Gendering Disability/Disability as Intersectional Text

Disability is, in many senses, gendered. The classic representation of disability, after all, is that of a man in a wheelchair, which tells the casual viewer two things about disability: it is a male experience, and it is a distinctly physical experience, one which leaves clear marks on the body. That both of these things are untrue is of no matter when people are faced with the same image over and over again, reinforcing these ideas about disability and weaving them into the way people conceptualise disability and deal with it in their daily lives.

The consequences of this gendering are significant, and illustrate why the model of intersectionality—for all that some want to call it an obnoxious buzzword—is so critical. Because women and those of other genders are also disabled, and disability goes deeper than evident physical impairments, and those who live at these complex intersections that collide with the social representation of disability often find themselves further marginalised. By failing to be the ‘right kind’ of disabled people (male, obvious physical impairment) and the ‘right kind’ of people, period (male), they represent something threatening, wrong, and dangerous.

They must be silenced and shunted to the side because what they suggest is that both disability and gender are more complex than previously understood, that the clear and fast rules people once abided by are actually not as meaningful as they think. And this is a frightening thing for many people to confront, which is why the sight of a woman using a wheelchair for mobility is jarring, why women with non-evident disabilities are marginalised, and why men with impairments that don’t fit the ‘disability norm,’ as it were, are also left out of the equation when it comes to disabilities.

Defining disability is a tangled issue, and there is no one single definition to point to, compounded by the fact that individual experiences also shape definitions. That further clouds the waters when it comes to exploring the gendering of disability; one personal with a mental health condition may identify it as an impairment and experience it as disabling, for example, while another person may not. To create blanket definitions is to inevitably enfold some people who do not want to belong, while excluding some others who very much do identify with a given label or community.

But let’s look at the gendering of disability more deeply for a moment. If disability is a ‘male’ thing, it means that people of other genders (of whom the vast majority are women) must not experience impairments, which means they should be regarded with deep distrust. What are they hiding? Are they faking? Are they trying to pull something over on us? Are they trying to work the perceived ‘social benefits’ of disability, these mythical large payouts, opportunities, and free things apparently handed out to disabled people like popcorn as a reward for their impairments?

This becomes even more fraught when a person doesn’t have obvious physical signs of an impairment. Society may be willing to reluctantly accept that a woman using a walker has an impairment, that a genderqueer with a prosthesis belongs in the disability community, but what about someone who appears, at first glance, to be ‘healthy’? A host of mental health conditions along with illnesses like chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia can present in people who don’t present as impaired upon first inspection, who are not flying clear physical flags to alert people to their impairments.

Notably, certain ‘invisible1 disabilities’ affect women more than men. This presents a frustrating situation in a world where disability is gendered. Because disability is believed to be a male issue, women are already pushed to the side both within society and within some areas of the disability community. When those women don’t have physical impairments to argue their case with, they often face rejection.

That rejection can be very unfriendly. Women are told they’re not really disabled, are making up their illnesses, are clearly deluded about what they are experiencing in their own bodies. Receiving that message over and over again, women are reminded that disability in general is hated, but sneaky, insidious, non-evident disabilities are hated even more, because they could be anywhere and no one would see them. How can you protect yourself from exposure to disability when anyone could be disabled? When you are faced with the reality than when you talk about disability, when you engage in ableist behaviours, you are doing so in front of disabled people?

This contributes not just to a sense of social rejection and isolation, but also to clear and present danger. It is not a coincidence that chronic pain conditions are more common in women and the medicine of chronic pain management is lagging woefully behind other areas of medical endeavor and development. We’re still using the same compounds we have for thousands of years to treat chronic pain, and it’s not because they’re the best thing available and there’s no point in going further. It’s because chronic pain isn’t taken seriously as an avenue of research and investment, because of who it affects.

Thus, people with conditions that require long-term pain management become stigmatised because they’re forced to use medications that people fear and don’t understand. They’re treated like pariahs for taking medications that don’t even adequately control their pain, cloud their ability to think and function, and cause a host of unpleasant side effects. This is a direct consequence of gendering: we are forcing people into this situation by nature of the simple fact that as a society, we define disability as a man in a wheelchair.

Shifting the scope of what disability looks like is key not just for disability awareness and action, but also for women and people of other genders. The experience of disability can be an intersectional text that some people are living, not just speculating on.

  1. I use scare quotes because I quibble with the concept of invisible illnesses; I argue that many of the signs of these impairments actually are visible for those who choose to look and be aware of their environment and the people in it. Visibility, too, is about more than what you see with your eyes, but is also about what you take in with all your senses.