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Gender Issues For Girls With Disabilities

Disability Disability Rights

Assumption, Expectation And Discrimination:
Gender Issues For Girls With Disabilities

Disability Discrimination Commissioner 1993-1997
Elizabeth Hastings

I begin I'd like you, please, to imagine a classroom full of children,
with their teacher ... Now let it be a science class in a laboratory ...
Now an art class ... Now a class of children on an excursion to the zoo
... A playground at lunch recess ... The school play ... School assembly
... The school counsellor, with a student ... A sports day ... Health
and hygiene class ... The principal's office ... The staff room ... A
study period in the library.

I wonder
how many of you automatically included girls, and boys, with disabilities
in these scenes? How many of you made a conscientious effort to do so,
realising that there must be some reason why the Disability Discrimination
Commissioner is asking you to do this exercise? How difficult was it?
What type and level of disability did you imagine? Was the Principal's
office accessible? Were there Integration Aides in your classrooms? Were
there any children with disabilities on the excursion? Did any of the
teachers have a disability? Was the science lab accessible? The library?
The art class? Did the Health and Hygiene teacher feel comfortable with
the questions and needs of children with intellectual, sensory or physical
disabilities? Were the children with disabilities playing with other children
in the playground? Were there any children with disabilities in the school
play? As Macbeth or Lady Macbeth? Or in the crowd scenes? Was the staff
room accessible? Did the library provide texts in alternative formats?
Was the school counsellor giving the widest possible range of choices
to a girl, or boy, who had a disability? Were the school literature texts
selected and discussed not only to broaden the vision of girls, but also
to present a world-view relevant to students who have disabilities? Did
any of the parents, friends and relations at the school play have disabilities?
What was happening at the sports day?

you worrying about the cost of including these children 'who benefit least
from education'? Are you worrying about it now?

Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was proclaimed on October 18th 1992
and came into effect on March 1st 1993. The objects of the Act are to
eliminate, as far as possible, discrimination against persons on the ground
of disability in various areas, including education and the administration
of Commonwealth Government programs; to ensure, as far as practicable,
the same rights to equality before the law as the rest of the community;
and to promote recognition that persons with disabilities have the same
fundamental rights as the rest of the community.

relation to education, the Act makes it unlawful for an educational authority
to discriminate against a person on the ground of disability by refusing
or failing to accept an application for admission as a student or in the
terms or conditions of admission, or by denying or limiting access to
any benefit provided by the authority, or by expelling the student or
subjecting the student to any other detriment. All of the foregoing is
qualified by the exception provided by the defence of unjustifiable hardship.

relevant sections of the Act relate to access to premises used by the
public, employment, provision of goods, services and facilities, and sport.

National Action Plan for the Education of Girls 1993-97
was, I presume,
written in the light of the DDA; which may be why girls who have disabilities
feature in it at all. They feature, however, in a list of 'girls who benefit
least from schooling', along with girls from a non-English speaking background,
girls from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and girls
who live in remote or rural areas or who live in poverty. The phrase 'girls
who benefit least from schooling' veers uncomfortably close to blaming
the victim. All girls, and boys, benefit enormously from schooling-if
the schooling comes to them in a form which is accessible (and perhaps
if 'benefit' is assessed as development from a starting point as well
as towards an ending point).

includes physical, sensory and intellectual accessibility. It includes
relevance. It includes a knowledge that one belongs where one is, belongs
to the language one is speaking, to the activities one is doing, to the
future for which one is preparing, to the people with whom one is 'community'.

'belonging' is absolutely central to the concept of 'non-discrimination',
and yet the word is rarely used of people who have a disability, or to
describe the basic thrust of any policy relating to people who have disabilities.
The words more usually employed are 'inclusion', 'mainstreaming', 'integration',
even 'welcoming'. All these words imply their opposite, and put the power
of decision, of action, into the 'including', 'mainstreaming', 'integrating'
and 'welcoming' committees. What people who have disabilities, children
and adults, men and women, girls and boys, want and can now, indeed should
now, expect, is to belong where they are. Where they are is in this world,
in this community, in this school, kindergarten, university, theatre,
laboratory, play, speech night, class, office, playground.

