Eleanor Lisney: ‘when gender, race and disability collide’

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This was the speech by Eleanor at the WOW Festival on the Disability and Feminism panel.

Eleanor Lisney

Eleanor Lisney

The title of this session is ‘resurgence of mainstream feminism ignores the voices of disabled women and discuss what happens when gender, race and disability collide’ – I am going to start with saying that I am not sure we always allow ourselves to be ignored.

Sisters of Frida was started when we realised that there was a noticeable absence of the voices of disabled women. One of the first things we did was to join the UK CEDAW work goup and we went to Geneva so that we have a visible presence to challenge the government on their reforms with other women’s groups such as Southall Black Sisters. We were mostly self funded but we saw that it is essential that disabled women are represented in processes like CEDAW reporting as too often our experience as disabled women is invisible, this is an opportunity to change this and show how the cuts and legal changes are affecting us. When it came to the turn of the shadow report for the CRPD, we realised we were the people with some experience as having been through the CEDAW shadow report process. And by the way the United Kingdom has become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by the United Nations committee responsible for oversight of disability rights into charges of “grave or systemic violations” of disabled people’s rights.

However in the discourse of feminism, disabled women are seldom included, it is true but even so, we are getting invited – we are here at WOW:) but seriously, disabled people are often seen as a ‘burden’ on the feminist from before birth to the older parent often portrayed as with dementia. The decision of aborting a disabled child is seen to be totally understandable, disabled people needs caring for – usually by low paid or unpaid carers where women sacrifice themselves as carers. Disabled women are also seen to be undateable. They are not deemed to be fit to be mothers, they worry about their children being taken into care, or not given custody of their children if there is a marital breakup with a non disabled partner.

There was rejoicing of the series of amendments to the Serious Crime Bill, currently going through the House of Lords, and is expected to be on the statute books this year where under the terms of the Bill a person convicted of coercive control could face up to 14-years in prison and there will be no statutory time limit for the offences, meaning abuse dating back years can be taken into account. Good news for feminists but not so much of a cry when it was found that disabled women would be exempted. Partners of disabled women could avoid domestic abuse prosecution even after ‘coercive control’ is criminalised, the government added an amendment to the proposed law which creates a defence against charges of coercive control by people who take care of disabled partners. If they can convincingly argue that the actions they took were both in the best interests of their partners and “in all the circumstances reasonable”, they will not be prosecuted. There was a consultation but no disabled women / people were asked.

I am sometimes asked: is there a gendered difference in disability campaigning, surely we re all in it together. The division does not help, they say, and even disabled women tell me that. We should look for commonalities. I am not able to respond to that coherently. I think I m more able to respond when it has to do with social justice and the question of race but maybe because nobody has said to me let’s look for commonalities white people and black people both suffer from social justice, why insist on the differences. Certainly no black person.

I would say because there are  differences and we need to speak for disabled sisters because if we don’t who will? Last year I was fortunate enough to speak in the NAWO panel at the Global Summit to end violence against women in conflict – addressing gender equality as the root of all gender-based violence. I am reminded that Women are raped, tortured and killed or left disabled because of their gender. If they survive many can’t go back into society because of the stigma of having been raped, on top of being disabled. There is a gender difference.

As an East Asian disabled woman I can feel the conflict and am pulled in different directions by the different identities. When I m in a disability environment, which is still very white dominated, I ask for black representation, with people of colour, I ask for access and inclusion for disabled people, with feminists, I ask for the same.

– Eleanor Lisney

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