Gerard Emmanuel Kamdem Kamga
In this paper I review the intersection between gender and disability, which remains a key barrier in the establishment of an inclusive society in which everyone can live a dignified life. In 2011 the World Health Organisation and the World Bank Group together produced the first World Report on Disability (hereafter referred to as the World Report), an important document that contributes to our understanding of disability and its impact on society (WHO 2011). The World Report notes that more than one billion people, i.e. 15% of the global population, live with some form of disability, of whom nearly 200 million experience considerable difficulties in functioning. Understanding what amounts to disability is a necessary first step before considering its relationship with gender.
The Convention on the Rights of People with Disability (CRPD), a landmark document published in 2008, considers disability to be an evolving concept. Article 1 of the CRPD defines people with disability (PWD) as including all those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments. The CRPD document’s preamble states that “disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”. Hence disability is not perceived as an inherent feature of a person, but rather as a characteristic that derives from interaction with social attitudes and environmental obstacles, which together may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
Several decades earlier, Goffman (1963) pointed out that having a disability not only means experiencing certain physical, intellectual or mental disadvantages, but it also involves the experience of stigma from more able-bodied members of society. In the same vein, Gerschick (2000: 12164) observes that “people with disabilities are engaged in an asymmetrical power relationship with their temporarily able-bodied counterparts”. The World Report emphasises the different lived experience of PWD and people without disabilities. It observes that PWD have poorer health outcomes, lower education achievement, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. In other words, disability is used as a basis for discrimination and, therefore, is a violation of the fundamental rights and dignity of the disabled, in a clear violation of Article 2 of the CRPD, which reads:
‘Discrimination on the basis of disability’ means any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.
This definition echoes the idea that PWD are “forced to claim ‘special rights’, [since] their status as citizens with existing rights (albeit unacknowledged / inaccessible) is negated” (Meekosha & Dowse 1997: 50).
Stigmatisation appears to be the keystone of the relationship between disabled people and their more able-bodied fellow citizens. In assessing the stigmatisation that is at the heart of such a relationship, Robert Murphy (1995: 140) observes:
Stigmatisation is less a by-product of disability than its substance. The greatest impediments to a person’s taking full part in this society are not his physical flaws, but rather the tissue of myths, fears, and misunderstandings that society attaches to them.
This erroneous conception of disability has been in existence for eons. Hopefully the rights-based approach available in the CRPD can contribute to a shift in public perceptions.
Meekosha and Dowse (1997: 52) decry the fate of PWD in contemporary society:
Simple binaries such as rights/duties, active/passive citizenship and exclusion/inclusion are inappropriate when viewed from a disability perspective because they contain within them unspoken assumptions that social relations are carried out by able-bodied individuals free to contest or follow civil mores.
In a research paper entitled ‘Disability and gender at a cross-roads: A Palestinian perspective’, Leila Atshan (1997) observes that in Palestinian culture disability is traditionally synonymous with shame and, when congenital, is viewed as a sign of divine intervention or of the work of evil spirits. The presence of a disabled family member is perceived as a blight on the honour and reputation of the entire family unit. Within this context, Palestinian PWD have been marginalised and shunned socially to the point of invisibility. Associated with this behaviour is the belief that disability is contagious and, therefore, a logical response is to isolate the disabled person (Atshan 1997: 53). In these circumstances, being disabled amounts to an embarrassing exception to the social norm: an exception rejected by those in charge of enacting society’s code of beauty and rules (i.e. people without disability). Within this framework it is, therefore, possible to observe that “disability is a marginalised status in contemporary society, one that is nearly always described in negative and offensive language” (Barnes 1992: 42). Lina Abu-Habib (1997: 3) attempts to decipher implicit messages from the non-disabled toward PWD – a message which is not about encouragement or love, but rather involves exclusion and even dehumanisation:
Thus, the strong message from the non-disabled world remains that the lives of disabled persons are not necessarily worth living. Both men and women with disabilities are made to feel ‘different’; they fail to conform to a traditionally and socially agreed norm of beauty and strength. Pity, condescension, embarrassment, or a mixture of the three, are the reactions most commonly encountered by men and women who have a disability, from non-disabled people.
In the same vein, Atshan (1997) observes that for the family, disability can mean guilt by association, and being related to a disabled person can damage marriage prospects, owing to the fear of impairment continuing down the line, through successive generations. Perceptions of disability appear to be determined neither by scientific nor medical facts, but rather by irrational and, to some extent, superstitious thinking.