you most probably are worried about cost, that you may not have automatically
envisaged children with disabilities in those various scenes, that girls
with disabilities must still be the subject of a separate chapter in the
National Action Plan, and appear almost no where else throughout
the document, is ample evidence that 'belonging' has not yet become a
background policy assumption. This is true not only in education circles
but in virtually any circle you may care to mention. 'Integration' and
'mainstreaming' are still founded upon an assumption that there are children,
then there are children with disabilities. There are people, then there
are people who have disabilities, there are policies, then there are policies
for people who have disabilities. Policies for people who have multiple
disabilities, come from non-English speaking background, live in a remote
rural area and are poor have not yet been created. Not to mention being
a girl as well!

latest available ABS figures indicate that 18% of people living in Australia
have a disability of some kind-physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory.
These figures, however, relate to a narrower definition of disability
than that used in the DDA, so the 18% is an underestimate. (I realise
not all of this 18% are sufficiently disabled to require specific adjustments
in order to participate alongside and within the community.) When we broaden
the definition to include learning and neurological disability, the presence
in the body of organisms causing (or capable of causing) disease, physical
disfigurement, and a disorder or malfunction that affects a person's thought
processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgment or that results
in disturbed behaviour, then you can see that the DDA envisages a world
in which all people belong. The DDA world is one which is made up of the
full range of human beings and 'human being'. It is not the make-believe
world of public policy in which there live only vigorous, white, male,
employed and not-yet-disabled people.

DDA requires that its more complete definition of human beings be reflected
in all areas of life and government programs (this is not to suggest that
government programs are not a part of real life, much though we may wonder
at times!), including education programs.

this circuitous route I bring myself to the detail of the National
Action Plan for the Education of Girls 1993-97,
and to the questions
I was asked to address.

problems does the construction of masculinity or femininity pose for disabled

I have just indicated, the first 'construction' problem posed for students
with disabilities (often literally a construction problem in the form
of various barriers) is the more primary one of the 'construction of humanity'.
In the Action Plan the word 'girl' is not automatically taken to include
a girl who has a disability: she must have a separate section. This means
that her experiences as a 'girl at risk' or 'sexually harassed girl',
or 'NESB girl', or 'girl living in poverty' may be subsumed by policy-makers
to what appears to them to be the more alluring attribute. Her needs-to
find herself reflected in the books she reads, to have puberty recognised
as a significant time in her life (perhaps, if you asked her, more significant
than learning how to walk or mastering another activity of daily living),
to receive counselling for the disturbances of her parents' marriage or
protection from her uncle's sexual assaults, to experience her own ambitions
as interesting and her own social contributions as worthy-these needs
may well be lost because she is not first in everybody's mind a 'girl',
but a 'disabled'.

same, of course, can be said for boys who have disabilities.

through the National Action Plan, one is not encouraged to consider the
requirements within the various sections of students who have disabilities,
and there is nothing as far as I can see relating to general school management
and practice, broadening of work education or in improving teacher practice.
I shall return to these points in due course.

said that, there are ways in which the construction of masculinity and
femininity does have an impact on girls who have a disability (you will
note that I do not refer to 'disabled girls', and I sincerely hope that
no future documents emerging from this or any other Education Authority
will do so either).

begin with, there is the simple fact of appearance. Girls who have a disability
are not so 'girl-like' as those in our imagination, in books, in love
songs, in our language. This has an effect on a girl's self esteem, and
on her expectations. Further, it has an effect on her experience, and
on the expectations of those around her. As a child at school I never
experienced myself being experienced as a potential girlfriend, wife,
mother. Sure, I had fantasies myself, much the same as any girl does-but
the possibility of their realisation was never there in the eyes, the
words, the assumptions of teachers (or other adults) around me. I experienced
others experiencing me as a neutral sort of being. When I was young I
did not think in terms of sexual neutrality or identity-I just learnt
what I was through how I experienced myself being experienced. This is
how children come to know 'in their bones' who or what they are. What
you know 'in your bones' will colour what you are free to create 'in your
head'. This is the same for boys as well, of course.

A difference
arises, however, in the expectation department. Boys in general grow up
expecting that they will get looked after. Girls grow up expecting to
do the looking after. This is true whether or not you are poor, have a
disability, come from a non-English speaking background or whatever. Girls
in general grow up knowing their decorative appeal (or lack of it). Boys
grow up expecting to be able to choose.

