Background--Disabilities Dialogue, Part II

Date: Thu Oct 14 1999 - 00:00:00 EDT

continuation of "Connecting Gender and Disability"

By Merle Froschl, Ellen Rubin, and Barbara Sprung, Educational Equity
Concepts, Inc.

Informal Education
It is in experiences outside the classroom, particularly in
afterschool programs, that young people receive valuable training in
social and vocational skills.10 In an afterschool program, students
can choose from a wide range of activities requiring varying degrees
of physical or intellectual skills. Afterschool programs provide
opportunities for students to learn more about themselves and one
another. Sharing like interests minimizes differences. Having fun with
arts and crafts, playing sports that require peer coaching and
teamwork_all such interactions reduce differences, provide
opportunities for students to appreciate one another, and are critical
preparation for adult life.

        Access to afterschool programs, however, is not automatic.
Transportation is often a major barrier. In rural areas, the lack of
accessible transportation and the distances to be traveled create an
obvious obstacle. However, even in urban areas where youth programs
are within walking distance for most nondisabled young people, for
many young people with disabilities even a short distance can create a
barrier. Creative solutions are needed to ensure the safe passage of
those young people who may not have the physical, sensory, or
cognitive ability to travel even short distances independently.

        This situation is exacerbated for young women with
disabilities, whose families tend to be even more protective. Few
afterschool programs address the needs of girls in general, whether
disabled or nondisabled, and there are almost no programs directed
specifically to meet the needs of girls with disabilities.11

        It would seem that family, school, and community thus conspire
to keep girls with disabilities at home, and that young women with
disabilities are being systematically programmed out of the
afterschool experiences essential to later jobs, careers, and
education. Several critical factors come into play:

Girls may be steered in a direction based on their disability
and the attitude that girls are "only supposed to do certain
activities." The patronizing perspective is, "We know what is best for
her. If she can't run and play, we should leave her inside and protect
her_both physically and emotionally."
In society, women and people with disabilities are perceived
as not being decision makers. This combined impact of gender and
disability fosters the myth that a girl with a disability will not be
able to make decisions by herself.
The stereotype that women and people with disabilities are
unable to protect themselves from unwanted attention is a
significantly limiting factor in the lives of girls with disabilities.
Counselors and other professionals expect girls with
disabilities to be taken care of and therefore conclude they don't
need the same opportunities for social and emotional growth or career
development as girls without disabilities or boys with disabilities.
Girls with disabilities are often denied even the most traditional
female roles.
Staff in afterschool programs tend to assume that girls with
disabilities should engage in activities generally considered
appropriate for younger children, especially if they have cognitive
Parents of adolescent girls with disabilities tend to be
especially overprotective. On the one hand, such parents worry about
the possibility of physical or sexual abuse, while on the other hand
they simultaneously deny their daughters' sexuality. If agencies have
not made appropriate accommodations for girls, parents may be
reluctant to let daughters participate.
If a girl is in need of personal care, parents are concerned
about who will provide that care. They fear often abuse, particularly
if the girl will be assisted by a male. Since people are accustomed to
women caregivers, parents of boys are generally less anxious about a
female providing personal care to their son.
As stated earlier, more boys than girls are assigned to
special education. Therefore, more groups are created specifically to
meet the needs of those boys. Programs specifically designed for boys
often do not meet the needs of girls.
Many afterschool programs highlight sports and recreation,
unfortunately often detering girls while attracting and encouraging

The complex, interrelationship of parents, schools, and community
agencies has traditionally stood in the way of equal participation for
girls with disabilities. The multiple barriers that girls with
disabilities face, together with the stereotypical view that disabled
girls are dependent, incompetent, and lacking in leadership potential,
must be overturned. Working together to examine and eliminate all the
forces that have created such effective barriers is our only hope of
enhancing girls' opportunities and, ultimately, empowering them.

Postsecondary Education
Women with disabilities are five times as likely as women without
disabilities to have less than eight years of formal education. Only
16 percent of all women with disabilities are likely to have any
college education compared with 31 percent of nondisabled women and 28
percent of men with disabilities.12

        To reach college, young women who are disabled must overcome
incredible barriers. The majority have had little preparation for
independence, have been overprotected and undervalued, and have had no
role models to assure them that others like them have done it before.
Yet it seems that for young women with disabilities, getting to
college is only half the battle. Overall, women students with
disabilities are segregated from what, on the outside, appears to be a
mainstreamed campus environment. Although universities and colleges
provide basic academic and physical accommodations, there is very
little commitment to facilitate the social and/or personal adjustment
of female students with disabilities.

