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An Enabling World: A Distant Dream?

Updated: Dec 23, 2021


This paper explores the contemporary theme of women and disabilities, and mulls over the obstacles persons with disabilities face, such as discrimination, lack of medical infrastructure, and the twin questions of accessibility and affordability. The paper starts with a discussion on the distinctions between impairment and disability, and draws ideas from the Feminist Theory of Disability in order to discuss the issues and challenges faced by the community. It finally comes to a conclusion with insights about how we can strive to create a more egalitarian world. The methodology followed is a thorough review of available literature, and the recommendations have been drawn based on analysis of the literature in question.

Keywords: women, persons with disabilities, disability, impairment

Imagine being a woman in a developing nation – you comprise of the 50% of the world’s population, yet you are at a twin disadvantage – one, because you are a woman, and second, because of the decreased capacities. On this account, disabled women have to face triple disadvantage, including one on the occasion of the physical, or mental impairment they battle.

World Health Organisation’s reports suggest that 16% of women folk worldwide are disabled. About 15% of the world's population lives with some form of impairment, of whom 2-4% experience significant difficulties in functioning. The global disability prevalence is higher than previous WHO estimates, which date from the 1970s and suggested a figure of around 10%. [1]

This article seeks to explore the world, as navigated by disabled women, and aims to delve deeper into the multifaceted issues and challenges they face. It also discusses the nuances of the feminist theory of disability, and dissects its current prevalence in the society, before coming to a conclusion with certain policy recommendations and suggestions that should be implemented by the ableist society for a more egalitarian world.

Disability and Impairment: Discrete or Alike?

While engaging in any discourse about disability, we often times tend to forget to make a fundamental distinction, that is, between the concepts of disability and impairment. While the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), in relation to disability, states that “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” [2] Impairment, as defined by the British Council of Disabled People (1998) and as defined by the United Kingdom Equality Act (2010) is a characteristic, feature or attribute within an individual which is long term and may or may not be the result of disease or injury and may affect the functioning, appearance, consciousness or communication of the said individual. [3] Disability is not biological consequence ; like gender, it is socially constructed from biological reality. This brings us to the essential conclusion that disabled people are those people with impairments who are marginalized by societal injustices.

Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. Today’s society is largely ableist, where increased emphasis is placed on defining people by their disability. T he root assumption is that people with disabilities need ‘fixing’. The ableist society, through microaggressions and open discrimination, causes hindrances to the participation and complete integration of people with impairments in the functioning society. Equating an impairment, with a lack of ability is extremely unjust, and reveals the underlying inequity and partisanship prevailing in a society.

While excessive emphasis is placed on the creation of an egalitarian society, we must understand that an egalitarian society may not result in complete elimination of all inequalities, given the wide range of individual differences, and varied societal contexts that exist. Therefore, the need of the hour is to foster the creation of an enabling, empowering society, which is all-inclusive and all-encompassing. Once the difference between disability and impairment is established, understanding the further challenges faced by the community becomes more nuanced and comprehensive.

Issues and Challenges

Disabled women, across the world, are at a triple disadvantage, due to their sex assigned at birth, economic status and the physical or mental impairment they have. They are socially excluded, and comprise of a marginalized section of the society. There are several issues and challenges they have to face on a daily basis, which encompass, but are not limited to medical challenges, lack of access to educational institutions and places of work, mental and emotional challenges, economic hurdles, instances of sexual assault and other gender-based violence acts, social problems, issues arising due to culture and traditions, and the problem of due representation across various forums and platforms. These issues arise out of the microaggressions, that are, statement(s), action(s), or incident(s) regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group, or the open discrimination that they are subjected to by the society. The community of disabled women is under-served by the authorities and the citizens alike. A discussion of the issues and challenges faced by them may not be enough, concrete policies for their empowerment must be implemented.

Medical challenges refer to the gaps in the healthcare infrastructure, and the hurdles posed by the existing system, which act as barriers for accessing proper and adequate health care. There is a huge lack of information and knowledge about treatment plans and an equally appalling dearth of healthcare workers working in the disability sectors. Lack of access to early childcare and timely treatment may cause further health deterioration. In the rare cases where women are able to access the requisite healthcare, exorbitantly high costs, inaccessibility of transportation and equipment and lack of insurance coverage deter them from seeking treatment. Disabled women in developing nations are almost denied the essential right to access healthcare due to lack of resources, resulting in serious complications and in some cases, death. According to a research study by BioMed Central Women’s Health that women with disabilities faced different sociocultural (erroneous assumptions, negative attitudes, being ignored, being judged, violence, abuse, insult, impoliteness, and low health literacy), financial (poverty, unemployment, high transportation costs) and structural (lack of insurance coverage, inaccessible equipment and transportation facilities, lack of knowledge, lack of information, lack of transparency, and communicative problems) factors which impacted their access to healthcare. [4]

The societal discrimination faced by the community is brutal; there is inequality of access to educational institutions, due to which they are unable to seek elementary education, which is deemed to be a fundamental right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). If they gain access to primary education, then participation in higher education is barred due to the various challenges that arise such as expensive tuition, lack of accessible campuses, lack of special faculty, and gaps in infrastructure and curricula. There are several cases where women with disabilities are denied admission in schools or in specialized courses at colleges because the campus in inadequately equipped to handle their needs. Women with disabilities also face discrimination from their families. They face hostility, apathy and are at times, left alone to fend for themselves. Lack of awareness and societal norms and constructs of how only able-bodied people can make a difference to the world, contribute largely to indiscriminate oppressions that these women face. All of these issues cause extreme mental agony and emotional distress. Inability to gain access to psychological counselling or therapy further causes deterioration of their health.

