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National NOW Times >> Winter 2003/2004 >> Article

Forum Inspires Women's Rights and Disability Rights Supporters to Work Together

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

Just four of the weekend's fabulous speakers, clockwise from top left: Marca Bristo, Kathy Martinez, Karen Thompson, Purna Shova Chitrakar.
Just four of the weekend's fabulous speakers, clockwise from top left: Marca Bristo, Kathy Martinez, Karen Thompson, Purna Shova Chitrakar.
"Utterly fantastic!" exclaimed Linda L. Royster, executive director of the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington.

"Thank you for organizing such a powerful conference ... I was energized by the wonderful women (and men) present and all the work being done by disability activists and allies," wrote Kathy McMahon-Klosterman of Miami University.

The common concerns of the women's rights and disability rights movements converged at the "Women with Disabilities and Allies Forum: Linking Arms for Equality and Justice for All" in Bethesda, Md., Oct.17-19, 2003. The forum, the first of its kind, was organized jointly by the NOW Foundation and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).

The weekend was an enlightening and inspiring experience for both long-time and new activists. Women with and without disabilities found that their shared interests ran deep and that together they could lift each other higher.

Politics and Leadership

NOW Foundation President Kim Gandy and AAPD President and CEO Andrew Imparato welcomed guests from around the country who came to address the serious issues on the agenda—political action, civil rights, health care, reproductive rights, economic empowerment, violence against women and much more.

The Saturday lunch panel—facilitated by Harilyn Rousso, executive director of Disabilities Unlimited Consulting Services and a member of NOW's national Disability Rights Committee—featured emerging leaders in both movements. Eight diverse young women addressed the crowd, offering ideas for how the two groups can work in concert to end discrimination. "Poverty and paternalism" were highlighted as two factors that hold back both women and people with disabilities in our society.

Ann Cody, vice president of consulting firm B&D Sagamore and a three-time Paralympian in track and field spoke about the importance of Title IX for young women and the value of athletics for women with disabilities. Olga Vives, NOW Foundation Vice President-Education, spoke about the danger of George W. Bush's nominees to the federal courts—right-wing ideologues who pose a genuine threat to women and people with disabilities. Following Vives was AAPD's Vice President for Governmental Affairs, James Dickson, who spoke about voting rights and access for all to that important tool of political empowerment.

While addressing the future of civil rights, keynote speaker Marca Bristo, the president and CEO of Access Living, shared her story. Bristo told the crowd how her early career of nursing was turned upside down when she became paralyzed at the age of 23, and how she had to look beyond the "medical model," which focuses on what's wrong with individuals with disabilities, in order to see how society itself might be improved to allow full participation by all people.

Stephanie Ortoleva and Joanne Tosti-Vasey, Co-Chairs of NOW's national Disability Rights Committee, helped bring together the dynamic speakers and workshop presenters, and put many hours into ensuring an excellent event. Tosti-Vasey read a letter from Senator Ted Kennedy (who was invited but unable to attend) in which Kennedy promised to continue working for legislation designed to build a more accessible world.

Economic Impact Hinders Women

Feminist advocates have long known that women cannot be equal until they achieve economic security, and the degree to which women with disabilities suffer from poverty, unemployment and job discrimination is extremely high.

Kathy Martinez, deputy director of the World Institute on Disability and also a member of NOW's committee, gave a rousing speech on economic issues entitled "Let's Get Off Our Assets!"

A powerful advocate for disability rights, Martinez represents an important ally for feminists working toward economic justice for all. Throughout the weekend, women formed alliances, networked and shared information, guaranteeing that their individual struggles for independence would not continue alone.

Karen Thompson, president of the Home Care Chapter (Local 99) of Service Employees International Union, Local 503 in Oregon, gave an energetic speech about organizing home health care workers. The story of her unexpected rise from home care worker to national speaker, all the while recovering from breast and ovarian cancer, was particularly stirring.

As Thompson looked out on the crowd she said, "I don't see your disabilities; I see all of your strengths and abilities."

Health and Safety Issues

Health-related issues were covered by three strong speakers: Claudia Center of the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center; Jan Erickson, NOW's Government Relations Director; and Laurie Young, Executive Director of the Older Women's League. All three agreed that universal health care was the only solution for the U.S. Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to inadequate medical treatment, while disabilities themselves can arise or worsen from a lack of health care.

Erickson highlighted NOW Foundation's work on women’s health issues, noting NOW’s work on breast implants and that week’s disappointing decision by the Food and Drug Administration's advisory panel to recommend that silicone breast implants be returned to the general market, despite serious concerns about their long-term safety.

The final session focused on violence against women. Purna Shova Chitrakar, coordinator of the Ban Landmines Campaign Nepal, traveled halfway around the globe to attend the forum and inform attendees about the dangers women face in her war-ravaged country.

Beverly Frantz, of the National Academy for Equal Justice for People with Developmental Disabilities at Temple University, and Pat Reuss, policy analyst for the NOW Foundation, discussed the added hardships women with disabilities face when experiencing violence.

Reuss shared the heartbreaking details of the degree to which women with disabilities suffer from domestic violence and sexual assault, and how difficult it can be to protect themselves or remove themselves from a dangerous situation.

And what happens to the woman who does leave an abusive situation at home and seeks help at a shelter? Frantz had evaluated women's shelters in Pennsylvania, and offered the sad news that many shelters are simply not accessible to women with disabilities.

Reuss suggested that violence against women could be ended if more men—particularly well-known men, such as sports figures—would exert peer pressure on their own sex to treat women with respect.

At the top of the list of solutions for all of the problems discussed over the weekend were: education, organizing, speaking out and voting.

Some Fun, Too!

One of the most moving moments of the weekend was the Sunday performance of "Love is a Disability" by the ensemble group Wings! The group is comprised of 13 performers, the majority of whom have physical or developmental disabilities. The Wings! group sang, danced and acted out sketches about the ups and downs of love.

Wendy Hilsen-Bernard, a feminist therapist and yoga instructor, led yoga sessions during the weekend and closed the final session by drumming and persuading the audience to sing along with her. The unity expressed in those closing moments reflected the strong bonds that were forged throughout the forum and the commitment to continue working together.

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