        For women with disabilities who do go on to college, very
little is known about their specific needs and how colleges and
universities can meet them. Results of a survey conducted by
Educational Equity Concepts in 1991 revealed a continuing lack of
attention to the needs of female students with disabilities. The study
found that issues relating to women with disabilities are more likely
to be addressed by offices for disability services than by women's
centers or women's programs, and that almost all offices for
disability services have no contact with women's groups either inside
or outside the college. As a result, far fewer women than men are
served by these offices, and almost no students of color of either sex
are served.13

        To redress this inequity, ongoing collaboration is needed
between offices for disability services, women's centers, and programs
for students of color. An environment needs to be created in which the
academic, physical, social, and personal needs of women students with
disabilities are explicitly addressed. Offices of disability services
need to serve the broader college community, be proactive not
reactive, provide information and resources on multiple equity issues,
openly address issues of sexuality, and conduct campuswide programs
related to women and disability.14

Current Advocacy: The Good News
As a testament to their strength, despite all the barriers, women with
disabilities are becoming a political and social force. Throughout the
world, grassroots organizing on the part of women with disabilities
has helped individuals address discrimination based on gender,
disability, and race/ethnicity. These valuable connections to other
women with disabilities have given women the power to build a

        In September 1996, more than 300 women with disabilities
participated in the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing,
China. The location of the "disability tent" was (as might be
expected) far away from the main area of the conference. As if the
distance itself was not enough of a barrier, the rain and mud made it
inaccessible_but women with disabilities organized. Joined by
nondisabled women, the group was successful in having the disability
tent moved to a more central and accessible location.

        In June 1997, 600 women with disabilities from 82 countries
gathered in Bethesda, Maryland, to report on the progress made during
the intervening 15 months since Beijing. Slow but steady progress in
education, employment, and health care was reported on and appreciated
by participants.

        Throughout the United States, programs and conferences
focusing on the issues confronting women with disabilities are
increasing. Mobility International USA, an organization based in
Eugene, Oregon, conducts leadership programs for women with
disabilities that draw participants from throughout the world. The
Women's Studies Center at the University of Southern Connecticut held
its eighth annual conference on Women and Disabilities in October
1998. At the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) conference in
Washington, D.C., in 1999 the women's forum was again held on the
first day. In September 1999, Wayne State University sponsored the
Michigan Conference on Women and Disabilities: Celebrate, Motivate,
Organize, Activate. And these are only a few examples.

        It is attending meetings such as those listed above that truly
empowers women with disabilities. Women and girls with disabilities
can take their rightful place in the community through gaining
increased access to available programs and services, bringing women
with disabilities in touch with others in their vicinity, and
promoting understanding between women's groups and disability groups.
The support of other women, access to print and video information for
and about women with disabilities, and awareness of their rights under
laws such as the ADA all provide women with disabilities with the
tools for self-advocacy.

        At the beginning of this article, education was presented as a
negative/positive duality_on the one hand, contributing to limitations
for girls and women with disabilities and on the other, offering the
best possibility for positive change. The gains cited above are in
large measure due to girls and women who have used education to forge
a path to increased advocacy and power. The task for educators who are
committed to gender equity is to ensure that the educational path for
girls and women with disabilities is not so steep and filled with
barriers in the future. If advocacy for gender equity includes girls
and women with disabilities, everyone will benefit.

1 Reported in Women with Disabilities: Issues, Resources, Connections
Revised, prepared by Rannveig Traustadottir, updated by Perri Harris.
The Center on Human Policy, Syracuse University, June 1997.
2 The original name for IDEA was The Education for All Handicapped
Children Act of 1975 (Public Law 94-142). The act was renamed in 1990.
3 Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children. Commissioned by
the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation as
a follow-up to How Schools Shortchange Girls. Researched by the
American Institutes for Research, 1998.
4 The Special Education and Inclusion sections are based on
information reported in "Pressing for Inclusion: In School and
Beyond," Issue Paper Number 2. Educational Equity Concepts, Inc.,
November 1994.
5 "Women, Work and Disability: Opportunities and Challenges," by N. F.
Russo and M. A. Jansen, in M. Fine and A. Asch, eds. Women with
Disabilities: Essays in Psychology, Culture and Politics.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
6 "Female and Disabled: Challenged Women in Education," by M. Davis
and D. Marshall. Perspective, 5(3), 1987.
7 Reported in Being Female_A Secondary Disability? Gender Differences
in the Transition Experiences of Young People with Disabilities, by
Mary Wagner, The National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special
Education Students, SRI International, April 1992.
8 Reported in "Gender as a Factor in Special Education Eligibility,
Services, and Results," To Assure the Free Appropriate Public
Education of All Children with Disabilities, Twentieth Annual Report
to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities
Act, U.S. Department of Education, 1998.
9 Wagner, 1992.
10 A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours.
Carnegie Corporation of New York, Carnegie Council on Adolescent
Development, December 1992.
11. Programmed Neglect: Not Seen, Not Heard. Report on Girls
Programming in the United States. Ms. Foundation for Women, National
Girls Initiative, October 1993.
12 Traustadottir, June 1997.
13 "A Report on Women with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education,"
Issue Paper Number 1. Educational Equity Concepts, Inc., April 1993.
14 The Barnard College Office for Disability Services (ODS) is one
program where such action strategies have been implemented on an
ongoing basis. Although Barnard is a women's college, the case study
it provides can (and should) be generalized for the development of
services for women students with disabilities in coed institutions.

End of Part II

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