The World Report does not limit itself to highlighting discrimination directed at PWD in general. It goes further, raising concerns regarding the gender dimension, which is a key factor in the discrimination directed at, and the marginalisation of, disabled people. According to Meekosha and Dowse (1997: 50), “Disability is gendered, affecting men and women differentially”. The Report distinguishes between the experiences of disabled men and women (WHO 2011: 8):
… while disability correlates with disadvantage, not all people with disabilities are equally disadvantaged. Women with disabilities experience the combined disadvantages associated with gender as well as disability, and may be less likely to marry than non-disabled women.
There is also a higher prevalence of disability among women compared to that among men. According to the World Report, the prevalence of male disability worldwide is 12%, whereas the prevalence of female disability is 19.2% (WHO 2011). These figures attest to the fact that women with disability represent more than half of the global population of disabled people.
Violence against women (VAW) is also experienced by disabled women. In such instances, disability clearly appears as a factor that exacerbates VAW. The research literature reflects that gender and disability are usually studied separately. Yet analysing the intersection of gender and disability is an important initiative, given that they constitute two of the most severe forms of marginalisation, injustice and exclusion. Atshan (1997: 54) comments that:
Because of these norms of female beauty and the role of women in the family, a disabled woman is seen as a failure on several counts. While disabled sons can be tolerated and often married, disabled daughters are merely a drain on already stretched resources: permanent family members, with no hope of future marriage or social mobility.
It has been recognised that disability is part of a cultural matrix influenced by gender, as well as by other socio-political and economic factors. As paragraph 64 of the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (2015) points out: “generally, social and cultural constructions of women’s roles and status perpetuate stereotypes that disadvantage women and preclude the enjoyment of all their human rights, including the right to a life free of violence.” Such factors will include ability or disability.
Patriarchy draws a traditional distinction between the roles of men and women in the family: whereas the male is ‘destined’ to be the head of the family, to be independent and to exercise power in the household and in society, the female has a more symbolic function and is often seen as merely an accessory to the male. Female PWD are not expected to be independent, given that they are expected to play the roles of daughter, wife and mother in relation to men. It is implicit that disabled women and girls are more disadvantaged than male PWD. Such established cultural traditions are at the opposite end of the spectrum to the provisions in the CRPD that prohibit discrimination against any person on the basis of disability. While male PWD may still enjoy some forms of relative freedom despite being disabled, female PWD are treated very differently, which may go even as far as “… imprisonment in the home, [being] locked in a single room, without any visitors beyond the immediate family” (Atshan 1997: 54). Paragraph 61 of the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (2015) emphasises the extent to which “women with disabilities shared concerns regarding abuse, fear of disclosure, leaving and homelessness”. Abu-Habib (1997:1) reflects the gravity of the problems which disabled women face:
… disabled women are indeed worse off than their able-bodied sisters. To give a few instances: women with disabilities are twice as prone to divorce, separation, and violence than able-bodied women.
The impact of disability on women in terms of human rights violations in general, and in terms of violations of the right to dignity in particular, appear to be more pronounced than those experienced by disabled men.
In terms of health prevention, women with disabilities receive less screening for breast and cervical cancer compared to women without disabilities, and men with disabilities are less likely to receive screening for prostate cancer (WHO 2011: 60-61). The WHO report (2011) goes on to depict the inaccessibility of medical equipment for many PWD. Numerous women with mobility impairment are unable to access breast and cervical cancer screening because examination tables are not height-adjustable and mammography equipment only accommodates women who are able to stand (WHO 2011: 71).
Such discrimination extends to other socio-economic and political areas. Access to education, employment, housing and mainstream social services is more difficult for female PWD than for their able-bodied sisters and for male PWD. When female PWD work together with non-disabled women, their earnings are seldom equal. The WHO (2011) reports that if PWD are employed, they usually earn less than their counterparts without disabilities; women with disabilities also commonly earn less than men with disabilities. The wage gaps between men and women with and without disabilities are just as important as the differences in their rates of employment (WHO 2011: 39). These disparities appear to be irrational.
It is important “to make the links between gender and disability, as two aspects of social identity which lead to potential marginalisation from a society which is designed and run by able-bodied men” (Abu-Habib 1997:1).
The purpose of this paper was to describe the intersection between gender and disability, and the impact of disability on the lives of disabled men and women. Despite progress in the development of disability policies and the introduction of anti-discrimination norms, much still needs to be done to shift stereotypical views of disability. It is important to engage in raising awareness and other forms of public education, to engage in further research on disability, and to facilitate PWD’s improved access to mainstream services such as health-care, transport, education and housing. It is clearly time to fulfil the human rights of PWD through empowerment and removal of barriers in the path toward a more inclusive society.
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