When people talk about ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’, disability is usually left out. The women’s movement should be the place to change that.
Disabled women are still struggling to find our place in the women’s movement – and high-profile campaigns such as #MeToo are a reminder of what a long way there is to go before we can say that our voices are being heard.
Most things about disabled women’s lives remain shrouded in taboo – our sexuality above all. In many African cultures, in particular, women with disabilities are still not respected, even by their families, and there are huge issues when it comes to disabled women taking over or inheriting family wealth.
I don’t want to bash feminism, or the women’s movement, or campaigners in Hollywood or anywhere else. But I do want activists to pay more attention to the challenges disabled women face.
As a black, disabled woman, I was looked down on and marginalised back in my hometown in Kenya. Because I couldn’t perform the chores expected of many women, such as collecting water and firewood, I was disqualified and felt that I didn’t have a voice. Some people thought my disability was a curse from God, others thought it was witchcraft. Many people told my parents that I would amount to nothing. I count myself very lucky that they wanted the best for me and believed in me, despite what friends and family said.
Women with disabilities all over the world are trying to push forward, as I did, but it’s hard when campaigning is still so focused on rights and opportunities for able-bodied women. The lack of disabled role models is a serious problem. For example, in the recent commemorations of the centenary of women’s suffrage, Rosa May Billinghurst, known as the “cripple suffragette”, barely featured. Similarly, when we talk about gender and inequality, for example the pay gap, we are still predominantly talking about able-bodied women.
Meanwhile, abuse of disabled women remains widespread in many parts of the world, including women with learning difficulties who may find it difficult to articulate their experiences, or be disbelieved when they try.
In the UK we need more, and better, representation of people with different abilities, from all backgrounds. At the moment when we talk about diversity, we are mainly referring to race and sexuality, while disability is left out. We should use the women’s movement in the UK to redefine what inclusion means. If we look at the fashion industry, for example, how many women with disabilities ever have the opportunity to appear in magazines or on catwalks? A short film about a deaf girl, The Silent Child, won an Oscar on Sunday, but how many dramas or biographies about women with disabilities do we see? In a truly inclusive society, it would be the norm to see women with disabilities represented and integrated in all areas – in the media, politics, engineering, medicine. Ultimately we are just as capable and willing as able-bodied women.
As disabled women, we are constantly having to validate our existence, which is frustrating and exhausting. It often feels as though every box is ticked while we, disabled women, are left blank. But while there are still people who look for reasons why inclusion isn’t achievable, others are going out of their way to make it a reality. Attitudes are slowly beginning to change. It might not be easy to redefine inclusion so that disabled women, too, can find their place in the world, but if we are serious in our aspiration to leave no one behind, then it must be done.
• Anne Wafula Strike is a British Paralympic wheelchair racer and an ambassador for ADD International