Disability Rights Are a Feminist Issue

by Cara on September 3, 2007

in bigotry, blogswarm, disability, discrimination, feminism, human rights, media, stereotypes

I frequently see this post linked when the all too common question “why are disability rights a feminist issue?” comes up. I’m honored that people like the post that much but I want to make a few things clear.

Firstly, this is hardly a comprehensive account of why disability issues need to be accepted as legitimate feminist concerns by able-bodied feminists. Far better and more complete pieces have been written on the subject, by actual people with disabilities, and you should seek them out.

Secondly, I wrote this post two years ago, when I was at the very beginning of educating myself on disability issues. As a result, all of the language and concepts here are not entirely correct. (For example, “the disabled” is generally considered an offensive way to refer to people with disabilities.) These errors are entirely my own, I take full responsibility for them, and I should have educated myself further before writing this. As a result, I refuse to change these errors and cover them up now that I know better. But I do not want people who are learning about the intersections of disability rights and feminism for the first time to understand such errors as anything other than what they are.

Again, while this may indeed be a relatively decent place to start, it is not a comprehensive argument, and if you are truly interested in educating yourself about the intersections of ableist and misogynistic forms of oppression, I cannot more strongly suggest seeking out the writing (a tiny fraction of which can be found through my blogroll) of women with disabilities who have been covering these issues for a long time.

– Cara, Oct. 7, 2009


One might ask why a feminist blogger is writing about disability rights. I’ll be honest and say that until I heard of this blogswarm and read more about the Jerry Lewis Telethon, it was an issue that I had given incredibly little thought. But the answer is easy. I’m advocating for the disabled for the same reason that I advocate for people of color and the LGBTQ community, even though I am white and straight. Firstly, women are inexorably a part of these communities. Secondly, one cannot fight for the equal rights of herself honestly and in good conscience without demanding the same for others.

I’d like to try, for a moment, to filter the issue of Disability Rights through a feminist perspective.

Putting aside Jerry Lewis’ atrocious attitudes towards the disabled, one can (and will) ask what is so wrong with a telethon that is trying to help people. The telethon works towards finding a cure towards Muscular Dystrophy– don’t people with MD want easier lives?

Well, I’m sure that they do. Just like women, people of color, gay and transgender people all want easier lives. But none of us want them at the expense of being told that we’re the problem.

We often see articles telling women that they need to be careful to not drink too heavily, or wear anything too revealing, or go out too late at night, otherwise they risk being raped. We hear people saying that abused women are to blame because they don’t leave. We see articles telling women that they can’t “have it all,” and must “choose” between a career and parenting. We hear that women need to “grow a thicker skin,” “toughen up” and “be one of the boys” to get ahead in the workplace.

Of course feminists realize that, actually, men need to stop raping and abusing women, job opportunities need to be more accommodating to parents and men need to become more involved in parenting roles, and employers need to stop condoning sexual harassment and start treating women as equal workers. But sadly, our mainstream media and culture don’t see that. And we’ve all bemoaned how frustrating that can be.

What all of these examples have in common is that they assume women are the problem. They assume that we need to adapt to the patriarchal structure, rather than admitting that the structure itself needs to evolve (hell, be removed) in order to create any opportunity for true equality. They say that sure, society will accept women as equals . . . as long as they sufficiently and quietly adapt to a system that was deliberately designed to exclude them.

This is precisely what the telethon does. It assumes that those with disabilities need to adapt to our way of life, rather than us making room for them. Maybe some do want “cures.” Others don’t. What we know for sure is that what those with disabilities need now is something a lot simpler, and yet a lot more difficult to swallow because it actually involves doing something. They need accessible transportation, education and housing, real employment with chances for advancement, reliable medical care and all of those other civil rights fixtures that most of us, thanks to able-bodied privilege, take for granted.

In contrast, the telethon is paternalistic. It says that we can’t expect anything of the disabled and that it’s our job to take care of them. That’s a lie because the disabled are very capable of many things (especially when given full opportunities), because they don’t necessarily need to be “taken care of,” and because so far, as this telethon demonstrates, we aren’t taking care of them.

Disability Rights are a feminist issue because women know what it’s like to be infantalized and treated as lesser people. And we should know damn by well that it isn’t right. Not for us, and not for anybody.


1 Penny September 3, 2007 at 10:12 am

Brava! Nicely done.

