Disabled women must be bold for change

Published Date

Today (8th March) is International Women’s Day 2017 and the theme this year is ‘Be Bold for Change’. In her blog, Michaela Hollywood, Trailblazers Campaigns Officer, argues why disabled women must be bold for change too.

As a young woman growing up in modern society, role models are important.  International Women’s Day aims to celebrate the achievements of women, and this year focuses on the female professionals, with this call to action:

Be bold for change, call on the masses or call on yourself to help forge a better working world, a more inclusive, gender equal world.

As a young disabled woman, I often despair at the forgotten inclusion of those of us who are disabled in the diversity conversation.

Just this past week alone, I have heard from three different people at different times that I don’t deserve to be paid the same wage as someone else doing equal work.  Why?  Because I am a woman, and I am disabled.

Polish right-wing politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke said in European Parliament last week that women are ‘smaller, weaker, less intelligent’ and should be paid less than their male counterparts.  As a young woman navigating the professional world, and even in my former life as an academic studying communication with a side of politics, I am left aghast that this is seen as acceptable still in 2017.  Some of the women I know work incredibly hard, and produce some fantastic results.  Surely they deserve to be paid in line with the work they do, and the skill that requires.

But then, at least he was proposing that they should be paid legally and never mentioned anything of putting women below the minimum wage.  Last week, Rosa Monckton said that people with learning disabilities should be allowed to work for less than the minimum wage.

I was already firing on all cylinders at the suggestion of women facing unequal pay for equal work, but to pay any disabled person under the minimum wage is beyond anything I thought I would hear again.  Back in 2011, Conservative MP Philip Davies told Parliament that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage during a debate on the Employment Opportunities Bill.

I’ve heard many things – but both of these arguments come back time and time again.  As a disabled woman, I should both be paid less than men, and less than the minimum wage.  And yes, the year is 2017.  It strikes me that we have achieved equality in many ways, but inclusion into ‘normal’ life is our next step.  Without societal inclusion, I as a disabled woman will continually have to defend myself – and others like me – from the backwards idea that my work is worth less than a non-disabled male’s work.

And knowing this, I think of the professional women I know have paved the way for me to have the privilege of living at home, getting into public buildings and securing paid work.

Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton and I have spinal muscular atrophy in common.  She came to earth a few decades before me, and was a significant part of the independent living movement in the UK in the mid-1990’s.  She also secured the right to have her personal assistant with her on the floor of the House of Lords, and have them speak for her if she was tiring from speaking.  These may, on the scale of it, sound like small victories, but they represent a shift in societal attitudes towards inclusion for us all.

Baroness Celia Thomas of Winchester is also a disabled woman, and I am continually in awe of her desire and energy to continue improving the situation of disabled people living in the UK today – and I know that with women like these, we can keep improving.

Looking across the ocean, Marlee Matlin, also like me, is deaf.  She remains the only deaf actress or actor to have received an Academy Award for her work on the big screen, and was runner-up in Celebrity Apprentice.  She is a steadfast activist for our community, and I hope that over time more high profile disabled people, and disabled women, will come to public light and help us continue that journey towards inclusion.

I am saddened that we are living in a world where our beneficial diversities are still treated as nuisance.  My disability may require some creative thinking, and as a woman I may well approach things differently than a man.  But I often think about how different we all are – it is those differences which balance us as a society.

Finding work which provides equal work for equal pay was not difficult for me, and I am ever so thankful to work in a team with two other strong, bold, young disabled women.  I don’t necessarily want to take over the world, but I am delighted to be part of it because of the work of other women before me.

I gladly accept their baton to continue the hard work of progression for us all.


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