PLEASE NOTE: 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.