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IWD 2023: Building safe and inclusive spaces for women with disabilities

In the United Kingdom, approximately 14 million people, including 23% of all women, live with a disability [1]. In the fight for women’s rights, it is essential to include all women, as women with disabilities are often forgotten or not accounted for when discussions regarding gender arise. As well as larger gaps in pay and opportunity - women with disabilities earn 22.1% less than able-bodied men and 11.8% less than disabled men [2] - disabled women also face a heightened vulnerability to street harassment and sexual violence. This is evident through data unveiling that 61% of women with disabilities in the EU have faced sexual harassment [3] and that 50% of have experienced violence in their lifetime [4]. It is important to pay attention to the specific vulnerability faced by women with disabilities and take into account the intersecting issues disabled women experience relating to age, race and ethnicity, religion and income levels, which often result in socially isolating environments for these women.

Understanding disability

The medical model of disability previously focused solely on the physical and biological aspects of disability. This included a focus on how to “fix” a person’s disability, as well as developing special services for disabled people, completely separate from mainstream services used by non-disabled people [5]. However, sociologist and disabled academic Mike Oliver coined the term 'social model of disability' in 1983 to describe how many of the hurdles faced by people with disabilities don't arise from their specific disability, but rather from the social system in which we live, the barriers and restrictions that come with it and the lack of protective and accommodating measures put out to include disabled people [6]. This model focuses on the restrictions imposed by society on people with disabilities to encourage mainstream services to include disabled people, while not discouraging the use of medical help to reduce pain and improve quality of life [7]. The social model of disability has since been adopted by major health and international organisations, such as WHO [8] and UN [9], and is seen as a fair and adequate perception of the interactions between disability and society.

Women and disability

An intersectional lens

The United Nations’ 2012 report on the advancement of women tackles many of the obstacles faced by women with disabilities [10]. It also emphasises the importance of recognising the intersectionality of disabled women’s experiences and how the various social categories these women are integrated into influence the way they are treated and are able to navigate the world. Women with disabilities experience social stereotyping and negative attitudes relating to both their gender and their disability. In addition to the above described, women of colour with disabilities also face racial discrimination and stereotyping which can impact their access to certain services and opportunities. Research shows that indigenous women with disabilities in Myanmar were 89% less likely to receive at least four prenatal visits [11] and in the UK 49% of BME women with disabilities reported being verbally abused at work as well as 51% reporting being denied training and development opportunities [12]. Women with disabilities in low-income households are faced with yet another set of disadvantages, as data shows that 30% of households with at least one disabled member are below 60% of median income, compared to 18% of households without a disabled member [13]. The overlapping and interconnection of these identities makes all these women the target of discrimination at an individual and institutional level and highly vulnerable to many forms of violence. Although all disabled people are at a high risk of experiencing domestic violence, recent data provides an insight into how elevated that risk is for disabled women, as 1 in 2 women will experience some form of domestic violence during their lifetime, as well as a myriad of obstacles when it com