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Women's Different Experiences

The Economics of Ability

Many of women's contributions do not fit well into traditional economic systems of measurement. But the contributions of one group of women are even less recognized than most. In a world where economic status is defined by how much money you have - and money is gained through work, and work is something you leave the house for and do for 40 hours a week at a steady pace - women who are living with disabilities often have a hard time fitting in.

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What is a disabilty? What is a disability?
There are many different definitions of disability. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities aims to indicate who are people with disabilities, rather than limit people by one definition:

The term “persons with disabilities” applies to all persons who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments that, in the face of various negative attitudes or physical obstacles, may prevent those persons from participating fully in society. However, this is not an exhaustive definition of those who may claim protection under the Convention; nor does this definition exclude broader categories of persons with disabilities found in national law, including persons with short-term disabilities or persons who had disabilities in the past.

A person with disabilities may be regarded as such in one society or setting, but not in another. In most parts of the world, there are deep and persistent negative stereotypes and prejudices against persons with certain conditions and differences. These attitudes determine who is considered to be a person with a disability and perpetuate the negative image of persons with disabilities. The language used to refer to persons with disabilities plays a significant role in creating and maintaining negative stereotypes. Terms such as “crippled” or “mentally retarded” are clearly derogative. Others, such as “wheelchair-bound,” emphasize the disability rather than the person. Historically, society has often failed to use the terms that persons with disabilities use to define themselves or has forced people to define themselves using terms with which they are uncomfortable.

The drafters of this Convention were clear that disability should be seen as the result of the interaction between a person and his/her environment, that disability is not something that resides in the individual as the result of some impairment. This Convention recognizes that disability is an evolving concept and that legislation may be adapted to reflect positive changes within society.

Thus, the preamble of the Convention is worded: “Recognizing that disability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others,"1 On March 11, 2010, Canada ratified the Convention.

For those of us whose lives have not been touched by disability, it is easy to think of disabilities as being the obvious ones: lack of sight, lack of hearing, lack of mobility (being in a wheelchair), and intellectual disabilities. But there are just as many 'invisible' disabilities as there are visible ones. These include mental and emotional illnesses and chronic illnesses such as chronic fatigue, epilepsy, AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, fibromyalgia, learning disabilities, environmental allergies, and others. Statistics say that 15% of Canadians will at one point in our lives be affected by a disability.2 Disability is not an isolated incident but a normal part of our lives.

Economic implications
In Canada 74% of women with disabilities are unemployed.3 As the Disabled Women's Network(DAWN) of Ontario sums up, "The most inescapable reality for women with disabilities is poverty." But it is not just unemployment that causes poverty. In Canada, the average employment income for a disabled woman is $8,360, well below Statistics Canada Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO).4 The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) reports that the poorest groups of disabled women are young women and older women. Of all women with disabilities living in a household (rather than an institution) who had any income at all, those aged 35-54 had the highest incomes: an average of $17,000. Women with disabilities under 35 had an average income of $13,000, and women with disabilities over 55 had an average income of under $14,000. As well, the more severe a woman's disability, the lower her income.5

Around the world, women with disabilities are the poorest sector of society; some estimates say that the unemployment rate for women with disabilities in developing countries is close to 100%.6 Such statistics point to an obvious flaw in our traditional economic structure. For it is clear that people with disabilities are often denied the opportunity to participate in the economy. Even when they are given opportunity to participate, their contributions are often undervalued.

Woman with disability with "helping" dogThe gender factor
While both men and women living with disabilities face the same kinds of discrimination and exclusion, the reality of disability is much starker in the lives of women. The average employment income of a disabled man is $19,250; in contrast, the average employment income for a disabled woman is $8,360.7 In terms of all kinds of income, women between the ages of 35-55 earn only 55% of what disabled men in the same age group earn.

