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Vicky Mochama: To advocate successfully, we must advocate specifically

As federal policy is being crafted right now around accessibility, there is one group I’d like to highlight: women with disabilities.

Disability and anti-racism advocate Sarah Jama wants to see a federal accessibility policy that addresses the disproportionate level of sexual assault faced by women with disabilities.

Cathie Coward / Metroland Media

Disability and anti-racism advocate Sarah Jama wants to see a federal accessibility policy that addresses the disproportionate level of sexual assault faced by women with disabilities.

Women everywhere are facing incredible, though not insurmountable, challenges. It was apparent at the Women’s March this year and last year. And in how the #MeToo movement has spotlighted a pervasive culture of harassment and sexual abuse.

As federal policy is being crafted right now around accessibility, there is one group I’d like to highlight.

Women with disabilities have long struggled against a culture that sees them as less human. When it comes to sexual assault, women with disabilities face a substantial and often under-discussed risk. According to Statistics Canada, the rate of sexual assault among those with a disability was approximately two times higher than those without one. For people with an intellectual or cognitive disability, that risk is five times as much.

Sarah Jama, a disability justice and anti-racism advocate from Hamilton, Ont., says to combat this we need address how society views women with disabilities.

“(The disproportionate risk is) not talked about because we’ve been socialized to see disabled women as not sexual, or (as) childlike, especially if you have an intellectual disability,” she told me.

“There’s a lot of shame around that for women with disabilities.”

When caregivers are part of that abuse, the cycle of shame continues. 

By necessity, people with disabilities often rely on others, including family and personal support workers.

And women with disabilities are more likely than men with disabilities to report needing help with everyday tasks like housework, making meals, getting to appointments and heavy household chores. (For example, 52.2 per cent of women with disabilities report needing help with housework compared to 35.7 per cent of men with disabilities.) In this way, gender violence overlaps with disability violence. 

According to a study done by the Disabled Women’s Network, people with disabilities were 50 to 100 per cent more likely than able-bodied peers to experience spousal violence.That violence then takes on a gendered quality as male partners of women with disabilities are more likely to engage in dominating and sexually propriety behaviours.

Yet at the same time, there is a need to support caregivers who are often doing a lot of crucial and taxing work.

This spring, the country’s first federal accessibility legislation is expected to be tabled. Jama says it will have to be responsive to the violence that women with disabilities experience.

To make life better for women, we must advocate with all women. To do that, we must deal with the very specific issues of women whose lives bear the weight of intersecting oppression. Not only must we confront untrue and minimizing myths about women with disabilities, there has to be a policy response that meaningfully works to reduce the violence they experience. 

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