Re: Disabilities Dialogue

Date: Wed Oct 20 1999 - 12:13:00 EDT

In terms of the top gender equity issues for students with disabilities, here
are a few of my thoughts.

I am alarmed by the poor postsecondary outcomes for girls and young women
with disabilities. These young women are less likely to be employed than
disabled young men upon leaving school, and are more likely to work part-time
and/or to work in lower paying, sex-stereotyped jobs when they are employed.
This lays the groundwork for the life of poverty that far too many adult
women with disabilities face. While there is also a gender gap for
nondisabled students, the gap for disabled students is larger and more
persistent. In addition, disabled young women are less likely than young men
to participate in social and community activities upon leaving school. For
far too many young women with disabilities, this means they are likely to be
isolated at home after completing their education,doing nothing at all. While
there has been a growing number of school to work programs for disabled
students and for nondisabled female students, few, if any programs,
specifically address the needs of girls with disabilities. We need to insist
that programs for disabled students address gender issues as a matter of
course and that programs designed to serve young women become inclusive and
address disability issues. In addition, there may be some value to developing
some program models specifically for disabled young women to elucidate more
clearly factors that help and hinder postsecondary outcomes. In addition to
program development, we need to use on behalf of girls with disabilities what
we know from the gender equity field about creating equitable environments.
Girls with disabilities, like all girls (and boys) need access to role
models, unbiased curricula, a non-harassing environment, learning-enhancing
interactions with teachers and access to equitable math, science and
vocational courses.

Another source of alarm is the high percentage of girls with disabilities who
become teen parents, a finding from the SRI study that Tom mentioned in his
research review - these rates are higher than for nondisabled girls. This
requires some discussion because it is not across the board for girls with
disabilities. There is some differential in parenting rates, depending on
the nature of the disability. The high parenting rates are particularly
prevalent among girls with less visible or invisible disabilities, i.e.
learning, emotional and intellectual disabilities, who can perhaps "pass." We
can hypothesize that for these girls, one factor at work may be that in the
face of an inequitable, frustrating school experience, they may have
difficulty envisioning themselves as college students, trainees or workers
upon leaving school; motherhood may seem like one of the few available
positive options. And because their disability is not visible, these girls
are more likely to meet traditional standards of beauty and attractiveness
sought by many young men; indeed, their disability may enhance their
desirability to the extent they are perceived as more vulnerable and hence an
easy catch. In contrast, many girls with visible disabilities have a rather
different experience; while they too may experience the lack of options,
motherhood does not necessarily feel like a possibility. Many of these girls
report that instead of being viewed as sex objects, they are seen as sexless
objects. While this may offer some protection from early parenting - but not
from sexual harassment and rape, which sometimes leads to parenting - this is
not an advantage; these girls pay a high price for the world's denial of
their sexuality. Since for adolescent girls, definitions of one's worth as a
woman continue to be linked to the capacity to catch and keep a male partner,
the experience of being viewed as sexless, undesirable and unattractive can
be quite damaging to a disabled young woman's sense of self-worth. In fact,
research on girls with physical and sensory disabilities have their first
date, kiss, sexual encounter later than their nondisabled peers, with a range
of negative consequences. Both groups of girls need our intervention. They
need programs and opportunities that broaden their range of options,
appreciate and further develop their strengths and talents, challenge their
limiting views of themselves and help them recognize and develop strategies
to confront negative attitudes and discrimination. Programs for girls have
fortunately moved away from fixing defecits and specific problems to building
resilience and empowering girls to take action against barriers and problems
in school, community and society. This resilience movement has not until now
included girls with disabilities. We need to change that, to make these
programs for girls inclusive of all girls. Let me make an added pitch here
for comprehensive sex education for girls - and boys - with disabilities. We
know that good sex education helps girls make better choices. Far too
students with and without disabilities receive the kind of sex education they
need. But I want to suggest that the consequences are far more severe for
girls with disabilities who have less access to informal sources of sex
education. They tend to have less freedom to hang out and compare notes with
friends afterschool or to sneak a look at magazines in the supermarket. Hence
school becomes a far more important source of sex information.

OK. Enough for now. I'll get to the research aspect letter, but let me say
briefly we need research on all aspects of gender bias for students with
disabilities - from bias in the curriculum to student-teacher interaction to
sexual harassment to participation in math and science education. The
research we have is quite limited. We need a great deal more in almost every

Harilyn Rousso

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