Including Women with Disabilities in the Feminist Agenda
Nasir Sulman, Ph.D
Department of Special Education
University of Karachi
People with disabilities face many obstacles in their struggle for equality. Although men and women with disabilities are subject to discrimination because of their disabilities, women with disabilities are at a further disadvantage because of the combined discrimination based on gender and discrimination based on disability.
In defining feminist pedagogy, theorist Linda Brinskin (1990) suggests three basic premises: she states first that, “Feminist pedagogy starts from the acknowledgement of women’s oppression and speaks to the gendered characters…” She then states, “…to develop a feminist pedagogy one must unravel the contradictions of women’s experience.” Lastly, she discusses power roles in student-teacher relationships. The process that feminist pedagogy must adopt has to be inclusive of both theory (teaching and research) and of practices in which we engage in our daily lives.
In addition to being ignored by those concerned with disability, women with disabilities have been ignored by the feminist movement. Feminists with disabilities have criticized feminist scholarship for excluding the experiences of women with disabilities from feminist analysis (Fine & Asch, 1988).
There are four major influences on pedagogical exclusion: 1) non-flexible requirements set up by programs, 2) the restrictive traditional methods of teaching, 3) exclusionary theoretical perspectives and 4) exclusionary instructional materials.
Disability studies and women studies are most often lacking in scholarship that informs us of theoretical and practical realities of and about women with disabilities. Specifically, the curricula lacks knowledge constructed from various disabled women’s positions. Such constructions must be subjective and varied since disablement (both body and social) is experienced differently by various groups. Areas of difference that breed imbalances in the construction of disablement, for example, include those between men and women (Morris, 1993); between those who become disabled at different stages of life; among those who have different political and philosophical positions; among those whose views or understandings of body politics differ; and between those who perceive their disabilities as illnesses or physical limitations, and those who hold more socially constructed /political understandings of their realities.
The few courses directly about women with disabilities, emerging primarily from women studies, provide only an overview of the complexity of disabled women’s realities. Either the research and instructional material used is not always a direct product of the lives of women with disabilities, or these materials focus on a “uni-view”—an often accepted dominant view about disability within women studies.
Feminist scholar Jenny Morris (1993) maintains that feminist research cannot add women with disabilities without proper analysis, just as women’s issues could not simply be added as subject matter in male-dominated scholarship. Feminist scholarship that simply adds disabled women to its existing curriculum or to its research as another element of diversity without proper context is, in effect, furthering (unintentional as it may be) the notion that women with disabilities are only an afterthought. This results in the omission of specific issues that concern women with disabilities in areas such as reproductive rights and violence against women.
Identifying Core Contradictions
Teaching exclusively about “impaired bodies” from rehabilitation and individualistic approaches is not what disability studies is about. Linton (1998) points out that disability studies adds a critical dimension to “pre-existing thinking about issues in civic and pedagogical culture.” A curriculum of disability studies would look at issues of disablement from social justice perspectives and encourage students to critique existing policies and practices and alternative scholarly perspectives and disciplines.
In philosophy, for example, the historical significance given to “normal” vs. “diversity” of bodies and minds is at the core of the oppression of women with disabilities and nondisabled women (Sampson, 2003). New scholarship in these areas can be the nexus in which women with disabilities and non-disabled women can find common ground.
Women studies scholarship informs us that the traditional style of teaching did not include, and often excluded, women’s learning patterns. By leaving out the daily experiences of women as housewives, mothers, etc., pedagogy often excluded women as learners and teachers. In the language of the social model of disability, these situations are problems of the individualistic approach, in which the individual must adapt to a ‘disabling environment’ (Oliver, 1996).
Other factors that impede inclusion are courses in which the techniques are entirely directed from a male-constructed knowledge of the world, a construction in which women and women’s contributions are rarely mentioned (Oakley, 1981). The program is designed with a social construct of non-disabled women in mind, or from a disabled-male perspective; very little is presented to students about the lives of disabled women. These factors can emerge only if gender analysis and teaching methods are implemented from alternative viewpoints.
