Women and girls with disabilities in this country are a large, varied group,
more than 26 million strong, and diverse on many dimensions, including
disability type, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, age and sexual
orientation. What binds them together is the double discrimination they face
based on disability and gender, often compounded further by other forms of
prejudice, such as racism and classism. Compared to their disabled male and
nondisabled female counterparts, disabled women and girls fare less well on
many indicators of educational, social, vocational and financial success. At
least for some members of this group, another binding factor is the
particular perspective they bring to the world, combining the sensibilities
of being a woman with the disability experience in interesting ways,
fostering, for example, innovative methods of exploration and
problem-solving, creative styles of interdependence, and a critical eye that
challenges prejudicial societal norms.
Much of my own work has focused on adolescent girls with disabilities. What
draws me to this work is not only personal resonance - I was once a girl with
a disability, cerebral palsy - but also personal and professional development
- I learn so much from the disabled young women of today. These are hardy,
resilient girls, far removed from the "helpless victim" stereotypes often
imposed on them. Here is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a group of
girls with diverse disabilities that will appear in a book I am co-editing
with Michael Wehmeyer entitled Double Jeopardy - Addressing Gender Issues In
Special Education Services:
Harilyn: Is there anything you want the world to know about you?
Anna: Most people just see my disability. They forget I'm also a girl. So
tell them, will you?
Marie: Yeah, that's it. Tell them we're girls, like all the other girls.
Harilyn: Is that good, being a girl?
Deirdre: Mostly I like it. But sometimes it sucks. (Everyone laughs)
Deirdre: Boys have it easier.
Marie: Tell me about it.
Harilyn: In school?
Deirdre: Not just school. At home, everywhere. It's not fair.
Marie: Yeah, tell them we want, no, we demand equal rights. Or else.
These girls know that sexism is alive and well in their schools and in their
lives, even though their girlhood is not always openly acknowledged by the
world around them. The little research we have - and we need far more of it -
confirms their perception. In school, girls with disabilities are plagued by
invisibility in their textbooks and in the classroom, sexual harassment in
the corridors; and limited access to the types of math, science and
vocational courses that are the gateway to postsecondary success. Disability
bias interacts with gender bias, giving it some new twists and exacerbating
its effects, contributing to the dismal outcomes that far too many young
women with disabilities face upon leaving school.
Girls with disabilities are perceptive observers of gender bias, compounded
by ableism, but they are not passive observers. They bring assets to the
classroom that they use to challenge bias when they can, rally allies and
pursue their own interests and learning despite barriers. Marie, above,
demands equality or else. She and her friends are perfectly prepared to take
up the fight and take on the world. Yet as professionals committed to
equity, isn't it our job to join them?
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