Depending on whose statistics you’re reading, anywhere from 12 to 20 percent of all women living in the United States have difficulty with mobility, vision, hearing, cognition, or possess other forms of disability. This does not include women residing in institutions (ex., nursing homes, prisons), or actively serving in the military.
Geographically speaking, among women not living in a metropolitan or micropolitan (an urban location with a population between 10,000 and 50,000, like Battle Creek), area about 17 percent have a disability. They tend to be poorer, in worse health, less educated, and more dependent on government programs than urban women with disabilities.
Despite the rhetoric so many Americans proudly recite about how we treat all our citizens the same, the truth is different. Persons with disabilities, more specifically, women who are disabled, experience significant levels of discrimination.
“When [nondisabled] people see the way that we move, in a wheelchair, on crutches or whatever, it frightens them. Or worse, they don’t even know what to feel so they stop seeing us as human beings,” says Tresa Tully.
|See the potential in everyone.|
Despite investing in herself and earning both Bachelors and Masters Degrees, Tully has been employed just twice in her life. “Even though I’ve done everything society says you need to do in order to be a success, [people] just won’t give me a chance,” she says.
Tully and others report this lack of opportunity, despite being qualified, is common among those who are disabled. “When you go in as a woman with disabilities, people aren’t willing to see the mind behind the person.”
It’s sad but true: nondisabled Americans claim to cherish core American values such as rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet the facts tell another story. So do statistics.
For instance, the North Carolina Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey of 2009 revealed that women with physical and cognitive disabilities are significantly more likely to experience diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, physical inactivity and poor sleep.
Any three of these conditions combined represent a higher risk factor for cardiovascular disease. That is to say, women with disabilities are more than twice as likely as women with no disabilities (48.3 percent versus 20.9 percent) to experience three or more of these conditions. One result is being at significant risk for cardiovascular disease.
|Venerable Institution: Ann J. Kellogg|
Tully says it’s true programs, equipment and technology exist that can enhance the quality of life for persons with disabilities. But it’s just like people who go hungry in a country bursting with fresh and nutritious food: it’s a matter of access. And most with disabilities don’t have the resources to acquire it.
They require other things too, like acceptance and love.
“We’re no different than anybody else,” says Lori Smith, an activist focused on issues related to disabilities. “We strive to have families, become educated and have meaningful careers, but society’s view point limits our opportunities,” she says.
Smith has TAR Syndrome, a rare genetic condition, and uses a wheelchair to assist with mobility. But it doesn’t stop her from having the same dreams other women have. That includes sexual desire.
Growing up, Smith said she heard guys say things like it would be cool to have sex with a woman who has a disability. As with most women, she resented being objectified.
“Like everyone else, we crave intimacy [not just sex] and that includes myself,” she says. “We also have to deal with low self-esteem. A lot of women have it but [among women who are disabled] it’s even more pronounced.”
Another common misconception within the nondisabled community is that having a disability means a person isn’t healthy. To the contrary, wellness means the same thing for all of us. It includes getting and staying in good physical, mental, and emotional condition in order to lead a full and active life.
Yet such a way of living can be challenging for those who have a disability. That’s because it requires a collective attitude adjustment – on the part of nondisabled people and the systems we have created.
But it’s not all bad news. As a child, Smith attended Ann J. Kellogg, one of the first elementary schools that blended nondisabled students with those who were disabled. At Ann J., she felt accepted and challenged.
“I had teachers that pushed me,” Smith recalls. “Judy Montich was one of them. She loved us and always was firm in her support of believing we could do something.”
Sadly, most nondisabled people don’t think like that. Yet it’s exactly what we must do if America is to achieve its idealistic values of liberty and justice for all.
Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.