The Effect of Womanhood on Disability

Though the rights and treatment of people with disabilities has been getting better as time has gone on, there are still major problems to be fixed within our society. The same logic can be applied in the case of women, with both facing discrimination and abuse. Regardless of the way society has been progressing, the lives of both women and disabled people are affected in many ways due to oppression, with disabled women being made to deal with being persecuted because of both identities. Women with disabilities are, because of their woman hood, subject to another layer of ill treatment in ways that disabled men are not. The challenges that disabled women face due to their disability and being female are often overlooked, but are clear through examining the de-sexualization of disabled women, the beauty standard forced upon them, and the rampant abuse that many women with disabilities go through.

The experience of being woman and of being disabled are intertwined in many ways, full of different experiences gained from living in a sexist, ableist society. Though there are many different nuances for the two, the similarity is that “disability, like femaleness, is not a natural state of corporeal inferiority, inadequacy, excess, or a stroke of misfortune. Rather, disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body, similar to what we understand as the fictions of race and gender” (Garland-Thomson 259).  Womanhood has been compared to disability for centuries, with even Aristotle describing women as “mutilated males” and as “monstrosities” (260).  This comparison still continues now, with a 2001 study on stereotyping showing that housewives, disabled people, and blind people were judged as being similarly incompetent (260). These descriptions serve to show how society views both women and people with disabilities: as helpless, weak, and inadequate beings.

Though able bodied women are objectified, the opposite seems to happen with disabled women. Instead, disabled women are seen as asexual creatures, unable to feel love or lust towards anyone, and unable to receive love or lust from anyone. While “Cultural stereotypes imagine disabled women as asexual, unfit to reproduce, overly dependant, unattractive- as generally removed from the sphere of true womanhood and feminine beauty”, this means that, in order to feel and be a “real” woman, one must be objectified and beautiful at all times (266). 

This removal of femininity can even be seen with different Barbie dolls. The doll with a wheelchair, named Becky, features comfortable clothes, flat feet, and moveable joints, while her sister doll Barbie is stuck in ultra-feminine stereotypes (266). As Rosemarie Garland-Thompson describes, “The paradox of Barbie and Becky, of course, is that the ultra-femized Barbie is a target for sexual appropriation both by men and beauty practices while the disabled Becky escapes such sexual objectification at the potential cost of losing her sense of identity as a feminine sexual being” (266). This sexualization of abled women and de-sexualization of disabled women shows how being a woman and being objectified are equated, and how, in order to be sexual as a woman, one must allow herself to be seen as an object. Disabled women are then forced to hypersexualize themselves in order to be seen as even remotely sexual beings. For instance, parapalegic actress Ellen Stohl asked to appear in the magazine Playboy in order to show how disabled people have sexualities too. Had Stohl not been disabled, there would have been no need or want for her to pose for Playboy, meaning that “the performance of excessive female sexuality was necessary to counter the social interpretation that disability cancels out sexuality” (267).
Within a patriarchal society, feminine beauty standards are set, with all women being expected to follow them regardless of how they feel. The same goes for disabled women, however they have the additional burden of fitting an ableist society’s beauty standards as well. This creates an ideal for disabled women that is twice as hard to fit into, because they are not only expected to look and act within dictated feminine roles, they are also expected to look and act as though they do not have a disability. This is often done through surgeries forced onto disabled people from a young age, ones that, though they might have agreed to as a child, regret somewhat as adults. This phenomenon can be seen in poems like Sheila Black’s “What You Mourn” with lines like “The year they straightened my legs, / The young doctor said, meaning to be kind, / Now you will walk straight on your wedding day, but what he could not / imagine is how even on my wedding day / I would arch my back and wonder / about that body I had before I was changed” (Black, lines 1-7). Though these surgeries are often said to be done to make things easier for the disabled child, ignoring how “these procedures benefit not the affected individuals, but rather they expunge the kinds of corporeal human variations that contradict the ideologies the dominant order depends on to anchor truths it insists are unequivocally embedded into bodies” (264). The same phenomenon occurs with both abled and disabled women and plastic surgery. Advertised as helping women feel less insecure and more confident, it instead creates the beauty standard and reconstructs what it means to be ‘normal’. Cosmetic surgery or surgery to help disabled people fit norms they do not need to fix turns women into nothing more than things to be looked at, positing “female and disabled bodies, particularly, as not only spectacles to be looked at, but as pliable bodies to be shaped infinitely so as to conform to a set of standards called ‘normal’ and ‘beautiful’” (263).