We must look at the locus of the problem from different perspectives, analyzing variables such as the lives of women as mothers, victims/survivors in a non-egalitarian society and the imbalance of power from a sociopolitical perspective (Barnes, 2002). The challenge for any instructor is to find facts that will both inform and intrigue students, so that they can further expand theoretical knowledge.
Issues of Power
A more contentious point explored by Briskin (1988) regarding women in women studies is the issue of power. Briskin cites bell hooks with regards to the relationships between students and teachers and issues of power: “To have a revolutionary feminist pedagogy we must first focus on the teacher-student relationship and the issue of power. How do we as feminist teachers use power in a way that is not coercive, dominating? Many women have difficulty asserting power in the feminist classroom for the fear that to do so would be to exercise domination. Yet we must acknowledge that our role as teacher is a position of power over others. We can use that power in ways that diminish or in ways that enrich and it is this choice that should distinguish feminist pedagogy from ways of teaching that reinforces domination.”
Teachers with disabilities are, at this point in time, among the first generation; for them and their students, the challenge is to understand the disparity or “flip-side” of power. Disabled instructors may be, on the one hand, in a position of greater power within the classroom, and still perhaps in other areas of their lives be in positions of lesser “perceived power.” Still, such individuals have both the challenge and the privilege of grounding a new generation. In considering the flip-side of the power issue, teachers must acknowledge the historical positions assigned to disabled persons as ‘inferior,’ ‘having lives not worthy of living’.
Toward Pedagogy of Distinctive Feminist Standpoint on Disability
Feminist pedagogy can play an important role in the inclusion of disability epistemology. To do so, it must insert “theoretical curb-cuts” (elements of theory that identify and connect the social/political and personal ways in which lives of women with disabilities are similar and simultaneously different from each other and from those of non-disabled women) and physical and technological access (Barile & Michèle, 2000). At the planning stage of their courses, professors must incorporate methods and theories that are in-sync with feminist principles of equality, and must be inclusive of diverse styles of learning concerning that content.
Women’s life experiences differ depending on their positions within given social structures. In the case of women with disabilities, there is the experience of cumulative oppression constructed from two incongruent viewpoints. Subject matter for courses must include these social and practical ramifications of the reality of women with disabilities. For instance, it must address mothers with disability-specific issues that cannot be met by services as they are presently structured.
Feminist pedagogy must include specific voices of women with disabilities in all bodies that determine curricula for women studies and disability studies, both in teaching and in conducting research. One of the objectives of disability studies/women studies should be to dispel the notion that disabled people/women are objects and that actions are performed upon them. In the case of education, we must stop using people with disabilities exclusively as passive objects for learning. Educators, disabled or not, must include the perspectives of women and/or men who live the reality of disability using a variety of modes in the curriculum, not just in the form of videos in which students and teachers speak in abstract terms.
The participation of women with disabilities compels discussion in real terms; therefore, bringing in women with disabilities from various viewpoints on disabled living would be ideal. Bringing in non-disabled representatives is not the same as bringing in people with disabilities. These two distinctive standpoints—living with a disability and living/working with people with disabilities—produce two different perceptions of reality, each with merits of its own. It is necessary that questions of power between these two groups be addressed.
Disability studies and women studies have both the obligation and privilege of learning from the lives and experience of women with disabilities, and of including them as educators. Their participation would assist students, disabled or not, in critically questioning conventional knowledge about elements that have historically promoted oppression of persons with disabilities including disabling environments and policies along with the roles of the impaired bodies and language.
Women with disabilities have historically been neglected by those concerned with issues of disability as well as the feminist movement. It is only within the last decade that serious attempts have been made to identify and understand the forces shaping their lives. These attempts have mainly focused on understanding how being female and having a disability interacts and how women with disabilities view their experiences. This decade of writing has provided us with rich personal accounts as well as research-based information about the social situation of women with disabilities and a long awaited theoretical framework to understand and interpret their lives and experiences. This new and emerging scholarship is somewhat limited and much remains to be learned about women with disabilities. At the same time this scholarship provides the basis and the promise for future advances. Women with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in today’s society. We need to develop a better understanding of their lives in order to remove the obstacles that still remain in their way to equality.
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