Today is International Women’s Day (IWD). Since the first IWD in 1911, this date has been devoted to celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It has also been a reminder of the work still to be done in achieving gender equality.

Likewise, living with a disability is difficult. Not because of disability itself, but because of the way our society is structured. Navigating a world that was not built with you in mind is guaranteed to be challenging. Discrimination, exclusion and segregation, disproportionately high rates of poverty and victimization are the product of the widespread devaluation of people with disabilities.   

Identifying as a woman in today’s political and social reality is not easy. Women continue to be denied education, overlooked and undercompensated for employment, sexually exploited, abused, and deprived of their sexual health and reproductive rights. These are not inherent features of being female, but a result of the way society views women.

So what does this mean for someone who is both a woman and a person with a disability? What if you’re also gay, transgender, indigenous or part of a racialized group? Being part of multiple marginalized groups, sometimes referred to as double discrimination, often means even more barriers. Individuals with disabilities who are faced with these barriers and “succeed” despite them, are often portrayed as heroes, superhuman people to be admired. The exception to the rule.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we want to offer a different perspective. An estimated one in five Canadians (or 6.2 million people) aged 15 years and over have a disability, and at least 53% of these people are women. We want to celebrate women with disabilities as regular women. Women who are often faced with barriers that are unfair. Women with strength, determination and passion.

As a national family-based organization, we work alongside these women and their allies every day. Consider these scenarios:

  • A teenage girl with an intellectual disability is participating in her high school’s mainstream health and sex education curriculum. Some people think she would be better off in a “special” class or that information about healthcare and sexuality is irrelevant for people with a disability.   

Health care providers often do not support women with disabilities to seek preventative care, focusing instead on the medicalization of disability and not on the health conditions they face as women. Women with disabilities are less likely than women without disabilities to receive pelvic and mammogram exams on a regular basis and are therefore at a higher risk for delayed diagnosis of breast and cervical cancer.

  • A mother with an intellectual disability is working with a lawyer to maintain custody of her child. Her ability to parent is being questioned because of her disability.

Up until as late as the mid-1970s, thousands of women with intellectual and other disabilities were sterilized involuntarily in Canada under the British Columbia and Alberta Sexual Sterilization Acts.

People with an intellectual disability make up somewhere between 1-3% of the overall Canadian population, however parents with an intellectual disability are disproportionately represented within the child protection system. More than 1 in 10 child maltreatment investigations opened in Canada in 2003 involved children of parents with cognitive impairments.

Article 23 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guarantees people with disabilities the right to family life, requires access to appropriate supports to raise children, and prohibits that a child be separated from their parent based on disability.

  • A young woman with an intellectual disability reports her experience with sexual assault to police, despite the risk that she may not be believed.

Women with disabilities are four times as likely to be victims of violence than non-disabled women, while women with multiple disabilities experience even higher rates of violence. Across Canada, few sexual assault crisis centres or transition houses are accessible to women with disabilities.

  • A woman with an intellectual disability expresses her desire to have choice and control over where she lives. Some professionals believe she isn’t capable of decision-making because of her disability.

A disproportionate number of women with disabilities live in congregate care living arrangements such as group homes or institutions, where they experience high stress factors and are at a higher risk of infections.

  • The mother of a child with an intellectual disability is advocating for additional government-funded supports for her daughter so she can remain in the workforce.

Mothers of children with intellectual disabilities are over-represented in unemployment and underemployment statistics due to being unable to work or needing to limit employment to stay home to support the needs of their child. 

These are only a few examples of the ways that women with disabilities and their allies stand up to the inequality that exists in our communities. They are everyday women. While we’re grateful for their commitment and resolve, it shouldn’t be their responsibility to overcome these barriers. These barriers are preventable.

When we reflect on the scenarios above, it’s striking how each is inextricably linked to the way we value people. Whether or not someone belongs, whether their voice is heard, their opinion valued, or their choice respected, all ties back to whether we value that individual on an equal basis with others.

We live in a society that places value of the social roles we hold, the image we portray and the economic contributions we make. We have some wonderful Canadian examples of women with disabilities succeeding in government, politics, business, sports, communications and arts. We want to celebrate them, while also highlighting that they are not worthy of respect because of their achievements or their ability to “fit into society” despite their difference. Women with disabilities have inherent value as people, just for being themselves. That one key belief holds the power to dramatically shift the way we treat others, the types of policies we create and the kind of society we build.