2 corey September 3, 2007 at 10:29 am

AWESOME! I work at a sexual assault/domestic violence center and we are currently grappling with the fact that we are for all intents and purposes completely inaccessible to people with disabilities. I will definitely be sharing this with my co-workers in hopes of framing the issue in a more empowering, less paternalistic light.

3 Milly September 3, 2007 at 11:13 am

Just a quick note to say that I love your blog, and this post sums up why quite perfectly – you articulate complicated thoughts clearly, intelligently and convincingly. The world needs more feminists like you. Actually the world needs more feminists full stop.

4 Cara September 3, 2007 at 11:16 am

Thank you, Milly! That’s probably one of the nicest comments I’ve ever received :)

5 andreashettle September 3, 2007 at 3:27 pm

Thanks for this great blog post!

I did a blog on the telethon as well at http://reunifygally.wordpress.com/2007/09/03/why-deaf-people-should-boycott-jerrys-telethon/

If you choose to come look at my telethon post then I hope you’ll also stay and look around at some of the posts I’ve done about the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, which I think is another subject that people with disabilities should be up in arms about. And BLOGGING ABOUT!

6 Tracey September 3, 2007 at 3:31 pm

I’m glad you participated in the blogswarm, Cara! I just finished my own post and came over here to read yours, and you articulated beautifully the point I was trying to make about how this issue compares with feminism and other movements. It is so frustrating to hear over and over how we need to change, when we know that it is not us, but oppressive systems that need changing. Reading and blogging about this issue has really enhanced my understanding of disability issues. I hope I can become more active and write about them more often.

7 Cara September 3, 2007 at 3:53 pm

Thanks, Tracey! I actually found out about this blogswarm via your blog, so thanks for posting about it first!

8 Kara Sheridan September 3, 2007 at 7:09 pm

Your post is so beautifully put…I started smiling at the title (because I couldn’t agree more) and loved every word! Thank you SO much for participating. I just updated the orginal post on my blog to include yours but it looks like lots clicked your link in the “to be expected” list. Thanks again and I hope we keep in touch!
~Kara (another one! but with a “K”)

9 Gabs September 3, 2007 at 9:22 pm

Fantastic post, Cara. I worked all weekend and had little free time for blog visits, so I wasn’t fully up to speed on the telethon deal. I could see pretty clearly that Lewis is a raging asshat, but was still unsure why the telethon itself was a problem. This post put it all out there in a way that really made sense, and I thank you for that.

10 Dread1myn September 3, 2007 at 10:54 pm

Thank you, Cara, for posting this, and participating in the Blogswarm. I take comfort in your words. I am so tired of being portrayed and seen as a problem, then, blasted when I refuse to see myself as such. Your post is right on!


11 RachelPhilPa September 4, 2007 at 5:07 am

Thank you for this post, Cara.

One thing that I have not seen covered very much when disability issues are discussed, is conditions that cause chronic pain.

I’ve been suffering from such a condition (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy) for thirteen years. It puts me in a wierd position – to people who don’t know me, I seem totally able-bodied, but I am in near-constant pain. The reaction from the medical community ranges from “we don’t know what to do” (which is at least honest) to treating chronic-pain sufferers as malingerers and mental cases. The so-called “drug war” impacts me also, as we cannot get access to effective medication to control pain – opiates.

And yet, because I am not in a wheelchair and don’t use assistive animals or devices other than occasionally a cane, I feel like I am as ignorant and ableist as many other people are on disability issues.

12 JaneDoe September 5, 2007 at 2:23 pm

Really interesting post. I always felt uncomfortable about that kind of “fundraising” but could never really articulate why. And, if you needed another reason to hate Jerry Lewis: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/tv/story/2007/09/05/lewis-telethon-slur.html
This guy is just bad news all around.

13 Sara no H. September 10, 2007 at 3:18 am

Yeah, telethons have always kind of weirded me out … but it wasn’t until I read this essay by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson that I really understood why. I think you’d really enjoy reading her work, because she speaks directly to the title of your post — namely, where disability studies and feminism intersect — and although she isn’t talking specifically about telethons (she gives them a passing mention), she does have a lot of things to say about why the “cure” mentality is so degrading to the disabled.

Anyway, just thought I’d pass it along.

14 Cara September 10, 2007 at 8:51 am

Thanks, Sara!

15 Revena September 13, 2007 at 4:08 pm

This is a fantastic post, and I think you’ve articulated your points extremely well. Great job!

