What Disability Rights Activists Can Learn From Women’s Rights Activists

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by Sherry Toh |

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time of trouble | SMA News Today | Disability Pride Month | main graphic for column titled "Wandering the Lines," by Sherry Toh

Back in 2019, I signed up for an online women’s health and rights course by women’s rights activist and Stanford teacher Anne Firth Murray. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision; I’m not even sure I was truly interested in it back then.

While I considered myself a feminist, I was wary of women’s rights courses helmed by white American women. In my experience, courses with white American leadership tend to lack intersectionality and consideration for women of other marginalized identities.

I had no idea of the scope of Murray’s work — or that she’s a New Zealander. But I was interested in one day earning a degree, and wanted to know if I could handle college-level classes. The course was free, flexible, and applicable to me as a girl who requires healthcare. Why not?

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The course ended up shaping most of my understanding of activism and advocacy today. Though the course was created by Murray and based on her book “From Outrage to Courage,” Murray’s voice was minimal. Instead, the course boosted the voices of experts and women from communities around the world.

“This,” I thought, “is how you teach people how to be activists.”

Measures of progress (and the lack thereof)

I had two main takeaways from the course. The first was that healthcare needs to be holistic. While thorough general checkups are important, external societal factors can influence our health, and those factors need triage as well.

For example, trying to eradicate poverty and provide comprehensive, quality education to women is just as important as ensuring that we have access to reproductive care. If society wants women to make better and healthier choices for our lives, we must have the resources and knowledge to do so.

My second main takeaway was that we need to show that our investments have returns. It may be difficult to convince certain people and organizations that marginalized communities are worth investing in, simply because it’s the right thing to do. However, that could change if we showed them that they could potentially gain more than they lose.

One of the course materials students received was the book “What Works in Girls’ Education,” which shares reports on numerous studies about intervention programs aimed at keeping girls in school worldwide. It was published in 2015 by the Brookings Institution Press, the publishing branch of the nonprofit based in the U.S., and it can be easily downloaded from the institution’s website.

Remarkably, the findings showed that by investing in different modes of intervention, from providing meals to cash transfers, not only could the young girls earn higher wages in the future, they could also escape child marriage and teen pregnancies.

Having taken the course and now finding myself in disability advocacy years later, it’s interesting to compare the fields of women’s rights activism and disability rights activism. The two intersect, but disability rights activism has further to go in methodology and in results.

Healthcare professionals, governments, and individuals are only just recognizing that care for the disabled is a society-wide issue, and that it should include creating access to every single right our nondisabled peers enjoy. And though I’ve done some intensive Googling for this column, I haven’t found a single holistic report on the overall net benefit of integrating disabled communities into society.

I like to cite the gaming industry as being unique in focusing on the benefits of implementing access — specifically, more players, and thus, more profit and people in the industry — but even there, there’s a lack of robust research on returns.

Lessons after class

When writing a feature on systemic ableism for Rice Media, a Singaporean publication, it struck me that I’m incredibly lucky to have a job where my disability is an asset. My disability isn’t seen as a burden; it’s not something that holds me back. It’s a part of me that people value, that allows me to create value.

It’s a rather unusual circumstance to be in, and I wish it were less unusual. But however rare, isn’t my situation proof that it could be a norm, when it might’ve been unimaginable just decades ago? And for all the chaos COVID-19 has caused, hasn’t it shown us that societal access for the disabled is both necessary and possible? Remote work, for instance, was a dream most couldn’t attain two years ago; now, it’s increasingly implemented and a subject of debate.

A long road to progress doesn’t mean we’ll never arrive at our destination. If women’s rights activists like Murray didn’t believe that, gender equity would still be a dream, not a reality with tangible results in our hands. History is happening all around us, and to us, beckoning change. We just have to be willing to learn from it and one another.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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