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Disability and Feminism

As feminists, we more often tend to talk about intersectionality in ways of race, sexual orientation, or even gender expression. Intersectionality is such an important area of understanding feminism because you have to check your privilege and bias as the door. For example, I understand my white, heterosexual privilege when looking as issues involving race and sexuality because it is necessary in order to even attempt to understand other women’s experiences. However, one area of privilege that often gets overlooked is checking our able-bodied privilege.

Now as I talk about disability through the post, I do want to clarify that I am referring to physical disability. Women with disabilities cognitively or with mental illness are also important to include in the conversation, but for the sake of this post (and to not rant for 86 pages) I will just be focusing on perceptions of women with physical disabilities.

Some people within the disability community claim they “often feel ostracized by mainstream feminist media, which seems almost exclusively focused on the experiences of able-bodied people.” Others believe it stems from the idea of capability. Part of feminism is proving that women are just as capable as men, but in regard to women who are physically disabled- are we still allowing them to join that sentiment? Blogger Neurodiverget K explains, “Worth and capability are not, or should not, be synonymous. All people, regardless of gender or ability status or race or sexuality or any other thing, should be seen as worthy of respect and rights. Our worth is not, or at least should not, be determined by what our capabilities are.”

Often, disability comes as an afterthought, as an identity not as prevalent so it can linger in the realm of invisibility in feminist thought. Many people may respond to this thought negatively, saying they are very conscious of others marginalizations and they would never actively ignore someone’s oppression. I felt the same way at first thinking about this, but the more I honestly examined my opinion I realized I had not created room for people with disabilities in my perception of women’s issues; it had never crossed my mind. The culture we live in though supports these exclusionary thoughts and creates spaces for us to throw the invisibility cloak over women with disabilities problems.

“The fact that women have been historically discriminated against doesn’t give able-bodied women the right to discount the feelings of people with disabilities.”

It is when we can take the cloak off and reach levels of visibility that we can begin discussing these issues and start including women with disabilities voices in the conversation. I was so thrilled when I found out about the reality show Push Girls on the Sundance channel that premiered last year. Push Girls features four women who are living in a wheelchair as either paraplegics or quadriplegics, and provides commentary on the struggles of being a female with disabilities. Many television shows depict the disabled community as incompetent or as a “token” minority featured to make a show more diverse, as they have become one of the last minority groups to get social status on television. However, Push Girls breaks this barrier and focuses on the lives of the four women, specifically their sex and love lives. Each woman faces challenges concerning female sexuality and the expectations of womanhood that people commonly assume that women with disabilities do not participate in, such as relationships, sex or motherhood.

Push Girls portrays women with disabilities as sexual beings that are not devoid of love and affection from others, but women who are sexy and confident, oh and then who happen to be in a wheelchair. One of the women Mia explains, “Being in a wheelchair does create an image in other people’s minds. So it is nice to show them someone who has taken an effort in their appearance. I think most people haven’t seen sexy in a wheelchair so that’s why they can’t fathom it. Being yourself and confidence is sexy.” Another woman on the show Tiphany agrees saying, “the common misconception of people in wheelchairs is that they sit at home in dirty sweats, with food on their shirt, playing some kind of video game all day long and are just stinky and gross.” The women then defy these cultural stereotypes of the community by instead embracing their sexuality, navigating relationships, and discussing sex and pregnancy. They even highlight one of Tiphany’s relationships with another woman because Tiphany is bisexual. Highlighting Miyoko and Tiphany’s relationship demonstrates not only a lesbian relationship- something definitely worth representing on television for LGBT visibility- but the relationship between the able bodied and disabled person increasing that visibility as well.

"Push Girls" stars, Auti Angel and Mia Schaikewitz continue their passion for dance even in their wheelchairs.

“Push Girls” stars, Auti Angel and Mia Schaikewitz continue their passion for dance even in their wheelchairs.

We need more shows like Push Girls to help show others what the reality of women with disabilities looks like. Also, if you feel as if you don’t even know how to navigate conversations about disability, do some research. Look for things that you can do to check your privilege and create a closer bond with all of our sisters- whether they walk or roll up to the conversation.

