Access by Various artists


Don’t tell me stories about the disabled women you know

by Wendi Wicks

By the time the third panellist responded to my question about inclusion –about concrete actions to include disabled women – with stories about the disabled women they knew, or knew about, I was getting ticked. Very ticked. It’s something that happens regularly if the matter of discussion is disabled women, and here it was again.

Now there’s always a back story, and when it comes to including disabled women in women, it’s a WAY BACK story. You’ll know that disabled people in general have problems getting a fair suck of the sav – like for forever. And for pretty much as long as that, disabled women have struggled to be acknowledged and included within the category "women". It’s easy to veer off into this, but enough to say I could elaborate on the record of this for an eye-watering length of time. Back story of being invisible, being pushed to the margins established, return to the panel.

It was a panel discussion for the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage; Whakatu Wahine. The panellists were women from government, academia, media, community organisations: in short, well connected and presumably knowledgable sorts.

I got to ask a question. Well aware of the back story, as a disabled woman well connected to my community’s stories, my thesis was about our stories aching from the responsibility  I asked my question: what would the panellists do in their respective arenas to further the inclusion of disabled women who haven’t been or don’t feel included?

I have the stories of these other disabled women in my head, in my mouth, and we have been here before. In the asking, I described a disabled woman having the utter affrontery to ask about what the accessibility of the events would be (she is more or less told to do it herself if she wants it). Her experience is our shared everyday experience. It’s about far more than individual stories, my question, but it’s grounded in the accumulation of our oh-so similar experiences.

As the panel responded I began to simmer. I was told stories about individual disabled women, and about what happened to them. I was told the story about disability history. Government agencies set up for women and their work were described. I was to be congratulatory that there is a NZ Sign language interpreter at the event. Access forsooth!

There was no media acknowledgment of the pioneering work of Helen MacConnachie and Diane Stogre-Power. I was to understand there is progress, that they understand us, that they are onside. One of the panellists acknowledged my implicit challenge but mostly there are the stories about somebody else. And how hard it all is for us.

I know how it goes down at these occasions, and knew no reasonable response could be expected. So I did not pursue matters – on the spot follow-up, the attempt to pursue enlightenment, inclusion, justice comes at a substantial cost to the soul. I have spent a lifetime being an educational artefact, with little notable gain it seems. I was too tired of the stress, so I bottled up the wrath and went home. When the video feed went up on Facebook, I posted some of what I did not say

I said that the response was greatly disappointing, that we had any number of really bad social indicators of poverty and exclusion, that we were expecting a better reception than we were getting  from the women’s community and that this certainly didn’t merit a response of stories and "look what we’ve done" responses. I said that we, the women of the "edges margins and rocky perches ... who are surviving in the rocky outposts" expected better from them than anecdotes of what they know of some of us.

I also pointed out we’ve been in there, crutches, dogs, wheels and all, to push for our needs and rights. We’ve also been in there marching, signing petitions, lobbying, writing submissions, advocating for women’s issues for forever.  Now was the time for all to mean all and not have our access, our inclusion tacked on at the last minute or be told to organise it ourselves. We want to see ourselves in there and visibly representing ourselves, writing chapters, making keynotes, being part of panels, having research or podcasts or exhibitions about us.

I wondered what response I’d get. It came in two varieties: a tooth-grindingly patronising response from the Ministry for Women, thanking me for the sincere and thoughtful feedback – they appreciated my raising the issues and creating a dialogue. They invited me to contact them directly to tell them specific ways in which they could address my concerns. They were at least fairly prompt.

Neither a soothing cuppa, nor retail therapy could really assuage the incandescence this "sod off sweetie" response incited. And it didn’t help that nobody else-nobody responded to the post. The women I called to who were online didn’t utter a peep, choosing instead to talk about how super it all was, and weren’t there some good points about prostitution. Not until a small coterie of sound allies weighed in after a day or so, did anyone else say a thing in solidarity.

Here’s the thing: the Whakatu Wahine situation began from a standpoint of exclusion. The response and the silences of no-response said as clearly as can be that there is still a vast gap. The gap is not just in the access to services, to supports, to being  there, to solidarity, to inclusion; the gap is also, in the attitudes that "other", exclude, that dismiss and disvalue.

It’s not just an about me story. Every disabled woman I’ve told this to (and the aforementioned sound allies) has felt angry as did I. We know what it meant. And we are angry. It is the anger of disabled women who are sick of being ignored, being othered. We are waiting, but not at all patiently now. Don’t tell us stories about disabled women you know, don’t tell us our history (we know, and we were most likely there). Time for us to be part of all. Now.

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