Money aside, women with disabilities face other kinds of challenges. Men living with disabilities are more likely to ask for help for basic activities such as cooking and taking a bath whereas women are expected to take care of themselves and often others as well. Women with disabilities are expected to keep up the regular demands of women's unpaid work despite their disability. Since the work of cooking and cleaning and raising children and care-giving is not recognized in the first place, there is little assistance available. DAWN Ontario reports that, "Support and services for disabled mothers are almost totally inaccessible or do not exist." Verna lives with rheumatoid arthritis that leaves her exhausted and in pain much of the time. Verna has worked extremely hard throughout her life and raised six children basically on her own. Two of Verna's children had disabilities. But at the age of 64 Verna does not qualify for a pension because, "she never worked."

Draining the system
Often people living with disabilities are cited as being a drain on the system. When economy is seen as simply the acquisition of money rather than the movement of money through a community, people with disabilities are seen as only 'takers'. Apparently, they are a waste of the system.

But people with disabilities have a lot to say about how wasteful the system really is. Many women with chronic illnesses have spent immeasurable amounts of time and energy visiting so-called 'specialists' who are unable to help them and who often blame the sick person for her illness and for exaggerating and imagining the pain. These women point out gaps in a health care system that does not allow for the fact that a sick person probably knows her body the best and in many cases can act as the best resource. Audrey (see Audrey's story) who suffers from chronic fatigue disorder says, "They make big bucks off of us. They should be held accountable."

Diane (see Diane's story), who has fibromyalgia has written a poem about her experiences with medical professionals:

Give my regrets8

I'm having a party
of third parties
you see they keep coming
into my life
the physio the acupuncturist the herbalist
the GP too

it's called see my body
it's not quite right
pin your tail on the diagnosis

it's a formal affair
I'm usually dressed
in a paper gown
with a slit
in the back

no need to call ahead
just show up
with several others in tow
ready to give a second opinion

- 1999

Despite the statistics (or lack of statistics), people with disabilities make tremendous contributions to the economy. Although there are many barriers, many people with disabilities do work for pay. They also raise families and care for seniors as well as other people living with disabilities. And they contribute many hours of unpaid volunteer work such as advocacy and community service.

Disabled woman at workRestructuring work
But there are many things that need to change in order to give women living with disabilities a more equal chance to participate in the economy. First of all, work needs to be structured differently. Our current system rewards people who work full-time and penalizes people who work part-time. Marie works as a waitress. Her disability only allows her to work part-time. She enjoys her work but economically it's hardly worth it. The more she earns, the more is taken off her income assistance cheque. Instead of being rewarded for the accomplishment of working when she can, Marie is punished for not working hard enough.

Many women with disabilities, especially those with chronic illnesses, are unable to work every day but can't usually predict when they might have energy and when not. Instead of pushing themselves, they need to be incredibly attuned to their bodies and decide hour by hour what they need to do to care for themselves that day. However, society demands that we need to all go at the same pace all the time and that we either perform or produce in order to be recognized as contributing economically. To read the thoughts of a woman living with disabilities who started her own business, visit Robin's story.

Greater accessibility
Another change that is well overdue is the accessibility of workplaces, businesses, community gathering places, and service-providing organizations. While many businesses remain inaccessible to people with disabilities, more are opening up their doors all the time. At the Boeing Canada factory in Winnipeg, 24 out of the company's 1300 employees, are deaf or hearing-impaired.9 American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters are on-hand for five hours each day and hearing employees are encouraged to take the free ASL classes that are offered in order to better communicate with hearing-impaired co-workers. Hearing-impaired workers have made big contributions to this company.

Transportation services also need to be improved for people living with disabilities so that they have the freedom to participate in all aspects of life in our society. For example, in Winnipeg, a rider needs to book transportation with Handi Transit up to 48 hours before s/he plans to go out. And, depending on the priority of the trip, s/he may still not get the ride needed. People with disabilities need to be able to go shopping without restrictions and socialize when they wish, freedoms that many in our society take for granted. Changes in the transit system would help ensure that people with disabilities are able to participate in all levels and aspects of community life when and as they are able.