13 Responses to “Disability and Feminism”

  1. bestlittlelion92

    I really like this post. I agree that I often forget about my able bodied priviledge and I believe it should be another factor of intersectionality when it comes to feminism. I also like the mention of the show, I’ve never heard of it before and totally want to check it out now! It is just nice to see these women being confident and breaking down the stereotypes of people who are physically disabled.

    Reply
  2. Jessica Lehman

    As a woman with a physical disability, I was glad to see a show about strong and proud disabled women gain popularity. But there are a lot of problems with the show, and we should be careful about what it says about women, race, class, and other issues — or doesn’t. The women on Push Girls are trying to send a message that you can have a disability and be sexy, which is great, BUT the version of sexy they show fits with all of society’s stereotypes: thin, femme, long hair, expensive clothes, high heels, etc. The bisexual relationship was great but not enough. The women on Push Girls represent a very small piece of our society. They barely touch on the strong link between disability and poverty and unemployment, and they don’t touch at all on the intersections of ableism and racism and other forms of marginalization. Yes, let’s think about privilege and ableism (though I don’t say able-bodied privilege because we’re talking about privilege based on not having any kind of disability, not just physical), but let’s not look to Push Girls for all the answers.

    Reply
  3. ladylikesailormouth

    Very good point! I actually had a similar conversation with someone yesterday in person about this and how the negative impacts of suggesting “acceptable” sexuality. The do follow a very hegemonic feminine ideal and it does imply those who do not follow those ideals are not meeting the expectations- which is not okay. Then I feel like I get in the gray area of yes visibility is increasing, but is it the right visibility? Is it enough? Is it versatile enough? All valuable questions.
    As a woman without a physical disability, I thoroughly appreciate your insight and would love to hear more of your opinions on the topic 🙂 I don’t have a lot of personal connection with the issue and have just become interested in it through academic pursuits but I think it is definitely something we need to make more visible in feminist discourse.

    Reply
    • Rose F

      As a woman with a disability, I find Push Girls problematic because the show claims to be about women who just “happen” to have disabilities while being all these other things (sexy, involved in relationships, involved in motherhood, glamorous, etc) but in point of fact “disability” is the defining element of the show, so while I applaud the show for it’s effort to break stereotypes, I still think it’s a far cry from fair or adequate representation of women with disabilities because it’s unintentionally highlighting disability instead of pushing integration and dispelling this idea that “disability” puts someone in a separate class.

      More problematic to me is that all four of these women have spinal cord injuries. The experiences of people living with acquired injuries are important. They should be discussed, and they should be represented in the media. There is a whole other portion of people who use wheelchairs whose experiences are vastly different.

      Reply
  4. ladylikesailormouth

    Thanks for your comment Rose!
    I see what you mean, and from your opinion I totally understand that is not a completely accurate or well- rounded representation. But then I grapple with the idea- what is worse: no visibility or visibility that is limited or not inclusive? I am still not sure how I would answer that.
    Also, that is such an interesting perspective I had never thought of in regard to what kind of injury it is. While all the women discuss their experience having a physical disability later in life, it does not give voice to those who were say born with a physical disability. Also, only one woman featured is a quadriplegic and that experience is drastically different than a paraplegic.

    Reply
    • Rose F

      Sorry that it took me so long to respond–I missed your comment somehow. Like I said before I think there are good things about Push Girls, and yes, there’s a valid argument that some representation is better than none. The problem is, when representation trades one set of stereotypes for another set, it’s not really changing anything for women OR people with disabilities. Push Girls is a show about four women who meet all of our society’s stereotypes for beauty –except that they happen to use wheelchairs– and it seems to spend a lot of time emphasizing sexuality. If they DIDN’T have disabilities, I’d expect a lot of feminists to be taking issue with the show on those grounds. Instead, these ladies get a free pass because they use wheelchairs.

      Reply
      • ladylikesailormouth

        That totally makes sense. Agreed- if we continue to present women and people with disabilities in a particular light- one crafted by patriarchy with hegemonic feminine beauty ideals- then it doesn’t leave much room for other identities to exist without being scrutinized.

        Reply
        • Rose F

          I think I’m going to reblog your post and link to the comments as part of a series I’m doing on disability awareness. I had a post planned about Push Girls, but really all the issues have been discussed by various comments on your post.

          Reply

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