The economic peril that they have to undergo arises because of inadequate skill development programs, lack of access to workplaces, wage inequality, lack of governmental support, lack of protective policies like healthcare insurance, minimum wage dissemination, improper coverage of labour laws; the list is nearly endless. Skill-building and vocational training programs are nearly negligible in terms of their availability and affordability. As women are less equipped with required skills and education, gaining paid work opportunities becomes extremely difficult. Even if they are employed, work conditions are pathetic and the lack of protective policies makes it worse. This puts them in an extremely vulnerable position as they may face lack of food, water and basic necessities. This is also an infringement of the right to live with dignity, and the right to have access to gainful employment. In the cases of withdrawal of family support, women are pushed on to the streets, where they have to encounter several dangers. Financial assistance is scarce, and in the absence of governmental action, the stakes are very high.

Available data shows that there is a higher rate of violence against women with disabilities than against men with disabilities. Research also demonstrates that the incidence of maltreatment and abuse of women with disabilities far exceeds that of women without disabilities. In many cases, perpetrators of violence are caregivers, either at home or in institutional settings, and females with disabilities often find themselves trapped by violent partners or family members because they are financially and socially dependent on them for survival. [5] Instances of sexual assault, rape, female genital mutilation against women of disability is unacceptable. The lack of legal assistance along with hassling delayed proceedings of the judiciary deter women from seeking justice. Hence, provision of financial, social and legal support to the community should be a priority of the authorities.

The question of representation and political power is one to dwell on. The representation of women itself in decision making and public life, is a contentious topic. Added to this is the harrowing under-representation of women with disabilities in the public sphere. Even though most nations today claim to be democracies and value equal representation of all sections of the society, there seems to be no mechanism in place to ensure the participation of the community in matters of the state. Not even one percent of the disabled population is able to gain effective representation in the public sphere. This political discrimination is at the root of all challenges that arise be it social, economic, or cultural. The above discussion clearly highlights that all issues and challenges that arise are intricately intertwined and have interlinkages, hence resolution of all issues would only lead us to the path of empowerment. This would only be possible with the adoption of the feminist theory of disability, as the guiding principle during the policy making process.

Feminist Theory of Disability: Guiding Principles for an Enabling Society

Feminist philosophy, with its methodological reluctance to adopt philosophy's traditional presuppositions without scrutiny initially was the most prominent area within the discipline where disability is taken to be a serious subject for philosophical investigation. According philosophical significance to the state of being disabled is one of the innovations feminist theory has introduced into philosophy. Further elaborating on affinities between feminist philosophy, which is aimed at expanding philosophical inquiry so that it adequately addresses women and their perspectives, and philosophical work with similar aspirations in regard to people with disabilities. [6]

Feminism and Disability Studies converge in Feminist Disability Studies. Just as Women’s Studies expands the lexicon of what we imagine as womanly and seeks to understand and destigmatize the identity “woman,” so has Disability Studies examined the identity “disability” in the service of integrating disabled people more fully into our society. This branch of feminist theory interprets disability as a cultural rather than an individual or medical issue and insists on examining power relations rather than assigning deviance when analyzing cultural representations of oppressed groups. Increased emphasis is placed on changing public policy and addressing the issues of representation. The branch also seeks to augment and correct traditional feminism, which sometimes ignores, misrepresents, or conflicts with the concerns of women with disabilities. For example, disabled women must sometimes defend against the assessment of their bodies as unfit for motherhood or of themselves as childlike objects who occasion other people’s virtue. Whereas motherhood is often seen as compulsory for women and therefore potentially oppressive, the opposite is true for disabled women, who are denied or discouraged from this reproductive role. More problematic still, the pro-choice rationale for abortion rights seldom questions the assumption that “defective” foetuses, destined to become disabled people, should be eliminated.

We must also establish that feminist disability studies is an evolving branch, and that there are several other factors, and experiences that will be inculcated in the due course of time. However, that does not negate the importance of this branch arising from feminist philosophy; it must be read, discussed and understood by authorities and citizens all across the world.

Conclusion: Way Ahead: Towards a more egalitarian society

Discussion of a problem must always be accompanied with effective solutions; while we have a long, long way to go in terms of paving the path for an enabling, empowering societal context, there are certain recommendations, which, if implemented can make a difference, albeit small. First and foremost, awareness about the challenges faced by the community should be generated. Young population should be made to understand how their ableist outlook of the world, is detrimental and aids in the marginalization of certain communities. Second, the issue of political representation must be addressed, and with immediate urgency. This can only be done through effective policy making, by inclusion of members of the community in ideation and execution of policies. This will also enhance their participation in the public sphere. Provision of adequate legal, financial and medical support should be prioritized. Judicial mechanisms should evolve in such a manner that justice is denied to none; all stakeholders must pay cautious attention to the nature of crime and the impact it has on the survivor. All these changes will only prove to be effective if they are guided by the principles laid down in the ever-evolving, all-encompassing feminist theory of disability.


  1. WHO. (n.d.). World Report on Disability. World Health Organization.'s,a%20figure%20of%20around%2010%25.

  2. United Nations. (2006). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Enable. United Nations.

  3. Government, U. K. (2015). Equality Act 2010.

  4. Matin, B. K., Williamson, H. J., Karyani, A. K., Rezaei, S., Soofi, M., & Soltani, S. (2021, January 30). Barriers in access to healthcare for women with disabilities: a systematic review in qualitative studies. BMC Women's Health.

  5. United Nations (UN). (2019). Fact Sheet: Violence against Women and Girls with Disabilities. United Nations Women. Published.

  6. Feminist Perspectives on Disability (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). (2013, August 29). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  7. Staniszewski, M. A. (2010). Mary Anne Staniszewski. Review of “Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum” by Richard Sandell, Jocelyn Dodd, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Caa.Reviews. Published.

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