Combining oppression based on gender, class and ability

The man in the middle

To be poor is to be vulnerable in certain ways. To be female is to be vulnerable in certain ways. To be disabled is to be vulnerable in certain ways. Combine these three factors, and they will interact with each other – making each other worse.

As I write this, I am currently sitting at the conference about violence against women with disabilities. Just listened to a very good speaker, the Commissioner of Australian Human Rights Commission. He started out by expressing reluctance to do this keynote speech. Not because he’s not used to holding such speeches, but because he’s not a woman with disabilities. This led me (and probably most of the rest of the audience as well) to assume that he had no disabilities. However, halfway through his speech it turned out that he is blind.

One of the main points of his speech was that people have a right to not be categorized as disabled. Having a disability should not be seen as making you special or different. However, this doesn’t mean that we should pretend that everybody can see and walk and so on. On the contrary, accessibility is very important. Being dis-abled is not about any innate lack of ability, as much as it is about an environment that puts obstacles in people’s way. Obstacles that people are expected to have certain abilities to overcome. This is also how the speaker came out as being blind. He told us about the elevators in his hotel.

These elevators did have information in Braille (text that can be read with your fingers). However, the information was on the buttons, not beside them. And the buttons was sensitive. Thus he had to push the buttons for every floor along the way while looking for the right floor. He ended up being stuck in the elevator for quite some time.

It is true that disabilities is not about a person’s body, it is about the interaction between that body and the environment. However, I would like to add that the body itself is also changed and sometimes damaged by the local environment. Anyone can at any time lose abilities that we are all expected to have.

An example: Several years ago, I attended the Stockholm Pride Festival in Sweden together with my girlfriend. Suddenly she stumbled and sprained her ankle. Suddenly she could no longer walk. We hailed a cab and have it drive us to the nearest hospital’s emergency clinic. Strangely enough, the entrance had stairs. They did have a wheelchair ramp, but it was a long and narrow detour. There was no room for leaning on me while walking up the ramp, I would have had to push her in a wheelchair. They did not have any wheelchairs to lend. In the end, she had to sit down on the stairs and crawl up the stairs backwards. Sit on one step and use her arms to drag herself up so she could sit on the next step. The staff didn’t even apologize for not lending us a wheelchair. Instead they was angry with her for crawling on the floor.

Ironically, this very pride festival had several speeches on the same points that the Australian commissioner was talking about and the incident so clearly showed. That disability is about how the architecture et cetera is organized. They also talked about how people assume that gay people don’t have disabilities, and that people with disabilities are not gay. One of the results of this prejudice is that gay clubs rarely have wheelchair acessability.

Anyway, Sweden does have a better average than Indonesia when it comes to healthcare, social security, corruption, and so on. But that is the only real difference: Averages. Statistics. All countries have a lot of problems, and we all need to solve them together.

Other things said at today’s conference is that women with disabilities have extra vulnerability to violence and exploitation. Harder to flee from physical violence. If you are blind, you can’t see if people are taking photos of you in a rude way – and when the photos are published on Facebook, you can’t even log in there to complain. Also, many think that a disability in a woman is valid reason for her husband to beat her or divorce her or take an extra wife against her will.

The second half of the conference was split into four different simultaneous sessions. The one I attended was about education.

Turns out a lot of disabled kids don’t get to go ti school at all. Especially girls, since many parents think only boys are worth a wheelchair or whatever other tool is needed.

If the kid do get to go to school, it is a special school. These schools do not teach what you need to finish a real high school and does not count as such: a person who has gone to special school can never go to college, and this is equally true for those who have purely physical disabilities as it is for those with mental or intellectual disabilities.

And then we have the general problem that people often blame the victims of sexual assaults. This mentality is especially damaging for disabled girls. They will have an even harder time defending themselves or speaking up for themselves.

All in all, a lot of attitudes need to change. Some of this can be done purely by spreading knowledge and understanding. Other parts, however, will require more resources. The welfare of individuals in general, and especially vulnerable individuals in particular, is very dependent on the economic situation in the country.


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