16 Elizabeth Miner September 16, 2008 at 6:17 pm

You are so right about this – people and organizations are slowly beginning to move away from the “charity model” for serving people with disabilities, and towards a model that creates an environment (physical and social) in which they can thrive and contribute. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is helping with this, though progress is slow. It is much worse in other countries than in the US. Just be careful not to make enemies of people who could have been friends if gently guided towards this new way of thinking, rather than blasted. Also, you may be interested to know that people with disabilities don’t really like being called “the Disabled”. You seem sincere in your desire to help people with disabilities be seen as equals – one simple way to start is by using empowered language – it has a huge impact on the way people are perceived. Keep up the good fight!

17 Cara September 17, 2008 at 10:50 am

Elizabeth, thanks for your comment. I do know now that the correct language is “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled” — this post is over a year old, and I’ve learned a lot about disability rights issues in the time since I originally wrote it :)

18 Katrina September 17, 2008 at 3:18 pm

This was a really interesting for for me, because I am disabled and have a form of MD. I have to first say that I do support MDA as a whole because they are an organization that has done a lot for me. My family was never well off financially and equipment like wheelchairs etc. is enormously expensive and not always covered by health insurance. It was because of MDA that I was able to attend college because without my scooter I never would have been able to get around.

However, you are absolutely right about the telethon itself. As I child, I was asked to be on the telethon a couple of times (I was a kid, I got to be on TV, it was exciting) but eventually they stopped asking me. I didn’t look disabled enough. In other words, I didn’t inspire enough pity for people to shell out the cash. Portraying people with disabilities as people we need to take care of with charity instead of providing the sort of support needed for us to take care of ourselves is extremely problematic.

I agree also that disability rights certainly is a feminist issue as well. Being a disabled woman is an extremely tricky position to be in, because I feel that as a disabled woman I am hyper-sexualized for being a woman while simultaneously dealing with the fact that many non-disabled people think of people with disabilities as akin to children and thus not adult human beings with the same sexual drive as anyone else. I’m married and and now pregnant, and already people (people as close to me as my family) deem it necessary to judge me because they do not think I should have children because of my limited physical ability.

Anyway, thank you for writing this and bringing this issue to attention. Sorry I left you such a length comment :-)

19 Jennifer September 23, 2008 at 9:11 am

As a co-founder of a feminist disability-rights organization for women and girls with disabilities, Sick Chicks and Twisted Sisters, I have long been aware of the paternalistic, condescending attitude that Jerry Lewis has towards adults with disabilities. Children are used in the telethons to present the ridiculous misconception that people with disabilities somehow disappear or die before they reach adulthood. You don’t see a lot of telethons with people who have been disabled all their lives and are now adults. You don’t see telethons where the people with disabilities have “invisible” disabilities, which the majority, according to some research, of disabilities are. Among women, the most common form of a disability is a chronic illness, and these illnesses do not usually leave people in wheelchairs, with visible signs that they are officially disdabled and deserving of recognition for that fact. People who walk around with chronic illnesses are often very sick for very long periods of time, with their quality of life severely impaired, and there is no telethon for them at all. I am one of those people, and I know many other women who are as well. Those of us who advocate for disability rights for all disabilities, are often more aware of the forms a disability may take than the general public tends to be. Disabilities take many forms, including psychiatric illnesses which are frequently just as disabling as any physical disability is, but this fact is also ignored by people like Jerry Lewis, as someone with Schizophrenia who is 30 years old doesn’t illicit the sympathy and urge to send a check that a five-year-old kid in a wheelchair who smiles and sings songs does.

Disability has long been known by many feminists as a feminist issue. I know a number of feminist disability-rights activists and, as always, I am happy to see this issue brought up in feminist forums. Great article, Cara! Keep raising a ruckus.

-Jennifer Robinson
Sick Chicks and Twisted Sisters

20 Andrea Shettle, MSW January 10, 2009 at 10:40 am

Hi — I wanted to make sure you knew about the latest that is happening with Jerry and his, yes, humanitarian award:

Jerry Lewis, the man who runs the annual Telethon to raise money for people with muscular dystrophy in the US is about to receive a humanitarian award. Many people in the disability community is protesting this award because they feel that Jerry perpetuates and entrenches negative, harmful stereotypes toward people with disabilities. More about the petition campaign at: http://www.petitiononline.com/jlno2009/petition.html

There is also a Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=40538392681

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