We Can Do Better By Women With Disabilities  - 3.11.22

In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s look at a group of people who too often remain invisible: women with disabilities.

Disability has a higher prevalence in women than men. In fact, the statistics on prevalence probably underreport women with disabilities, because women are less likely than men to receive accurate diagnoses.

The fact that more women than men experience disability may come as a surprise. Media depictions of disability have not centered on the lives and experiences of women. In fact, some cultural critics have suggested that our popular ideas of ideal womanhood leave no room for disability.

The most famous women with disabilities (such as Maya Angelou, Harriet Tubman, Sarah Bernhardt), aren’t known for having disabilities. And the most influential women with disabilities (such as Judith Heumann, Stella Young, Liz Carr, Rosa May Billinghurst) are not nearly as famous as they should be.

I will grant you the notoriety of Helen Keller and Temple Grandin, both of whom have achieved a level of fame as women with disabilities, particularly after being featured in movies.

Yet even though there are more of them (about 36 million in the U.S. alone – 21% of American women), women with disabilities lag their male counterparts in several key areas that impact economic stability and quality of life.

According to a 2021 study by the Department of Labor, women in general are still employed at lower rates than men. This is mirrored in a gap between men and women with disabilities, both of whom have significantly lower employment than women without disabilities. Almost 90% of adult men without disabilities were employed in 2020; less than 35% of adult women with a disability were employed during the same period.

The lack of employment opportunities frequently results in poverty. Of the groups reviewed by the Department of Labor (men and women with and without disabilities), women with disabilities have consistently experienced the highest rates of poverty. Just over 20% of disabled women 16 or older lived below the poverty level in 2019, compared with 15% of disabled men and 9.4% of nondisabled women.

Women with disabilities also face much higher rates of physical and sexual abuse than nondisabled women. The United Nations General Assembly has declared that: “Girls and women of all ages with any form of disability are generally among the more vulnerable and marginalized of society.”

This all may sound like a hopeless scenario for women with disabilities. But the reality is that we created this problem, and we can solve it. The barriers that create these gaps in access to resources, opportunities and success can be dismantled.

We can start by learning about the lives and struggles and accomplishments of women with disabilities. Reject the notion that they are supposed to be poor, uneducated, unemployed and living at the margins of society. Women with disabilities are capable and have value. They are actors and artists and teachers and politicians and activists and wives and mothers and grandmothers. We can do better by them.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.

Serving Southwest Colorado's children

and adults with disabilities and

their families since 1985.