Volume 2 Issue 18 - September 15, 2004

Empowering women with disabilities

Disabled people are marginalised from mainstream society in many ways. But within the disabled community, there is a large group of people who are even more disadvantaged and oppressed. Jeeja Ghosh examines the status of disabled women.

Picture of Jeeja Ghosh and a colleague.

Historically, in most societies of the world, women occupied a secondary position in relation to men. Women generally had little opportunity to voice their opinion, even in matters that concerned their own lives. They were expected to abide by the decisions made first by their fathers, then their husbands and at a later stage of their lives by their sons. Society has progressed but this is not to say that even today women stand equal with men. Discrimination against women persists, the only change being that in some cases it is much more subtle.

Women's movements have been instrumental in bringing about changes, attempting to empower and equip women to fight for equality. But this is not the case when we turn our attention to women with disabilities. The mainstream women's movements have remained oblivious to the needs of this group.

The disability movement too has not paid much attention to the particular needs of disabled women. Hence they remain at the periphery of all rights movements. They are not seen as having a part to play in society. The empowerment of disabled women therefore becomes the need of the hour.

The empowerment of any deprived section is possible when the group concerned realises its interests are not given priority by society. Their primary task lies in forming self-help groups to fight for their rights. They also need to be aware of their responsibilities to extend mutual support to one another and to work towards building a cohesive group, focussing attention on the benefit of the larger section of the society.

Empowerment also entails equipping a group with the knowledge and skills to handle incidents of abuse. Women with disabilities are especially vulnerable to abuse in all forms: physical, sexual, emotional and psychological. All women, including those with disabilities, should be given sex education according to their physical and cognitive abilities. Training in self-defence is also important; at the most basic level women should be able to report any incident of abuse to an authority figure. For women with speech and communication impairments certain words, symbols or pictures representing abuse need to be incorporated in their communication devices to enable them to tell others if they had encountered any such incidents.

Another aspect of empowerment for disabled women lies in the acceptance of their disability or limitations. Acceptance is a vital step towards developing self-image and self-confidence.

Empowerment also involves freedom of expression. Most women with disabilities never find the outlet to express their sexuality, as they are largely regarded as asexual and rarely considered for matrimony.

Disabled women stand at a disadvantageous position in society. The status of disabled women is not only inferior to that of non-disabled women but also to their male counterparts. The indicative variables considered are:

1. Position in the family.

2. Access to education and healthcare facilities.

3. Opportunities to find employment.

4. Knowledge regarding existing legislation and facilities for disabled people.

5. Fulfilling the role generally ascribed to women.

1. Position in the family:

Everyone here is familiar with the role of the family in socialisation. Indeed, the family is rightly called the primary socialising agent. In the present context, however, almost universally there is discrimination in socialisation on various lines, including gender. Mentally and physically challenged children are not taught what normal children are. Furthermore, a disabled child in most cases gets little opportunity to come in contact with the other agencies of socialisation such as school or peer group. In such a situation the family becomes the sole, as distinct from being merely the primary, socialising agent. For disabled women and girls, it is usually a case of double discrimination and cultural deprivation.

The relationship between gender and disability varies from society to society especially in the context of socio-cultural and the economic situation. In India the "male" identity can override the limitations caused by disability. The position of women however differs. The marital status of a girl often determines her position in society and family.

Motherhood also plays a role in the social status of women. Disabled women are neither expected to be married nor are they usually visualised earning a living for themselves. Therefore they are regarded as potential burdens and often grow up with low self-esteem and a negative self-image.

2. Access to education and healthcare facilities:

The data presented here has been taken from two separate studies conducted by the presenter for Action Aid Regional Office and School of Women studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Though the sample considered here is relatively small (in-depth interviews of 25 women) it can be treated as representative of the reality.

Five categories of disabilities formed the respondents in this research. These were (i) visual impairment; (ii) orthopaedic disability; (iii) hearing and speech impairment; (iv) cerebral palsy; and (v) learning disability.

(i) One-third of the women with visual impairment had passed their Class X while another third had finished Class XII. Of the remainder, half were graduates and half postgraduates.

(ii) The minimum qualification reported among women with orthopaedic disability was graduation. Two-thirds were postgraduate degree holders with diplomas in special education.

(iii) Vocational training was common, as high as 83.33 per cent, among women with hearing and speech impairment. But only 16.66 per cent were graduates.

(iv) A similar trend can be seen in the case of women with cerebral palsy. Nearly half of the women interviewed had received training in vocation skills but while 37.5 per cent had completed school, only 12.5 per cent were graduates.

(v) Only a small percentage of women with learning disabilities had received any education or training in vocational skills.

It is clear from these figures that while those with visual, hearing and speech or orthopaedic disabilities can make some headway in the process of socialisation, their journey is made against huge odds. As for those with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities, the situation is dismal.

Education is a powerful tool of empowerment but it is not available to enough people with disability. Even where it is available, it is often hampered by poor accessibility to buildings and institutions.

In order to ascertain the medical facilities available for women with disability, a structured questionnaire was circulated among ten doctors from different fields.

The results showed that very few disabled women ever seek medical advice. Most doctors said that the disabled people who do come to them for treatment do so as children or adolescents. They seldom have disabled women approaching them on their own. Of the disabled people they do see, 80 per cent are male. From this it emerges that women with disability have very little access to medical facilities.

3. Employment opportunities:

As the study showed, women with visual or orthopaedic disability are in a better position as far as employment is concerned and two thirds of these were engaged in white-collar jobs. All of the women with locomotion disability worked as either teachers or special educators. Among women with hearing and speech impairment 25 per cent were unemployed, this figure was 37.5 per cent among women with cerebral palsy.

4. Knowledge regarding existing legislation and facilities for the disabled:

The study revealed that only 4 per cent of the respondents were aware of the Persons with Disability Act. None of the women with cerebral palsy knew about the National Trust Act. Some of them were vaguely aware of travel concessions but had no specific information regarding them. This reflects the attitude of social bodies to women with disability they are apparently not worthy of even the information that concerns them specifically.

Self-help groups of disabled women need to be formed. Women with disabilities are to be made aware of the rights through training in self-advocacy. Non-print based mediums like theatre and puppetry are to be to be used as ways of spreading awareness regarding the rights of the disabled in general and disabled women in particular.

Some recommendations that emerged from the study:
· Self-help groups of disabled women need to be organised. These women are to be made aware of the rights through training in self-advocacy.
· Rights of disabled women should feature in the mainstream women's movement.
· Government should frame policies catering specifically for women with disabilities.
· Training for women with disabilities needs to be geared towards developing a positive self-concept and self-image. They are to be empowered to recognise that they too are contributing and responsible members of society.

To conclude, the empowerment of women with disability is a battle already in progress. Advocacy groups, well trained and adequately supported in their work have a crucial role to play. They themselves have largely demonstrated the effectiveness of their demands from government and other bodies and institutions but we need now to widen the field.

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