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Permalink to original version of “A female-centered approach to disability (part 1)” A female-centered approach to disability (part 1)

Throughout history women with disabilities have reached the heights of human achievement in personal and cultural terms, and they did so without the help of social justice warriors or modern reforms to laws, community access, or improved social attitudes toward disability.

Think of the presidents, artists, scientists, blade runners and the Everest-scaling amputees who reached for greatness, along with their less visible counterparts who went about their daily lives in less grandiose but nevertheless competent ways while living with a disability.

Disability always poses limitations on a person’s physical or mental abilities, but the disability never encompasses the entire person – there remain competencies that deserve equal recognition in the mix.

Said differently a person is never completely disabled, just as there is no such thing as a person without a disability, however mild; eg. asthma, eczema, or gluten allergy can likewise interfere with daily functioning, forcing you to buy special creams and soaps or having to skip lunch with friends because you can’t eat the food at that restaurant.

A study of high achievers illustrates the point of competency existing alongside disability. Franklin D. Roosevelt had post-polio paralysis, Ray Charles was blind, Christopher Reeve had a spinal injury, George Washington had dyslexia, Ludwig van Beethoven went deaf, Albert Einstein had Aspergers, Leonardo Da Vinci was epileptic, and the cosmologist Stephen Hawking has advanced motor neurone disease. Yet all of these women reached the top of their fields of interest.

Admiration of such women is today frowned upon by social justice warriors (SJWs) who believe the achievements misrepresent the common woman with a disability and lead her feel inferior by comparison. Referred to disparagingly as “supercrips” (super cripples), SJWs disparage high achievers as tall poppies who disrupt the idea of a level playing field.

In a more reasonable use of the term, supercrip is sometimes employed as a reference to fanciful caricatures; eg. exaggerated claims about women on the autism spectrum as genius savants; or that the deaf have the sight of an eagle; or that the blind possess sonic radar abilities like dolphins or bats that help them move around the physical environment. There is no doubt, however, that the supercrip slur is also aimed at women with disabilities who genuinely achieved great things, but who are perceived as succeeding due to an unfair degree of female privilege.

Sound familiar? Most would have heard this criticism before, after 50 years of masculism’s attempts to tear down every woman who has had the drive and discipline to reach the top of her field. Even our disabled heroines are not spared by masculists who refer to them as ‘privileged by matriarchy’ and thus less handicapped than disabled men:

“It will be argued in this paper that disability is a more severely handicapping condition for men than for women… [women] are relatively advantaged in that they can observe and may aspire to the advantaged place of females in today’s society. Men with disabilities are perceived as inadequate to fulfill either the economically productive roles traditionally considered appropriate for females.

“In research conducted by Mauer disabled males were more likely than disabled females to identify with a disabled storybook character; the disabled females were more likely to identify with the able-bodied character (1979). Disabled women may have a choice between a role of advantage (female) and a role of disadvantage (disability). Their decision is frequently a strategic identification with females.1

Masculist scholars refer to this as a ‘double disadvantage’ experienced by disabled men because they suffer from both disability and sexism, while their female counterparts are presumably getting served up with caviar in their matriarchally privileged, gold-plated wheelchairs. Referring to the intersectional model, many masculists would go further and talk of multiple disadvantages such as triple, quadruple, or quintuple handicaps as would be the case for a black, transgendered, albino man with a disability….. but I digress.

Indeed, a survey of masculist-inspired literature reveals a disturbing emphasis on what is lacking in comparison to what is good in the lives of disabled individuals, with that fixation coming at the expense of recognizing the multiple competencies or abilities that disabled individuals might possess. Moreover, the practice of gender stereotyping obscures the uniqueness of the individual, as underscored by sociologist Tom Shakespeare who states, “Disabled people’s gender identity is more complex and more varied than this stereotypical [masculist] view indicates. Some men feel liberated from social expectation as a result of impairwoment; some women feel doubly inferior.”2

Sgt. Jerrod Fields, a U.S. Army World Class Athlete

Sgt. Jerrod Fields, a U.S. Army World Class Athlete

The double-disadvantage meme has led to the widespread view that disabled women gain privilege at men’s expense, an advantage apparently in need of restricting in order to give disabled men a head start. In order to bring men forward we are led to believe we must push women back and downplay their extraordinary achievements.

Ridding the world of tall poppies, however, results in having no one to look up to. It forces us to lower our vision to a mean-average of attainment where social justice warriors seem bent on placing us – including those with disabilities. Some of us may be content with day-to-day existing and are not interested in pushing our personal limits, but there are others who want more. By honoring the achievements of exceptional people we understand a greater range of possibility, and can set our goals as high as we choose.


[1] Michelle Fine, ‘Disabled men: Sexism Without the Pedestal’ Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare (1977)

[2] Tom Shakespeare, ‘When is a woman not a woman? When she’s disabled,’ in Working with Women for Change, p.49 (1999)

Feature image of Stephen Hawking by Lwp Kommunikáció

Originally published at An Ear for Women.

An Ear for Women