The issues that disabled women face are more than skin deep, however. Though ableism pervades and is engrained in our culture in ways that are often unseen, the abuse of disabled people, specifically women, is something that is seen all too often. A study found that one out of ten women with disabilities had “experienced physical, sexual, or disability related violence within the past year” (Nosek and Hughes 229). Another study found that 62% of both disabled and non-disabled women had been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused at some point over their lives, however disabled women “experienced abuse at the hands of a greater number of perpetrators and for longer periods of time” than women without disabilities (229). While women with disabilities face abuse at around the same rate as non-disabled women, “they also experience disability-related vulnerabilities to abuse associated with reliance on others for access to assistive devices and medication and assistance with essential personal needs such as toileting and dressing” (229). The United Nations reports that over half of all women with disabilities have been physically abused at some point (del Río Ferres, Megias, and Expósito 67) and a report from the European Parliament states that “almost eighty percent of women with disabilities are victims of violence, and that they are four times more likely than other women to suffer from sexual violence” (67). 

The exploitation of women with disabilities is prevalent as well, in both industrialized and developing countries. In industrialized countries, data showed that “men with disabilities were almost twice as likely to be employed as women with disabilities, while women with disabilities in full-time jobs earned only 56 percent of what men with disabilities in full time jobs earned” (Emmett and Alant 447). The trend could explain why 33.8 percent of women with a work disability were living in poverty as compared to 24.2 percent of men (450). This lack of funds for women with disability starts from a young age as well, as 63.5 percent of children awarded Supplemental Security Income in the United States were boys while only 36.5 percent were girls (448). In developing countries, while the percentage of disabled girls is smaller than the percentage of disabled boys, researchers suggest that this could be because “girls and women with disabilities receive less care and support, and die earlier” (454). A study of three villages in India also found that the percentage of adult males with disabilities receiving treatment was between 53 and 56 percent, whereas for adult women with disabilities the percentages ranged from 11 percent to 39 percent (456).

The oppression and hardships that women with disabilities face is something that is often ignored but is clearly present. Through the de-sexualization and infantilization of disabled women, the harmful beauty ideals impressed upon every young girl, and even more so upon disabled girls, and the abuse and exploitation that is faced, it becomes clear that disabled women deal with challenges interwoven with both womanhood and disability. Even though the world seems to try to turn a blind eye to the struggles that women with disabilities face, things are still getting better, even if the progress is slow. On a grand scale there might not be much that one individual can do, however simply acknowledging the deep rooted prejudice and biases that fester within our society and working to undo and change things on a small scale is enough. 

“I pledge” – Bailey Merriman

Works Cited

del Río Ferres, Eva, et al. “Gender-Based Violence against Women with Visual and Physical Disabilities.” Psicothema, vol. 25, no. 1, Feb. 2013, pp. 67–72. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7334/psicothema2012.83.

Emmett, Tony, and Erna Alant. “Women and Disability: Exploring the Interface of Multiple Disadvantage.” Development Southern Africa, vol. 23, no. 4, Oct. 2006, pp. 445–460. EBSCOhost,

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” NWSA    Journal. 14. 3 (2002): 257-271. Print.

Nosek, Margaret A., and Rosemary B. Hughes. “Psychosocial Issues of Women with Physical Disabilities: The Continuing Gender Debate.” Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, vol. 46, no. 4, July 2003, p. 224. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/003435520304600403.

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