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The women's movement must do more for disabled women

Disabled women are crowded out in both the disability movement and the women’s movement, says Anita Ghai. Feminists, she says, have failed to recognise the different experiences of disabled women in a sexist and able society

What will be your fate if your body isn't normal — and it has nothing to do with being fat or your ability to produce a son?

Reshma (a disabled woman in India) 

In the last decade, disabled people in India have made relentless efforts to push through disability legislation, get included in the census and make representations to the media, among other things. Even though the legislative framework is not as strong as it should be, it is only when the laws are stipulated, that space is provided for the disabled to participate in the wider society. Though the pace is slow and the efforts fragmented, nevertheless there is now some visibility for the disabled in a society that tends to largely ignore their existence  

Disability in the Indian context is often understood as a 'lack' or 'deficit' as well as a 'difference’. Very few people accept the fact that disability is as much a social construct as, say, gender. Since the normative culture in India and the world over carries existential and aesthetic anxieties about differences of any kind, be it caste, class, gender, race or disability, people who are impaired in any way have to live with markers such as ‘disabled’, ‘handicapped’, ‘crippled’, ‘differently-abled’ and ‘special’. This results in an existence marked by acute marginalisation, discrimination and stigmatisation and disability appears more as a personal quest and tragedy to be borne alone. Even those of us who have lived and studied in apparently inclusive educational institutions, have felt the intolerant attitude of Indian society towards disability.    

Society thus exhibits a structural amnesia about disabled people who do not fit into the hegemonic discourse of 'normality'. The resulting social and cultural apartheid is sustained by the existence of a built environment that lacks amenities for the disabled and caters solely to the needs of the more complete and able-bodied 'other'. This social neglect coupled with economic and political subjugation denies the disabled a voice, a space, and even power, to disrupt these deeply-entrenched norms that deprive them of a social presence and any semblance of an identity. To survive as a disabled person in such a blinkered social environment has meant coming to terms with unequal power relationships. This is reflected most clearly in the absence and invisibility of the disabled in forward-looking social movements and dialogues in India, including the women's movement.  

Having spent the last 12 years actively fighting for the realisation of the rights of the disabled, I know that disability is not the only social marker of distinctiveness. Most fights for the rights of the disabled both in developing countries as well as the developed world are male-centric. For women with disability, social experiences are much more limited; it is difficult for them to grasp that the personal is political. In the Indian context the bias is reflected in the primary questions raised by the disability movement in the past decade. The concerns are related to issues such as employment, inclusion in the census, implementation of the disability legislation and, more recently, accessibility to the built environment.  

The disability movement in India has not fought a single battle which has focused on feminine concerns such as reproductive health and the violation of the basic rights of disabled women. The widespread use of forced hysterectomies of disabled women in government and private institutions all over the country has been ignored by leaders of the disability movement who are essentially middle-class educated men. Disabled women are simply not regarded as women – they are encouraged to be childlike and apologetic towards able-bodied society, which judges them as being better dead than alive.  

Though there are commonalities between disabled men and women, the form of oppression is always refracted in some way through the prism of gendered locations both in India and in the West. More painful, however, is the neglect of disabled women by the feminist discourse in India. While some individual women may have benefited from the efforts of various women's groups, the issue has never received any focused attention. Though feminist voices have always questioned patriarchal oppression, this has not extended to disabled women, who should be a natural ally.  

Feminists have failed to recognise the different experiences of disabled women in a sexist and able society. This neglect has been felt acutely in western societies too, though there, feminists who have either become disabled as a result of a chronic illness, or acquired disabilities at a young age, did take up this issue. These scholars have to some extent redeemed the situation. In India, though, the feminist discourse continues to exclude the concerns of disabled women. It is true, though, that disabled women in general do not have to deal with the same oppressions that non-disabled women have to deal with, primarily because disabled women are not seen as women in an able-bodied society. For example, women with disabilities have not been 'ensnared' by many of the social expectations that feminists have challenged. However, this is actually indicative of a negative rendering of their lives, as the usual roles such as marriage and motherhood are out of bounds for them. While it is true that the specific issues for women with disabilities may vary from those of non-disabled women, the reality of womanhood, which includes the usual experiences and fears of a patriarchal society, are bound to be similar. However, with a body that does not 'measure up' to society’s norms, the situation becomes precariously unbalanced. 

One reason for this has been that within feminist discourse, challenging the universal subject of 'woman' was problematised only recently. In the Indian scenario, calls to integrate the disabled into the feminist movement were often met by a patronising tokenism, which argued that though exclusion of disability was real, the system was helpless to challenge the perfectionist norms of a biased society. Though couched in politically correct language, it is clear that disabled women do not count as significant.

For Indian feminists, disability continues to be synonymous with the identity of being a woman, such that its specific character does not receive its due and is lost in the concern or lack of concern for women's rights in general. It is true that in a country like India, where there are innumerable problematic issues, some prioritisation does have to take place. However, to disabled women this looks like a replication of the patriarchal order where the male decides what the agenda and priorities of human life should be. Consequently, assumptions are made about a hierarchy of oppression and disabled women do not find any space in this hierarchy. Feminists’ concern is limited and myopic, which results in paying only lip service to the demands made for inclusion. Consequently, an engagement with the issues of disability is more rhetoric than meaningful inclusion. 