Another area where improved access is greatly needed is primary health care. In 2009 DAWN Manitoba submitted a document to the provincial women’s health review outlining the crisis. People have a difficult time finding general practitioners in Manitoba, however, women who have long term, chronic illnesses have an even harder time accessing care. Often buildings and examination rooms are not wheelchair accessible and examination tables impossible to get onto unassisted. As doctors bill the government by the patient instead of by the unit of time spent with patients, many doctors refuse to take on patients with complex health concerns or who may take extra time articulating their concerns. This often leaves people no choice but to rely on walk-in clinics or emergency wards rather than receive the very important continuity and quality of care from one practitioner – this is particularly difficult for women who are balancing several medications and conditions.

Progress in Manitoba
There has been some progress in Manitoba towards improving accessibility for people living with disabilities. In May 2001 the government released a White Paper on disability entitled Full Citizenship: A Manitoba Provincial Strategy on Disability. In 2009 they released a follow-up entitled Opening Doors: Manitoba’s Commitment to Persons with Disabilities.

In 2010 the Minister Responsible for Persons with Disabilities and the Minister of Healthy Living: Youth and Seniors welcomed input on a discussion paper designed to “encourage discussion on legislation that will move our province toward the goal of an inclusive society by eliminating the institutional and physical barriers faced by seniors and persons with disabilities.” The Discussion Paper for Made in Manitoba Accessibility Legislation proposes legislation that would offer:
  • clear, specific and achievable goals
  • accessibility standards for both the public and private sectors
  • persons with disabilities and other stakeholders, including business, play a central role in the development of legislation
  • guarantees contained by human rights codes are not undermined in any way
  • regular review of the progress made
They state that in 2009 “41% of all formal complaints Manitoba Human Rights Commission related to disability discrimination, making it the primary reason for complaint.”

For updates about the status of legislation, and to read the full documents named above, visit the Manitoba Disabilities Issues Office.

What can I do?
People with disabilities and people without disabilities can work together to make our world fully accepting and accessible. These are some of the things that we can do:

  • Keep ourselves informed of the things that people with disabilities experience every day. We need to recognize that disability is something that affects all of us, not only people living with disabilities.
  • Open up our communities. People without disabilities need to work towards including people with disabilities in all community activities. Next time you're organizing an event, be sure to invite people with disabilities to participate in the event and in its planning. People with disabilities need to reach beyond their communities too and tell their stories not only to themselves but to all of us.
  • Ask questions. If we have questions about disability and people living with disabilities, we need to ask them! We can't assume that we understand simply by observing from a distance because in most cases we don't. By asking instead of assuming we are educating ourselves and allowing people to speak for themselves.
  • Lobby our governments to improve the lives of people living with disabilities. In Manitoba, write to the Minister Responsible for Persons with Disabilities and ask her/him what s/he is doing to improve the lives of persons with disabilities.
  • Work together. There are many groups that we can join in order to advocate for the rights of people living with disabilities. By working together, we can make change.
To find out more
Click here for a list of Manitoba organizations that can help answer your questions about disability and give you ideas on how you can work for change.

Special thanks to some very special people at the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities for their input into this article. Thanks to Justine, Emily, Marlene, Audrey, Verna, Diane, Aynslie, Linda, and Marie.

Photos courtesy of the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities.

1 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Also text from UN enable website “The Convention at a Glance.” Downloaded December 22, 2010. .
2 Thanks to April at the Council of Canadians with Disabilities for providing this statistic.
3 DAWN Ontario. Fact Shee on Women and Disability. Available here. Downloaded February 25, 2002.
4 DAWN Ontario with information from Statistics Canada. Health and Activity Limitation Survey.
5 Marika Morris. "Women in Poverty: A Fact Sheet." Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW). Updated March 2002. Available here.
6 DAWN Ontario. Fact Sheet on Woman and Disability. Available here. Downloaded February 25, 2002.
7 DAWN Ontario with information from Statistics Canada. Health and Activity Limitation Survey.
8 Diane Driedger. "Give my regrets." The Mennonite Madonna. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: gynergy books, 1999. Reprinted by permission of gynergy books. Canadian Scholars' Press Inc.
9 Liz Katynski. "Company welcomes hearing-impaired workers." Community Review. The Winnipeg Free Press. February 20, 2002.

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