End the blackout on women with disabilities

Opinion /  / 

File photo: Tracey Adams/African News Agency(ANA).

In August 1956 when over 20 000 women protested against the brutality of the apartheid regime they put their lives in danger to protest against the pass laws that restricted the movement of black people across the country.

This march also symbolised the assertion that women were willing to die by the same bullets that their male counterparts were being killed with.

This perverse statement arose from the lack of recognition given to women in the struggle for equal rights. 

The 1913 Women’s Anti-Pass Campaign in the Free State protested against the stringent enforcement of pass laws against women living and working in towns.

Women grew frustrated with their movements being controlled.

They collected thousands of signatures on petitions and marched through the streets of Bloemfontein to demand the abolition of this law.

As a symbol of defiance, they protested for two days by tearing up and burning their passes. By playing a visible role in the struggle for freedom and democracy, the women of 1913 and 1956 challenged long-standing traditions that women’s role was in the kitchen. 

Women such as Helen Joseph and Bertha Mashaba quietly worked to dismantle the apartheid regime during a time when women had even less rights than black males.

Countless women who fought against apartheid never made it into our history books or our lists of honourable mentions.

During Women’s Month, we pay tribute to all these women who fought tirelessly against the injustices of apartheid, while facing compounded oppression for being female. 

Today, women are recognised as equals before the law and State and continue to make a tremendous contribution to the growth of our country. Women are represented in all spheres of life and are recognised in the media as equal to men, being able to manoeuvre across previously male-dominated roles. 

Where we lag is in the representation of women with disabilities. 

Corporeal-linked tropes of womanhood and empowered women tend to exclude women with physical and mental disabilities. In attempts to respond to patriarchy, our projections of an empowered woman require that we put forward only full-bodied women, who do not display disabilities or physical or mental hardships of any sort. 

This often aggressive response to the patriarchy has resulted in the exclusion of women with disabilities. So much so, that on television, we find disabled character roles being taken up by able-bodied actors.

This substitution only serves the narrative that there ‘aren’t any disabled actors to fill the role.’ 

The exclusion of women with disabilities in everyday life results in representations of women in media and society that exclude the disabled woman trope.

You will struggle to find actors with disabilities playing leading roles on television, or representations of disabled mothers in parenting magazines, or a CEO that happens to have a walking impediment.

When a character portrayal of a person with a disability does appear, it is to reinforce the tropes of the disabled person who finds it hard to ‘fit in’ or to find love. You will struggle to find a hero who happens to have a disability, or heaven forbid, a woman with a disability who is also lesbian.

In reinforcing our rights as women, we have unknowingly pushed ableism as the only acceptable trope for womanhood, to the point to which there is a distinct lack of representation of variances on the female form.

We have failed to counter the narrative that a woman born without a leg is a lesser woman.

You will struggle to find representations of women with disabilities in women’s sexual health literature.

You will struggle to find women being open about their depression, anxiety and dissociative disorders. We have battled so long and so hard against patriarchy that we have forgotten to be inclusive when we are in control of the representations of ourselves. 

While South Africa has very progressive laws protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, as a society, we have not transformed our thinking to look past the disabilities of people, to consider just who they are as human beings.

As a country, we have some way to go in designing universally accessible environments, but once the ramp is installed, we cannot pat ourselves on the back! How do we transform our thinking to ensure that women with disabilities are represented outside of tiring stereotypes?

As a government, we continue to lobby for the rights of persons with disabilities. Government’s 2019-2024 Medium Term Strategic Framework will ensure that persons with disabilities are prioritised when it comes to employment and education.

Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa chaired a meeting of the Presidential Working Group on Disability that discussed ways to improve the lives of persons with disabilities. 

The Working Group on Disability, which was established in 2014 is responsible for championing and monitoring the work of government departments and society in advancing the interest of persons with disabilities.

Some of the proposed actions during the consultative meeting included local production of assistive devices for persons with disabilities; the development of early childhood development facilities for children with disabilities, and the need for change in societal attitudes to persons with albinism and the ending of violence – including murder – against people with albinism.

As we celebrate Women’s Month, we acknowledge that we have over the past 25 years made great advances to restore the dignity and improve the lives of persons with disabilities. However, the change that is needed is in the minds of people who continue to group persons with disabilities in a welfare basket. Like any other group, persons with disabilities are a diverse group with diverse interests. 

The full integration of women with disabilities into society will only enrich this country, and move us forward in our journey towards universal human rights. 

* Professor Mkhize is the Deputy Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities 

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.