However, over the past ten years, issues concerning disabled women have been highlighted within the realm of the women's movement. There have been some gains and we need to reflect on these. In May 2005, the Indian Association for Women’s Studies’ national conference in Goa was on the subject ‘Citizenship, Sovereignty and Gender’. The conference is held once every three years, but that year it was an historic event because for the first time it included a symposium on issues of disabled women. Though as usual we were speaking mainly to the converted, the meeting did provide the opportunity to listen to other disabled women talk about their lives and to understand that there are  feminists with disabilities who were ready to work together to bring about change in the lives of  their fraternity.

Although the conference was "accessible", access was defined in a limited way. The toilets were either too far away or not accessible. In another conference in Mumbai where disabled women were present in large numbers, many workshops were held in locations that were unreachable, with no elevator access. Inclusion surely means more than just making nominal arrangements for those of us living on the periphery.

The 2008 Women’s Studies conference went a step further and discussed disability issues in a plenary, but still there were only two women delegates who were disabled among almost 500 women. Thus, while the feminists' fight against oppression in India is for recognising disability issues, it is not yet fully cognisant of them. For the first time, the mainstream Journal of Gender Studies bought out a special issue on Disability, Gender and Society (May/August 2008, Volume 15, No 2, published by Sage). Though a lot more work needs to be done, this is a welcome starting point.

While there are sensitive women who have heard the voices of their disabled relatives, colleagues and friends, within the broader feminist discourse and practice a certain tokenism prevails. To really hear disabled women’s voices, the women’s movement has to acknowledge the social, economic, communication as well as architectural barriers that prevent disabled women from sharing their stories and engaging in a public discourse. It's time that the women's movement interrogates able-ism. This is seen in women's services that are not physically accessible or that assume that accessibility is just a wheelchair ramp and nothing more. For example, for women who are hearing impaired or visually impaired, accessibility may mean using sign language or Braille format. Able-ism is also reflected in the kind of language that non-disabled feminists use when referring to feminists with disabilities, as for example, "you are so brave" or "it's really wonderful that you were able to get out and come to this conference."

If at all the gender dimension has been considered, it has been through a 'double disadvantage' hypothesis. The feminist discourse in the West attempted to connect disability theory and feminism by arguing that disabled women must deal with the two-fold but separate oppressions, of being a woman in a sexist society and being disabled in an able society. Once each of these oppressions has been charted out, one can then 'add' the two together to understand disabled women's oppression. In other words, a disabled woman faces dual oppressions, one on the level of 'disability', and the other on the level of 'gender'. Both the identities are similar in that they are both social constructions derived from two biological facts—one of impairment, the other of sex. They are also alike in that neither impairment nor sex in and of themselves are challenging or difficult—that is, they become a problem only when placed in a social context that constructs them as flaws. So, if the reality of disabled women's lives is to be comprehended, the negativity associated with both sex and impairment needs to be recognised.

Many feminist thinkers in the field of disability have objected to this ‘double disadvantage’, as such writings, they believe, do not empower. We, disabled women, need to find a way to make our experiences noticeable and shared in a way that draws attention to our concerns but not at the cost of undermining our self-esteem. An 'additive' framework in which the attempt is to understand separate oppressions and then add them back together as if that would explain the whole experience marks this kind of thinking. Implicit in this assumption is that gender, disability, impairment and sex are binaries. As a result, disabled women are theorised about by adding the two ‘biological foundations’ of sex and impairment to conclude that disabled women are oppressed along the twin axes of gender and disability.

When the popular metaphor posits women as being inherently disabled, as it does in India, it forecloses the possibilities of a meaningful dialogue. For instance the recurrent use of disability becomes a symbol for other kinds of limitations. In personal conversations women have said that “being a woman is the biggest form of disability", and that "disability is like belonging to the lowest caste possible".

There are several ways of understanding these analogies. One way is to look at the socio-cultural meanings ascribed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies. Both the female and the disabled body are excluded from full participation in public and economic spheres; both are conceived in opposition to a norm that is assumed to possess natural superiority. Such comparisons can be both emancipatory and oppressive. If the objective of invoking such comparisons is to understand different people's lived experience and grasp their authenticity, the potential is immense. However, if the underlying realities of the categories serve only at a metaphorical level, it can lead to a total erasure of the category which is being invoked. Consequently, the emancipatory possibilities are lost as attention is focused on the main object, which is women in this case, leading to the marginalisation of the disabled voices, which for cultural reasons have anyway never been heard.

As feminists we need to underscore the fact that interdependence is key both for non-disabled and disabled women. An interrogation of the notion of perfection is critical. Disability both for men and women in India is not a singular marker; there are other markers of difference and inequality such as poverty, caste, class and religion. Even though universal sisterhood is problematic, feminism still has the potential to align itself with the disability movement in order to resist the hegemonic discourse. It is necessary for non-disabled women to question the label of disability. How many would label another person disabled if they were to look them squarely in the eye and say, “You are out of the reckoning because of the kind of choices we made. We constructed an inaccessible world in which you do not fit: therefore the only choice is to stay out as a special category." My hunch is, not many. Thus, what is urgently required is collaboration between the non-disabled world and the disabled world, to engage with each other. 

(Anita Ghai is Reader, Department of Psychology, Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi) 

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009