A Challenge to Emma Watson (and All Feminists): Learn about Challenges for Women with Disabilities

Last week, actress and feminist powerhouse Emma Watson made waves in the media after announcing that she would be taking a year off of acting for "personal development" and to promote gender equality around the world. As somebody who grew up during the Harry Potter generation (the books spanned my childhood, and I graduated high school right before the final movie was released), I was one of the many girls that had Hermione Granger as a fictional role model in my life. Emma Watson is now one of the more visible and very admirable young feminist role models due to her work with the United Nations on promoting the HeforShe Campaign. And while she is taking on the challenge of promoting women's equality around the world, I still see some room for growth in her feminism on something that is missing from most women's (even intersectional) feminism. While examining intersections of race and class are starting to make a buzz (but still have very, VERY far to go), very few feminists know about the specific obstacles to equality for women with disabilities.

Therefore, as part of her year of personal development, I challenge her (or more realistically, feminists who are reading this article) to learn about the importance of the disability rights, especially for elevating women and girls with disabilities.

There are many commonalities between disability rights and women's rights. On top of this, women with disabilities face double the discrimination due to their gender and disability status. Among just a few of these issues are:

  • Human Rights Watch found that women worldwide with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of abuse than women without disabilities.
  • As I have pointed out before, women and the disabled face workplace bias, have unique workplace needs, are underrepresented in leadership roles, and face serious wage discrepancies (in fact, in the United States, it is legal to pay some workers with disabilities below the minimum wage).
  • A 1998 United Nations study found that the literacy rate for women with disabilities is as low as one percent, which has serious implications for their access to education.
  • An astounding 83 percent of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

Even within Ms. Watson's own industry, disability discrimination is rampant. Did you ever notice how many awards go to actors portraying characters with disabilities (such as Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal of Steven Hawking), but how few actors and actresses with disabilities appear in television shows and movies? It turns out that Hollywood's diversity problem extends to the disability community as well. Famous actors and actresses are chosen for roles of disabled people, while disabled performers are rejected for even small roles and excluded from casting calls.

Furthermore, many stories about disabled characters, both in film and in print, are created to elicit pity or inspire (or both). The former idea uses disability as a negative plot device and perpetuates the idea that disabled lives are less enjoyable or less valuable than non-disabled lives. The latter phenomenon, termed "inspiration porn" by late disability activist and comedienne Stella Young, effectively reduces disabled characters to objects of a story created to make non-disabled persons feel good about themselves.

While actresses and actors of color have called for changes to Hollywood's lack of female directors or characters of color, calls for greater inclusion of actors with disabilities or more robust disabled characters have been largely ignored outside of disability activist circles.

That's not to say that there aren't areas in which feminists and the disability community clash. One particular issue of contention is abortion rights. Many disability activists, even those who are pro-choice, are uncomfortable with women who view disability of a fetus as a compelling reason to abort. This tension has gotten more attention in recent weeks due to the Zika virus outbreak, as some disability rights activists see the use of abortion on fetuses affected by Zika as a case of "eugenic elimination." This does not mean that these issues should be ignored, as thoughtful discussion by both sides can help them understand the concerns of both reproductive activists and the disability community.

If these reasons aren't compelling enough, there's also this: the disabled population happens to be the largest minority in the world, and women and girls with disabilities are, according to the United Nations, "among the more vulnerable and marginalized of society." It is also worth noting that disability is the one demographic that any person can join in an instant. I learned this in 2008 when I was diagnosed with a life-threatening, incurable autoimmune disease. Some people are born into the disability community, some enter it gradually, and some enter it in the blink of an eye. Nobody can ensure that they will never become a part of the disability community.

So, to Ms. Watson and all feminists, I leave you with this: maybe you will never be disabled, but the chances are that somebody you love will become a part of the disability community at some point in their life. Don't wait until you (or somebody you care about) are part of this demographic to recognize the barriers to equality that the disability community encounters.

Resources on disability and women's rights: