(Copyright Rayna Lamb 2013, modified from a speech written in 2004)
An Open Letter to Ablebodied Women
One of the most difficult things to cope with as a person with a disability is the fact that many non-disabled people only see the disability when they look at you. As a result you unwittingly become public property. It is very common when you have a disability to be accosted in the street by complete strangers who demand to know “what is wrong with you”, and expect you to drop whatever you are doing to give them an answer. I’ve been asked – with no warning at all – such questions as “So, what have you done to yourself then?”, “How long have you been confined to that” – indicating my scooter, and “What’s wrong with you, you don’t look sick”. I’ve had a number of people come up to me over the years and tell me “Oh, I think you are so brave, if I was like you I would kill myself”. A very disturbing thing to hear when you are simply out and about minding your own business.
Women with disabilities are not seen and valued as women. The mainstream view of beauty does not allow for spastic or amputated limbs, scarred bodies or bodies that have limited movement. It doesn’t allow for slow or slurred speech. It doesn’t allow for anything but the most limited ideas of beauty – something that as we all know affects non-disabled women as well – but it can be very difficult when you have no chance of living up to even the broadest definition of normal. And we still live in a world where a woman’s value is often defined by her looks. It is still a fight for a woman with a disability to be seen as intelligent and capable of looking after herself and others. Our sexuality is denied, and many in the community and the medical profession still doubt our ability to have and to raise children. It is harder to form relationships and friendships – we are still seen by some people as burdens and incapable of giving and receiving affection and support. However, some women with disabilities do manage to have these things in their lives. Unfortunately too many of us are unable to take these opportunities for granted. This must change.
WWDWA Inc can provide us with an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate our various roles in life and our innate value as women, not despite our disabilities, but alongside them, and all the other aspects of our lives.
In the Monthly Forums we share our experiences and learn that we are not alone. We celebrate who we are and what we can achieve, we acknowledge the painful and difficult aspects of our lives.
What women with disabilities need from you, is the awareness and acknowledgment that we are truly valued and respected as women, standing alongside all other women. Please get past the stereotypes that society and the media perpetrate, stereotypes that paint us as weak, dependent, asexual, incompetent, unattractive, and drains on the economy. We are none of these things. Neither are we tragic heroines overcoming our disabilities, or particularly brave or inspirational. We are simply human beings, living our lives, as flawed and imperfect and as real as anyone else.
Work with us in challenging and shattering these myths and prejudices that can make our lives so difficult. Come along and help out at the forums. Get to know us, learn about our lives, see the things we have in common with you. Who knows, you may even make new friends and professional connections. Like any group of people there is a variety of experiences, opinions and personalities among us. We don’t always agree with each other, but we all deserve to be heard. Share what you learn about us with others, tell them that we are more than the sum of our disabilities, correct their misconceptions if you can.
I’m asking you to think about these things not just for our benefit, but also your own. Any of you could become disabled at some time, either through accident or disease, you may already have some form of invisible disability such as depression or joint or back problems. You may have family members or friends who are disabled. Wouldn’t it make life easier to know that having a disability is not a fate worse than death, to know that it is not something to fear, but something that can be lived with, and, with the support and knowledge of those of us who have gone before you, to know it is something that can be lived with well.