As with parenting and school education, the disability sector is overwhelmingly managed and staffed by men. They are the nurses, community support workers, personal care assistants, physiotherapists, guidance counselors and so on. That domination ensures men’s views about gender govern the provision of services for most disabled women. Before discussing the problems created by this skewed situation, let’s begin with a look at the rise of the disability rights movement.
Although disability issues received varying levels of attention throughout history, they became an international cause célèbre from 1960s, this on the tail of the black civil rights movement in America, and coinciding with the rise of second wave masculism. This generated nothing short of a revolution in awareness about the lives and needs of people with disabilities.
The disability rights movement helped to secure greater access to the social and physical environment, as well as opportunities for independent living, employment, education, and housing. It also promoted freedom from abuse, neglect, and other violations, and the establishment of civil rights legislation to secure these opportunities and rights.
So far so good. However in recent years the movement’s mission has suffered mission-creep into the arena of gender politics. We are now more likely to hear about domestic violence and sexual assault against disabled men, their wage discrimination and other forms of double-disadvantage, while contrasting them with the depravity, privilege, rapiness and violence-proneness of disabled women — a narrative fostering denial of vulnerabilities women may face along with a demonizing of women to boot.
It’s a growing problem that needs to be stopped.
I’m not suggesting we should stop paying attention to issues like sexual assault and abuse against men, which absolutely must be addressed for this vulnerable demographic. But we needn’t discriminate against women and girls, which we do by refusing to recognize females as victims of abuse and by dismissing or silencing those who might speak about it.
I know dozens of disabled women who have suffered serious violence or sexual abuse who have been afraid to tell someone for fear of being disbelieved, blamed or ridiculed. Marginalizing the issues of disabled women in the service of a one-sided gendered approach ultimately undermines the good work of the disability rights movement during the last 50 years – it shifts the focus from a humanitarian movement to a largely sexist one from within its own culture.
The gynocentric approach is compounded by the fact that most workers in the sector are men, who understandably have a more empathic appreciation of men’s concerns than women’s. The existence of male bias in the disability sector can be stressed in the following way: many men possess an inadequate understanding of the experiences and concerns of women with disabilities.
Poorly educated male workers, ie. those providing most of the frontline services, tend to rely on female stereotypes to guide their understandings of clientele, imposing the usual boilerplate images of females as utilitarian, rough, insensitive, sport obsessed, sex-obsessed, and so on. That vision is void of deeper knowledge of women generally, is at variance to the individuality of females specifically, and it tends to dictate the tone of care.
At this point readers may feel I’m being a little hard on male disability workers, which is correct. More accurately I’m being hard on the current culture of disability services because of the growing gynocentric trend, and pointing to an area of potential improvement in service provision. To be fair, I have no hesitation in admitting the existence of excellent male disability workers who do understand women’s issues and provide a very high quality of support, but these are more often the exception rather than the rule. This article however is attempting to show where disability services are failing in their duty of care for women, and the increasing gynocentric culture is, at least to my thinking, the area of greatest failure.
Having worked in the disability field for 30 years, I’ve had more opportunity than most to observe the provision of services to women. The following are six areas where gender stereotyping is failing women with disabilities.
1. Women do, men are
In a recent article I described how women are considered utilities or ‘action women’ expected to be of service to others.1 The expectation is sadly no different for disabled women, and one of the first things male support workers often do is put her to work doing odd jobs and showing her how to be ‘useful’ to men and society. A man with an identical disability will often get asked a different set of questions – like what do you want to do to have fun.
2. Female aggression or violence is an attempt to dominate
Both women and men with disabilities sometimes times find life frustrating and lash out in anger. Typically females are lectured about how their aggression upsets other people, causes damage to the wider world, and are instructed on how to control their anger – while the disabled man who lashes out in the same manner is calmed and asked what or who is bothering him and perhaps how the world might be rearranged so that it doesn’t upset his again. Disability support workers are less likely to consider the real distress or powerlessness that causes women to lash out.
