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.
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