International Women's Day Is A Day To Recognise Disabled Women Are Invisible, Even Here In Britain

Disabled people are being robbed of their dignity. We don’t want sympathy, we don’t want charity. We want opportunities and we want our rights
Tim P. Whitby via Getty Images

My name is Anne Wafula Strike. I’m a Paralympian who has travelled the world. Some would say I’ve achieved a lot for a woman whose father was told he should kill me because I was disabled. As the world comes together to celebrate International Women’s Day, we must work harder than ever to build a truly inclusive movement. Disabled women and girls are still some of the most marginalised and forgotten people on the planet. It is critical that feminist movements include our voices too. Otherwise this is not a woman’s movement, it is a movement for non-disabled women only. This is not a cry of blame or accusation. This is a plea for us to hear each other’s stories and use them to disrupt our way of thinking to create a more compassionate world.

I was born a healthy child in rural Kenya, but when I was two, I got polio and it left me paralysed from the waist down. The local witch doctor said I had been struck by ‘black magic’. My community thought I was cursed. They would call me ‘snake’ because I had to crawl along the floor in order to move around. They said I should be left to die. They wanted to burn our house down. We had to leave our village because it was no longer safe for me and my family.

The stigma I experienced was devastating. It took everything away from me. I was broken. I didn’t develop self-esteem. I hated who I was. I had so many demons. And when you are broken inside - when your sense of self, and your self-worth are broken - it leaves you more disabled in your mind than any physical impairment can.

If it wasn’t for my father telling me I had a special place in this life, I wouldn’t be here now. My father’s unwavering support, his unconditional love, disrupted my own shame, it disrupted the stigma all around me, and it made me believe a new story for myself was possible. I now believe nothing disables me more than staying silent on the things that impact me. That’s why I am so passionate about using my voice to amplify the voices of other disabled women.

Disability stigma is present in every society, but in parts of Africa and Asia it can be particularly oppressive. In the village where I grew up, there was no research or technology to explain the causes of my impairment to my community. It is within this void of understanding, that dangerous misconceptions about disability can form. Disabled people are often considered weak, worthless and in some cases subhuman. Disabled women are doubly discriminated against for both their gender and their disability. Research shows that women with disabilities experience much higher levels of violence, for longer periods of time, and with worse outcomes than women without disabilities. Unfortunately, too many services that are meant to protect women, do not take into account the unique dangers and challenges faced by disabled women.

How does a woman with a hearing impairment hear the warning sounds of an approaching attacker? How does a woman with a visual impairment know where to run for protection?

ADD International, a disability rights organisation, conducted research into violence against disabled women and girls in Tanzania and exposed some shocking realities. Nine out of 10 respondents had experienced abuse - not just from men but also from other able-bodied women, as well as those who should be there to protect them, such as carers or spiritual leaders. Nine out of 10 women and girls with intellectual disabilities had been sexually abused, often frequently, without intervention from family or community.

The research found that disabled women and girls have such a fundamental lack of awareness of their rights in relation to violence, that many did not even recognise that what they are experiencing is in fact abuse. Because of this, most incidents are not reported to the police. And, even when women do report violence, they face considerable obstacles in accessing support and justice.

How does a hearing-impaired woman disclose her abuse in a court that does not have a sign language interpreter?

How does a visually impaired woman work with a police force that has no assistive devices, to identify her perpetrator?

When I hear these stories, I think: that so easily could have been me. I am only where I am today because I had people who believed in me. These women have been left on their own. Society has discarded them. That is why it is so important to me, that through organisations like ADD International, I work to amplify their voices.

The invisibility of disabled women is not just a problem in developing countries. Even here in Britain, disabled women are invisible.

In 2018 I was forced to wet myself on a public train because there was no accessible toilet. I chose to speak out about it, to take on the transport system and try to create change. But every time I spoke about it, it broke me. I wasn’t being brave, I was humiliated. I got so many emails from disabled people who had left their jobs, stopped going to school, stopped socialising because they had also wet themselves and their shame reduced their lives to barely leaving the house. Their stories broke my heart. Disabled people are being robbed of their dignity. We don’t want sympathy, we don’t want charity. We want opportunities and we want our rights.

That’s why I am asking this new wave of feminism to carry us with them. The women’s movement could play a vital role in amplifying the voices of disabled women, so that we are finally heard. At your meetings, make sure there are disabled women in the room, on your panels, in your leadership teams and that their stories are being shared. While able-bodied women are talking about the pay gap, remember that disabled women are still struggling to access basic things, like an education, sexual health, sanitary towels, or even an accessible toilet.

Creating social change requires changing social thinking. What do you think when you hear disabled? Do you see me as unfortunate? A victim? A hero? I want only to be a human being, met with the same openness as anyone else. I want you to give me your ears, to hear my story, to allow my experiences, and the experiences of other disabled people, to disrupt how you think about disability. Because your thinking may well be a part of what disables me in the first place, by seeing me as different. This is not an accusation, this is a plea for us to grow collectively as human beings, to deepen our understandings of each other’s experiences, and to move forward together for a better, more inclusive and equitable world for us all.

To me diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.

I want to dance.