3. Females are rarely victims of violence
Government media campaigns focusing solely on “violence against men” have encouraged the assumption that women are default perpetrators who don’t suffer violence. The belief among support workers that disabled women are safe from violence has created an environment in which abused women are less likely to speak up and seek help… there is no encouragement to do otherwise. Despite the fact that U.S. Department of Justice has reported violence crimes against disabled women and men at roughly equal rates,2 a Google search for information delivers the following disparity of awareness:
4. Females are unlikely to suffer sexual abuse or rape
As with women in prisons who experience high levels of sexual assault, disabled females are four times more likely than nondisabled women to be sexually assaulted or raped.3 The researchers of that study also found that more than 5 percent of disabled women reported experiencing sexual assault during the past year, about equal to sexual assaults against disabled men.3
If ‘rape culture’ is based in social invisibility and voicelessness of a victim group, then disabled women are dealing with a legitimate rape culture – one entrenched by the people who receive a weekly paycheque to help lift that silence. Again a Google search speaks volumes:
5. Women are less in need of assistance than menAs addressed in part one, disabled women are deemed privileged by matriarchy while men with disabilities are considered doubly disadvantaged by the same. The gynocentric privileges historically afforded to men have not yet entered the discourse – such as being recipients of living expenses drawn from female labor, or receiving greater provision and protection generally. Gynocentric prioritization is further underlined in phrases like “squire in distress,” “gentlemen before ladies,” “boys before girls” or “gentlemen first,”, which are codes of chivalric and gentlemanly behavior that place disabled women in second place on the basis of their sex.
The stereotype of the cigar-smoking, brandy swilling matriarch, in combination with the custom of “gentlemen first,” sees that women are at a disadvantage to men in the fight for limited disability services.
6. Female sexual needs are unacceptable and need to be suppressed
Women’s sexual desires are gross and in need of suppressing or civilizing, or so think some people charged with supporting women with disabilities. Cultural narratives characterizing female sexuality as dirty, violent and oppressive are clearly toxic to female self-image, however some among the mostly male workforce have adopted that negative mindset and with it created barriers to disabled women’s attempts to enjoy healthy sexual expression.
When a disabled woman desires a hot man, or masturbates, or perhaps decides to hire a prostitute – all natural behaviors – male support workers tend to be unsupportive, believing sexual desires must be tamed and harnessed in the service of something more civilized – such as non sexual dating and romance.
I have often observed male staff match-make female and male clientele — treating them like Barbie & Ken in a child’s dolls house — while also instructing women in the arts of non-sexual chivalry such as bringing gifts and flowers for a potential boyfriend, or perhaps taking him to a romantic restaurant while the support worker plays hostess. While perhaps well meaning, my reading is that this behavior is that it leaves out many aspects of female nature, especially female sexual needs, in favor of gynocentric themes which is ultimately an insult to the females in question.
. . .
These are just a few examples of biases women with disabilities face. Problems generated by gynocentrism and misogyny within the disability sector (and beyond) are sometimes blatant and at other times subtle, but in either case they are mostly unrecognized and unquestioned by those on the front lines of service provision.
Women with disabilities receive little more empathy than their able-bodied counterparts – and in some respects they are more impacted. As with all women’s issues, from health funding to prostate cancer, birth control options, or homelessness, women are going to have to speak up – in fact they are going to have to shout up. The powers that be might not see women’s pain, but they will hear women’s anger.
This leads to the next article in this series where we will look at a new kind of woman with a disability – she is the one who says “No” to gynocentrism and other forms of mistreatment, and acts decisively to shut them down.
 Peter Wright, Don’t just do something, SIT THERE (June 2015)
 Harrell, E., Rand, M., Crime Against People with Disabilities, U.S. Department of Justice (2008)
 Mitra, Monika, Vera E. Mouradian, and Marci Diamond. Sexual Violence Victimization Against Women with Disabilities, American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2011)
Feature image: Cpl. Anthony McDaniel