adhere to treatment because over the long term it is expensive, and they are more likely to experience complications because of issues like caring for children, trying to deal with poor access to food, and other things while also trying to get better.

Outside the United States, money can still be a profound determiner when it comes to accessing health care, because money is tied in with so many things. People with money are more likely to have pursued advanced education, to be informed about health issues, including the early warning signs of conditions in need of treatment. People with money can access care the government doesn’t cover, can afford private hospitalization, can pursue treatments that cost a lot of money, and can persist through a health crisis when it comes to demanding and getting treatment. People with money can afford that supplemental private insurance that may make the difference between being turfed off in a corner somewhere and given actual treatment. Money talks, worldwide, and women are less likely to have it, less likely to hold it, less able to earn it.

But, but, poor women can go on government assistance! Then they don’t need money to pay for health care, so everything is ok. Yeah, except, the income standards for government assistance are hopelessly skewed and hopelessly wrong. Women have to be not just poor, but really poor to quality for government assistance, and they have to stay poor. Disabled women who apply for government benefits must be willing and able to jump through a number of hoops on command; they need to pull together reams of supporting documentation, to prove they are disabled enough, and guess what the government really doesn’t like paying out benefits on? Conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and fibromyalgia, which disproportionately impact women and are often dismissed as ‘not real disabilities,’ so even after doing everything right, these women might still be denied benefits.

For women who can get on disability, it’s a lifetime of poverty. The government has very strict limits about income and assets for people receiving benefits, which means that disabled women can only work very limited hours, can’t save money, and certainly can’t own any meaningful assets. ‘But they don’t need to, they’re on benefits.’ Well, poverty tends to intersect rather dramatically with a lot of feminist issues; how do you escape an abusive partner or caregiver when you have no money in savings and you can’t afford a hotel, a deposit on a new place, bus fare out of town? How can you plan for your future when you can’t save any  money? How can you pay for treatment the government doesn’t cover when you have no funds? How do you buy the meds everyone says you have to take to be a ‘contributing member of society’ when they cost hundreds of dollars every month and the government delays your benefits for mysterious reasons all its own?

Accessing health care also requires time. You need the time to sit on the phone to make appointments. You need time to go to the doctor’s office for evaluation, time to go to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions, time to perform prescribed exercises at home, time to argue with insurance companies about benefits. Time is something women tend to lack access to because they’re often juggling a myriad of tasks. Or they’re working in the kinds of jobs where asking for time off to get medical care is frowned upon. Or they’re working multiple jobs to afford to stay alive and can’t figure out where to fit a doctor visit into their schedule. Or they have young children whom they can’t leave alone, but can’t take to the doctor, either.

And let’s talk about the fact that a number of health conditions are underdiagnosed or diagnosed too late in women as a result of gendered ideas about who gets what. Heart attacks, for example. Are often not diagnosed in women both because they are believed to be a ‘male’ health complaint, and because heart attacks in women present differently than they do in men. This means that women are more likely to experience complications from heart attacks, if they survive, because they weren’t identified early enough.

Drilling down, we can see that certain classes of people wait longer for treatment and are often provided with inadequate care when they do receive it. Often, women are among these groups; for instance, women of colour/nonwhite women and poor women tend to experience delays in accessing breast cancer treatment.  It’s notable that breast cancer is a very popular social cause, yet there are still significant disparities in terms of who can access diagnosis, treatment, and support for  breast cancer.

This is a feminist issue. Women are dying, right now, all over the world, because they can’t get the care they need, and when they access care, they are treated unequally. For women with disabilities, the gendering of health care access creates a lifetime of barriers that don’t need to be there, from being told you ‘aren’t really’ disabled to being denied care on the grounds that the problem you’re having ‘doesn’t happen to women so it must not be happening.’ Gender disparities in health care access and treatment have very real and meaningful consequences for women who are sick, as well as disabled women. They can literally be the difference between life and death.

Tell me that’s not a feminist issue. Go on.