Back to index of Nerve 19 - Winter 2011

The Disabled Woman: A Third Class Human?

By Lisa Davies

The Fawcett Society has been campaigning for gender equality for 140 years. Its activism focuses upon achieving equal rights for women, in both their public and private lives. The abolition of the gender pay gap is a fundamental and ongoing campaign. According to the group’s own statistics, women working full-time in the UK are paid on average 15.5% less per hour than men(1). The basic implications of such a statistic are that work carried out by women is of less intrinsic value than work carried out by men, and that women, by virtue of the fact they are paid less, are second class citizens.

The notion that women and the work they carry out is of lesser value is of course abhorrent, but we live in a society that seems content in perpetuating such views as justification for paying women less whatever their profession. As a woman with a disability looking to enter the labour market, within a society that continually undervalues the contribution made by women, treating them as a second-class social group, I am devalued further still.

The same arguments that are employed to devalue women and justify their historical underpayment in the workplace were recently expressed through the lens of disability. When Philip Davies MP suggested in the House of Commons that disabled people should have the right to offer to work for less than the minimum wage(2). This view is extremely unpalatable to many because it implies that, like the work of women, the work of disabled people is of less value. In the same speech, Mr Davies proposed the following scenario:

If an employer is looking at two candidates, one who has got disabilities and one who hasn't, and they have got to pay them both the same rate, I invite you to guess which one the employer is more likely to take on.(3)

The proposed outcome of the above, that the employer would give preference to the non-disabled candidate, is as unpleasant as the suggestion that potential disabled employees should have the right to undercut their non disabled counterparts, but as research and my experience indicate, there is truth in its ugliness.

A recent report by the disability activist group, The Trailblazers, entitled Right to Work, found that such ideologies are endemic amongst employers (2010: 3). If such attitudes were not prevalent, there would be more disabled people in employment. The view Mr Davies expressed is symptomatic of a general perception of disabled people as incapable, unproductive and in constant need of assistance, which some adopt as a normative view. Such perceptions hinder the social and professional progression of disabled people.

A recent World Health Organisation report confirms the disabled woman’s position as a third class citizen. The employment rate for disabled women across 51 countries surveyed is 19.6%. This same report provides a much higher figure for the employment rate of disabled men of 52.8% compared with the rate for non-disabled men of 64.9%. By contrast, the rate for non-disabled women is 29.9%(4). These statistics indicate that disabled men are afforded greater opportunity to enter the labour market. In simple terms, it is better to be a disabled male looking to enter the labour market than it is to be a disabled female.

Furthermore, these statistics indicate that employment inequalities intersect demographics of both gender and disability. As a social figure then, the disabled female is doubly disadvantaged in the labour market, on both the basis of her gender and her impairment.

The report made several recommendations as to how access to employment can be improved for all disabled people (2011: 250), but for me there are two key areas. Firstly, access, both in terms of access to education and physical access to the workplace, and secondly, perceptions and attitudes towards, disability. Until these issues are prioritised, the employment landscape for a prospective disabled employee will remain highly problematic.


  1. The Fawcett Society, 7/08/2011
  2. The Guardian, 17/06/2011
  3. The Guardian, 17/06/2011
  4. WHO, Report On Disability, 2011: 237

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Comment left by Junjun on 4th July, 2012 at 6:32
I do not live with invisible ilselns/disability. I un/exist…I have been dealing with an invisible ilselns/disability since 2002. My masters thesis is about women invisible ilselns/disability and I affectionately refer to it as “the most expensive suicide prevention strategy ever”! My life has been destroyed both by disability and the bludgeoning I have taken from government student loans programs who, despite all the requested medical information, refused to place my loans on interest-free disability status. I am unable to even rent an apartment now without a cosigner, which I do not have. And I cannot afford a lawyer, so I cannot fight them legally either. Two years ago a provincial MP office attempted to help me for a few months, but they were directed by the government to cease assistance to me. I learned also that revenue Canada was also directed by student loans to seize any income tax monies to which I should be entitled. I was supposed to receive over $1500 of medical refund monies from a medical trip to Seattle in 2005, and they stole every penny. I also do not receive my GST. (they seized a bank account and I was forced to close the other because they continued to steal from that one also, despite the measure taken to prevent this).My doctors asked me what exactly the government wanted from me, as we have provided them with all the information possible. At one point we figured it was my blood they wanted, but I was quite anemic and had none! lol I do have some now, so perhaps they still want it? My prescriptions are once again being held hostage by unfair pharmacare as the deductible has been raised to $10,000! So I can't afford the cost of any prescriptions I need.It has become so embarrassing that I pray for either a windfall lottery win or death I don't and never did use drugs, i barely drink and i was a very physically active person. i was a cowgirl and a jock. My son is now a young man, and this has devastated him also, because he watches me suffer in so many inhumane and mortifying ways. I waited over 6 years for surgery to save my life, was refused treatment out of province, and my primary health insurance through my employer refused to authorize payment for treatment back in 2005 so I was forced to wait 4 more years in BC for surgery that I finally received a year and a half ago. But the internal damage was so extensive, doctors advised me that I will never fully recover; and in fact, the symptoms have already begun to recur. Because my employer only has to pay the extended health premium, while I remain on long-term disability, there is no incentive for them to sponsor a return-to-work program for me. (They would then be responsible for a portion of my wages). I continue to meet the criteria qualifying me for this program, but I am not an invalid. But this doesn’t seem to make a difference. I am a victim of misfortunate, catch-22 politics. I need to earn my full wages to afford accommodations and living expenses (mostly toilet paper, since that is where most of my days are spent). .I am effectively homeless due to my situation as I have to pay accommodations in the 3 communities (10 hours apart) that I must travel between for my doctor, psychiatrist, and counselor appointments. (I have been unable to find a new doctor in any other community over the past 10 years of dealing with all the medical stuff, which leaves me no other choice). And I must starve myself in order to make these medical trips, which is not so unusual, as eating is a privilege that I am frequently unable to enjoy. All of this contributes to my overwhelming and increasing sadness and escalating depression; all part of my un/existence and the invisibility of my disability.jorge mai kelly

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