2. Identifying the Problem: A Call to Action

[5] Beginning in the 1980’s, there are repeated calls for a feminist examination of disability. According to Karen DePauw, “In much the same way that the women’s movement has been criticized, historically, as a white woman’s movement, the field of women’s studies has tended to reflect an able-bodied perspective, especially as perceived by women with disabilities.” (n3)  For those authors who are themselves disabled, the exclusion is often painful. As Jenny Morris describes it: “As a feminist I should have felt a sense of unity with other feminist researchers … as a disabled woman, however, I felt a deep sense of alienation from the nondisabled feminists …. And anger that there seemed to be an assumption that they were ‘on the same side’ as me.” (n4)
[6] Yet, perhaps ironically, the same authors identify feminist theory as a useful resource for theorizing about disability. As Susan Wendell explains, both feminist and disability scholars are interested in issues of sameness and difference, independence and dependence, and the relationship between power, knowledge and values, and both are critical of prevailing cultural attitudes toward the body. For DePauw, women studies will benefit greatly from the inclusion of disability sensitivity; “Exploring the intersection of gender and disability can work to disrupt and further complicate issues of exploitation and control of female bodies/identities.” (n5) Similarly, Morris argues that “feminism itself is the poorer for its failure to address the concerns of disabled women. Coming at it from another angle, I also believe that feminist theory and methodology has a major contribution to make to disability research.” (n6)
[7] Three other topics of interest to later feminist disability theorists also get their first consideration in this initial phase: the “double disadvantage” faced by women with disabilities, the problematic treatment of nonvisible and transitory disabilities, and the intersection of sexuality with disability. In “The Energy Crisis: Mothers with Chronic Illness,” Renee Lyons and L. Darlene Meade argue that disability studies, while attending to parenting of children with disabilities, rarely addresses the issues facing mothers who have disabilities. From interviews with eight mothers with multiple sclerosis (MS), certain patterns emerge. For the women, developing MS and parenting with its effects leads to job changes and losses, increased financial strain, changes in grooming habits and appearance, loss of social life, and increased loneliness. Their perceived inability to function at prior levels, in part due to disease and in part due to intensification of symptomology related to parenting stressors, further “exposed and exacerbated the salient issue of inequality … between men and women.” (n7)
[8] As Sherry Peters, Sharon Dale Stone and Jane Field point out, when disabilities are not, or not always, visible, women facing challenges of the type mentioned above may also find themselves excluded from the community and support provided by, and to, those with physical disabilities. (n8) As one woman with an invisible disability remarks, “When I go to a parking lot at a shopping center and I park in the disability [stall], I stand up, get out of the car and everybody gets dirty looks…because I’m young, what do I need a disability [stall] for?” (n9) And when the woman with a nonvisible disability is also a lesbian, the challenges are again compounded.  Just as lesbians are encouraged or tempted to stay in the closet, so, too, are women with disabilities encouraged to pass as able-bodied. The ability, and pressure, to pass intensifies when the disability is hard to see, and many of the articles published in the second phase of feminist disability studies further our appreciation of this dilemma.

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