The Intersection of Disability and Feminism: Why Disability Rights Matter to Feminists Today

From an early age, equality was incredibly important to me and my sister. Like many sisters, having an equal say in arguments or sharing clothes is critical but for us, it went deeper. Looking up to my older sister and her friends, I would listen in on their conversations and learn the different challenges facing them compared to me and my friends. Having a sister with a disability highlighted structural societal inequalities around me from an early age. We were treated differently by peers and teachers and had different employment opportunities after graduating from similar universities. The awareness of both the feminist community and the disabled community showed me the similarities between the activism and challenges facing the communities. From reproductive care to inequal pay, women- disabled or able-bodied are facing insurmountable challenges in today’s world that mirror one another’s.  

Women in the United States today are facing a myriad of challenges politically and socially. These include 13 states banning abortion at different points in pregnancy, and many more bills to further restrict access are being considered by state legislatures.  The continuing gender-pay gap where in 2023 women are still being paid 77 cents to every dollar a man earns, and the discrimination or sexual harassment that 1 in 4 women will experience in their lifetime. These are just a few of the major social problems that a feminist agenda is addressing. 

With this, as an effort to inform and advocate for more feminist voices, I have gathered resources and identified allies in this field to broaden the focus of our advocacy efforts. Like many women today, women with disabilities are vulnerable to losing vital access to reproductive healthcare, face additional discrimination, and experience wage and employment challenges that require louder voices from the feminist community. 

With abortion care being restricted or banned in several states, access to reproductive health care is more difficult for every woman of childbearing age. For many women with a disability, pregnancy or the ability to access abortions can be a life-or-death situation. For many bodies with a disability, abortion is not a choice but the only option. A young woman from Arizona spoke on her experience and she stated, “If I were to ever get pregnant, and I had to give birth, I would die. There would be almost no doubt about it.”  In the female disabled community, which faces an annual 40% sexual assault rate, it is critical for contraception and abortion access to remain available for the community.  

Many instances of sexual harassment or assault go without being reported because of the nature of these assaults. Women who are disabled are on average three times more likely to be sexually assaulted due to several factors, beginning with the nature of the harassment. That harassment can spur from close relations from caretakers and family members intended to defend and protect the women. Many women are left without resources to speak out against their perpetrator in fear of losing care. Oftentimes, in or out of the workplace, persons with disabilities face higher rates of sexual abuse or harassment due to the sense of entitlement found within the able-bodied community. Many individuals with disabilities report being inappropriately touched by peers and higher-ups because they feel they have more of a right to touch them. The lack of representation within this area of harassment and abuse significantly contributes to the disabled community facing sexual abuse at twice the rate of the able-bodied community.  

As for many women, disabled or not, these problems are becoming harder to overcome because of restrictive reproductive health care laws. There are resources for both able and differently-abled individuals to obtain assistance and appropriate care. Organizations such as RAINN provide information and assistance for persons with disabilities who have experienced sexual assault. This organization has local chapters to assist individuals in each state to be informed about the law, has a 24/7 hotline, consulting and a national network of organizations focused on a variety of issues spanning from sexual abuse to reproductive access to assist individuals in any state. 

167 million women live in the United States, and of that number, 36 million have a disability. The disabled community have resources through federal and state policies, providing healthcare, Social Security benefits, and personal resources such as caretakers or personal assistants. Even if a person qualifies for government benefits, there is no denying that the disabled community is challenged when it comes to wage and employment discrimination as they are one of the groups with the highest poverty rates in the US.  

To support the disabled community financially, the federal government passed legislation in 2014 establishing that individuals who are disabled under 46 years of age can open an ABLE account allowing them to save, have funds infused, and direct deposits to these accounts of up to $100,000. These accounts can reach up to $100,000 without impacting the individual’s right to Social Security or Medicare resources. This policy is considered progressive but not perfect. Many in the disabled community recognize the flaws in the program. If an individual gets married, the ABLE accounts merge and the two individuals will lose benefits if the account exceeds $100,000, discouraging folks who are disabled from marriage. In many ways, this legislation has assisted the community in accruing wealth, but it has continued to limit the community from critical life experiences.  

Women with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to wage equality. In 2022, women who are disabled made 72 cents for every dollar paid to a man who is disabled. Compared to the non-disabled community, women with disabilities made 68 cents to every dollar earned to able-bodied men. If an individual from this community is seeking employment, the current hiring rate of women with disabilities between the ages of 16-64 stands at 37%. Throughout the employment process, women can face challenges ranging from organizational readiness and inclusivity to accessible employment processes and workplace inclusivity provisions.  

There are several organizations focused on fighting for gender equality for women in the disabled community focused on eliminating discrimination within social and political issues. Notably, Women Enabled International, led by Stephanie Ortoleva has directed national and global initiatives for the disabled female community through collaborative advocacy. Utilizing the voices of the disabled community, Women Enabled International is home to a modern era of feminism collecting the voices of advocates across the globe to empower and inform communities and leaders.  

To further inclusion efforts and merge the voices of the two communities, the following organizations have agendas and policies that will be critical to uplifting in the coming years.  

Genevieve Thompson, Government Relations Intern

Resources for Domestic Abuse and Violence: 

Resources for Inclusion Efforts  

Resources Supporting this Piece 

  • INSIDER, ‘I would die’: People with disabilities say abortion bans could have fatal consequences Story 
  • JDSUPRA, Wage Disparities & the Rippling Effect on Women with Disabilities, Story 
  • Begley Law Group P.C, Advantages and Disadvantages of ABLE Account Link 

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