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What is disability?

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HealthWiki > A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities > Chapter 1: Disability and the community > What is disability?

Many women with disabilities use the term "impairment" to refer to their individual limitations. These limitations may include blindness, deafness, conditions that make it difficult or impossible to walk or to speak, conditions that make it harder to understand or learn, and conditions that can cause seizures.

A woman with a disability may move, see, hear, or learn and understand differently from a woman without a disability. She may take care of the activities of daily living differently when she communicates, eats, bathes, dresses, gets up from lying down, and carries or feeds her baby. Adapting to her limitations is an ordinary part of her life.

a woman using sign language.
Our lower quality of life is not caused by our impairment, but by social realities. The solution does not lie inside our bodies.

Despite each woman's ability to find solutions to problems caused by her disability, she also faces social, physical, cultural and economic barriers that can stop her from getting health care, education, vocational training and employment.

Attitudes create barriers

Attitudes and wrong ideas about what a disabled woman can or cannot do can prevent a disabled woman from living a full and healthy life, or taking part in the life of her community. They add to her disability by creating barriers that can prevent her from getting education or work, and from having a social life.

a blind woman speaking.
Many women with disabilities are hidden away. We aren't included in community activities because other people think we are less useful and of less value than women without disabilities.

For example, a teacher may believe a girl cannot learn because she is blind or deaf. But a girl’s ability to see or hear is not the problem. A girl who is blind can learn by listening and using other senses such as smell and touch. She can learn even more if she has books in Braille or information on audio cassettes. And a girl who is deaf can learn when people use sign language and visual methods of teaching.

A woman who cannot walk may be capable of having a very good career and be able to earn money to support her family. But if her family or community are ashamed of the way she moves and want her to stay hidden, then it is their feelings of shame that will make her disabled.

All communities include people with impairments. That is normal. But it is not normal for a person to be discriminated against and excluded because she has an impairment. That is disabling!

We will deal with our disabilites, but only you can stop
causing the social discrimination we face.

a woman speaking while using a cart for mobility.
We may be disadvantaged by an impairment, but we are hurt more by the limitations imposed by attitudes and by social, cultural, economic, and environmental barriers to our participation in society.
a woman using sign language.
We make decisions about our own lives. We do not want to accept care or charity passively.

Disability is a natural part of life

There will always be some people born with impairments. And there will always be accidents and illnesses. But governments and communities can work to change the social causes of disability--the limitations imposed on people with disabilities by attitudes, and social, cultural, economic, and physical barriers to their participation in society. The physical and mental health of women with disabilities will improve when communities improve access, challenge prejudice, and create employment opportunities.

Women with disabilities show the way in Bangalore, India

In the southern Indian city of Bangalore, 4 young women with physical disabilities--Shahina, Noori, Devaki and Chandramma--make and fit other women with rehabilitation aids and appliances. They work at the Rehabilitation Aids Workshop by Women with Disabilities (RAWWD) which was started in 1997 by 8 women with disabilities who were trained by an NGO called Mobility India to make mobility aids.

WWD Ch1 Page 8-1.png

Although there were other facilities, until RAWWD started, only male technicians were available to measure and make the aids, and women with disabilities were hesitant to go to them. They were embarrassed to let men measure and fit them with appliances. Because of this, many women did not use the appliances which would have made them mobile.

RAWWD now makes a wide variety of rehabilitation aids for the ankles, feet and knees. These include crutches, walkers, shoes, belts, and braces, as well as prosthetics (artificial legs and feet).

As the women at RAWWD increased their confidence and skills, they began providing services to other organizations working for people with disabilities, and now also provide services to several hospitals and private doctors in Bangalore.

The women get the materials to make the aids, keep records of the clients, conduct regular follow-up visits, and manage their business. RAWWD also encourages other women with disabilities to become technicians and trains them to make and repair rehabilitation aids and appliances. This promotes equality for women with disabilities, especially women who have been abandoned by their families, and also provides them with a livelihood.

Resources and opportunities

a woman in a wheelchair speaking.
With more resources, we can be seen and heard and have control over our own health.

In many communities, women have fewer resources and opportunities than men. This inequality between men and women is also true among people with disabilities.

Wheelchairs, artificial limbs, sign language classes, Braille slates (which enable blind women to read) and other resources are often expensive and less available for disabled women than for disabled men. Without aids like these, girls and women with disabilities have a hard time getting education and doing things for themselves. As a result, they are less able to get jobs, to take control of their own lives, and to take an active part in the life of their

Physical barriers

Many women with disabilities cannot use community facilities, banks, or hospitals because most buildings have no ramps, handrails, elevators, or lifts. Physical barriers make it difficult for women with disabilities to move around by themselves. When women are stopped by these barriers, they are often unable to get good food, enough exercise, or the health care they need.

Many people, including health workers, may believe that if a woman who uses a wheelchair cannot get into a building because there are only stairs, then she must learn to wear leg braces, or use crutches, or have someone carry her. It is not her disability, but the physical barriers that make it impossible for her to get into the building. If there was a ramp so she could roll her wheelchair into the building, there would not be a problem.

a woman in a wheelchair speaking.
I am a mother with a physical disability, and I have a son who is also physically disabled. Every time we go to a restaurant or a supermarket or any other place, we have to be carried up and down the stairs. This attracts a lot of attention. It is really degrading and makes us feel less human.
two women with physical disabilities watching as women without disabilities get water from a pump.
Disabled women have a right to the removal of social and physical barriers.

The development workers come to the villages, they come with their projects. And they work with the women there, all the women there. And the disabled woman... she will be raising a family, too. They will put in the water projects that are not accessible to the disabled woman. And she will also want to draw the water. And they do not think about it at all.

— From a Zimbabwean
woman attending the 3rd
World Conference on Women
Nairobi, 1985