Forum Inspires Women's Rights and Disability Rights Supporters to Work Together

October 24, 2003

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

Women with Disabilities & Allies Forum - Linking Arms for Equality & Justice for All "Utterly fantastic!" exclaimed Linda L. Royster, executive director of the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington.

"Thank you for organizing such a powerful conference . . . I was energized by the wonderful women (and men) present and all the work being done by disability activists and allies. This was a great opportunity to share information, ideas and organize. . . . I know organizing a conference takes enormous amounts of work. Please know that it was well worth it!" wrote Kathy McMahon-Klosterman of Miami University.

The common concerns of the women's rights and disability rights movements converged at the "Women with Disabilities and Allies Forum: Linking Arms for Equality and Justice for All" in Bethesda, Md., Oct.17-19. The forum, the first of its kind, was organized by the NOW Foundation and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).

The forum was an enlightening and inspiring experience for both the conference organizers and the participants, for those who have worked on the issues for a long time and those who were new to political activism. Women with and without disabilities found that their shared interests ran deep and that together they could lift each other higher.

Politics and Leadership

NOW Foundation President Kim Gandy and AAPD President and CEO Andrew Imparato welcomed guests from around the country at a Friday night reception designed for relaxed socializing. Starting early Saturday morning, forum speakers, workshop presenters and attendees dug into the serious issues on the agenda—political action, civil rights, health care, reproductive rights, economic empowerment, violence against women and much more.

The Saturday lunch panel—facilitated by Harilyn Rousso, executive director of Disabilities Unlimited Consulting Services and a member of NOW's national Disability Rights Committee—featured emerging leaders in both movements. Eight diverse young women addressed the crowd, offering ideas for how the two groups can work in concert to end discrimination. "Poverty and paternalism" were highlighted as two factors that hold back both women and people with disabilities in our society.

Ann Cody, vice president of B&D Sagamore and a three-time Paralympian and Olympian in track and field spoke about the importance of Title IX for young women and the particular importance of athletics to women with disabilities.

The need to remove George W. Bush, and his entire administration, from office was addressed again and again by various speakers. NOW Foundation Vice President-Education Olga Vives spoke about the danger of Bush's nominees to the federal courts—right-wing ideologues who pose a genuine threat to women and people with disabilities. Following Vives was AAPD's Vice President for Governmental Affairs, James Dickson, who spoke about voting rights and access for all of us.

While addressing the future of civil rights, keynote speaker Marca Bristo, the president and CEO of Access Living, shared her personal story. Bristo told the crowd how her early career of nursing was turned upside down when she became paralyzed at the age of 23, and how she had to look beyond the "medical model," which focuses on what's wrong with individuals with disabilities, in order to see how our society might be improved to allow full participation by all people.

Joanne Tosti-Vasey, who along with Stephanie Ortoleva helped bring together the wonderful line-up of speakers and workshop presenters, read a letter from Senator Ted Kennedy (who was invited but unable to attend) to the audience. In his letter Kennedy promised to continue working for legislation that make help the dream of a more accessible world come true. Tosti-Vasey and Ortoleva are co-chairs of NOW's national Disability Rights Committee.

Economic Impact Keeps Women Behind

Women's rights advocates have long known that women cannot be equal socially and politically until they achieve economic security. The degree to which women with disabilities suffer from poverty, unemployment and job discrimination is extremely high, as speakers in the Sunday morning session noted.

Kathy Martinez, deputy director of the World Institute on Disability and also a member of NOW's committee, gave a rousing speech on economic issues entitled "Let's Get Off Our Assets!" A powerful advocate for disability rights, Martinez represents an important ally for women's rights activists working toward economic justice for all. Again and again throughout the weekend, women formed alliances, networked and shared information, guaranteeing that their own struggles for financial independence would no longer continue alone or isolated.

Karen Thompson, president of the Home Care Chapter (Local 99) of Service Employees International Union, Local 503 in Oregon, also gave an energetic speech about organizing home health care workers. The story of her unexpected rise from home care worker to national speaker, all the while recovering from breast and ovarian cancer, was particularly stirring.

As Thompson looked out on the crowd she said, "I don't see your disabilities; I see all of your strengths and abilities."

Health and Safety Issues

Health-related issues were covered on Sunday by three strong speakers: Claudia Center, senior staff attorney heading the Disability Rights Program of the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center; Jan Erickson, NOW's Government Relations Director; and Laurie Young, Executive Director of the Older Women's League. All three agreed that universal health care was the only solution for a country faced with millions of uninsured people. Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to inadequate medical treatment, while disabilities themselves can arise or worsen from a lack of health insurance.

Erickson highlighted NOW's work on the breast implant issue, noting the disappointing decision by the Food and Drug Administration's advisory panel to recommend that silicone breast implants be returned to the general market, despite the very real concerns about their long-term safety.

The final session of the forum focused on violence against women. Purna Shova Chitrakar, coordinator of the Ban Landmines Campaign Nepal, traveled halfway around the globe to attend the forum and inform attendees about the dangers women face in her war-ravaged country.

Beverly Frantz, the project coordinator for the National Academy for Equal Justice for People with Developmental Disabilities at Temple University, and Pat Reuss, policy analyst for the NOW Foundation, discussed the added hardships women with disabilities face when experiencing violence.

Reuss shared the heartbreaking details of the degree to which women with disabilities suffer from domestic violence and sexual assault, and how difficult it can be to protect themselves or remove themselves from a dangerous situation.

And what happens to the woman who does leave an abusive situation at home and seeks help at a shelter? Frantz explained her work evaluating women's shelters in Pennsylvania, and offered the sad news that many shelters are simply not accessible to women with disabilities.

Reuss suggested that violence against women could be ended if more men—particularly well-known men, such as sports figures—would exert peer pressure on their own sex to treat women with respect.

At the top of the list of solutions for all of the problems discussed over the weekend were: education, organizing, speaking out and voting.

Some Fun, Too!

One of the most moving moments of the weekend was the Sunday performance of "Love is a Disability" by the ensemble groups Wings! The group, which is part of the local Bethesda children's theatre company known as Imagination Stage, is comprised of 13 performers, the majority of whom have physical or developmental disabilities. The Wings! group sang, danced and acted out sketches about the ups and downs of love.

Wendy Hilsen-Bernard, a feminist therapist and yoga instructor, led yoga sessions during the weekend and closed the final session by drumming and persuading the audience to sing along with her. The unity expressed in those closing moments reflected the strong bonds that were created throughout the forum.

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