Closing Statement - Harilyn Rousso

Date: Thu Oct 21 1999 - 00:00:00 EDT

I want to thank those of you who participated in the Dialogue on Disability
and Gender. I hope this is just the beginning, and that we can continue
sharing thoughts and questions about the issues raised through the ongoing
EDEQUITY list or through private e-mail or telephone conversations.

While I very much appreciated the comments of those who joined in, I was also
struck by the relatively limited participation by members over the past few
days. I have no doubt that this is partly due to the overly busy schedules of
many of us working in the gender equity field. We tend to be both passionate
and underpaid, which means we tend to take on more and more, and have little
free time for mailing lists or anything else. But I also know from my more
than 20 years of work that for some people, the topic of disability can be a
source of discomfort. It is both unfamiliar and all too familiar - disability
is the one minority group anyone can join at any time, and most people do as
they get older. This can be a disquieting prospect, particularly given the
pervasive negative stereotypes about disability that convey the message that
life with a disability is a tragedy; hence there is a temptation to avoid the
topic. My colleagues and I working in the field of gender and disability
have all too often given workshops at women's and/or gender issues
conferences and forums only to find that few, if any, participants show up.
Given a choice of workshops, disability rarely makes it to the hot list.

While discomfort about disability is totally understandable, at some point,
it becomes important to find ways to get over it and get on with it. For the
gender equity in education movement to achieve its goals and vision, it must
be committed to gender equitable education for all students, not just
nondisabled students. In my view, one of the greatest achievements of the
movement has been its appreciation of the heterogeneity of girls and young
women - and of young men and boys - and hence the recognition that it is not
enough to consider gender bias in a vacuum. Gender bias does not affect all
students in the same way; it must be considered in combination with a whole
set of factors, including race, ethnicity, class, sexual orierntation, and so
forth. I would like to suggest that we begin to add disability - and the
diversity of disability - to that list of significant factors, and that we
add it in a real way, not just as an afterthought.

With that in mind, I would like to encourage everyone working in the field of
gender equity in any capacity to consider how issues of disability might be
integrated into your work if it is not already there - from incorporating
groups of students with disabilities into research designs to incorporating
disability issues into training to ensuring the inclusion of young people
with disabilities into gender equity programs. There is a personal as well
as professional payoff from such a commitment to inclusion. I mentioned in my
opening statement that I was drawn to work with disabled young women in part
because of how much I learn from them. I think that you will find that a fair
amount of what young people with disabilities have to say is quite familiar -
they have a lot in common with their nondisabled peers - but that in
addition, they can sometimes offer you a new spin on issues, a new way of
thinking that may inform all your work, not just that related to disability.
As a brief example, in my interviews with disabled young women, the vast
majority, when talking about feelings about their bodies, said their greatest
dissatisfaction was being too fat - sound familiar? Dissatisfactions related
to their disability, regardless how visible, came second, or sometimes third
(breast size was also a hot issue). But some were so amazingly perceptive and
articulate in their capacity to critique the myth of the perfect body and the
absurd link between the shape of a woman's body and her worth in our society,
that it became clear to me that these young women had a great deal to teach
their nondisabled and disabled peers, not to mention me.

So, to the extent that some people have been silenced by the topic of
disability, I invite you to begin break the silence and speak about the
issue. And I encourage you to find ways to engage young people with
disabilities in conversation; this can only contribute to the richness of
your work.

In closing, let me express my appreciation to Tom Hehir, my co-moderator.
We've never met before, and it has been a great pleasure for me to get to
know him through this forum. I would also like to thank Susan Smith and the
other EDEQUITY folks for proposing this topic. It has been a wonderful
opportunity for me.

Harilyn Rousso
Disabilities Unlimited
3 East 10th St., 4B
New York, NY 10003

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