A common
outcome is that girls must learn to live alone while boys more often marry.
Yes: even in the disability world these assumptions hold true! Attractive
caring women, for various reasons, generally love being wanted and loved.
Boys who have disabilities seek out attractive, caring women. Boys without
disabilities seek out attractive caring women. Girls who have disabilities
are usually not sought out. When you are young, appearance is all.

enough, despite the abundant evidence that, in general, men who have disabilities
are likely to find themselves a wife and women with disabilities are less
likely to find a husband, the education and training plans for people
with disabilities tend to reflect a different assumption. It is felt that
boys need the job, the career, for their self esteem-but girls will probably
stay at home and be cared for.

therapists, doctors, parents, siblings: almost none of these assume that
a girl who has a disability will grow up to be a mother, carer, wife-let
alone a working mother, carer, wife. The lesson to be drawn from this
is clear: all those who surround and influence a girl with a disability
must develop their imagination. They must allow the girl to experience
herself being experienced not as an eternal neutral, but as a potential
woman of potential.

has implications for the other sections of the Action Plan that I mentioned
before. Teacher training and professional development should include 'girls
with disabilities' not as a separate group, an optional extra, but as
a core part of the curriculum just as they are a core part of humanity.

I would
like to add here that I have discussed the 'sexual identity' issue within
very traditional boundaries. This is not in any way to suggest that girls,
and boys, who have disabilities are not as likely as all girls and boys
to be lesbian or gay and to seek same sex partners. They are also just
as likely to be bisexual or transsexual, to cross dress, to wish to set
up all the varieties of householding that currently exercise the minds
and definitions of those involved in the International Year of the Family.
Girls and boys who have disabilities require the same attention to these
issues as do all students. I note that these matters are not addressed
in the National Action Plan.

can we address gender issues in their post-school pathways?

the construction of masculinity and femininity no doubt has an effect
on the subjects made available to girls who have disabilities, and therefore
on their futures, but the construction of the school has an even greater
effect. When science laboratories, art rooms, technical skills areas,
staff rooms and class rooms, texts and information, computer hardware
and software, libraries and excursions are all accessible, then girls
who have disabilities can be in the fight to be included in the traditionally
male pursuits. Until that time, it would be helpful if girls who have
disabilities were included in the National Action Plan's sections
on role models, language, analyses of power, discussions of body image,
cultural texts and the influence of the community on the construction
of gender.

it would be more useful and coherent to consider the 'construction of
self', of which gender issues form one aspect. I commend this to you for
further consideration.

of post-school pathways is in part going to be influenced by those to
whom the student looks for advice. When I was in Year 9 and told the Principal
that I wished to go to university, her only response was 'do you think
you could really manage that, dear?' Such a negative response has a huge
impact on future choices. The vocational and career counselling available
to all students with a disability must be of a very high standard. It
must be well informed, free of stereotyping, imaginative and demanding.
It is not all right to suggest telephonist work for students who are blind,
cleaning for those who have an intellectual disability, sedentary office
work for people with a physical disability and labouring for the deaf.

is it acceptable to give more attention to the employment futures of boys
than of girls as I have already indicated.

adequate is the National Action Plan in addressing the needs of disabled


me expand: in the first place, the National Action Plan extracts
girls who have disabilities from the mainstream and 'deals with them'
in one section, as though they (and their similarly disadvantaged sisters
who come from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or non-English speaking
backgrounds, from remote or rural areas, and those who live in poverty),
were not, first and foremost, girls. I take no issue with the specific
needs of these students being emphasised. Rather, my concern is that they
consequently (and I think it is a consequence of such categorising) do
not appear in the other parts of the document. This is particularly true
of those who have disabilities, those from rural and remote places, and
those who are poor.

the construction of gender

priority does, to the amazement of one so accustomed to being left off
the list, mention in its preamble that girls who have disabilities, along
with Aboriginal girls, are likely to encounter more offensive forms of
sexual harassment than other girls-but when we get to the priority on
'Eliminating sex-based harassment' disability is not mentioned. I think
this preamble is the only place where girls who have disabilities have
escaped from their special and segregated chapter.

the questions for schools there is no suggestion that issues of life choice,
health and violence, traditional occupations, resources and materials,
and adult role models should include as a matter of course an analysis
of these things from a disability perspective as well as from a gender
perspective, or that there may be some intersection of the two. I trust
that my comments will open up some of the ways this intersection occurs,
and some of its impacts.

sex-based harassment

who have disabilities are not explicitly mentioned in this section, yet
it has been noted already in the document that it is a significant problem.
If I were to deconstruct this priority I would have to draw some very
unhappy conclusions about the real recognition of the implications of
and attitude towards sex-based harassment of girls who have disabilities.

1990 the Office of the Directorate on Equal Opportunity in Public Employment
in NSW (more easily referred to as ODEOPE) established through research
that women who have disabilities experienced more harassment of every
type, including sexual, than other women, and those with disabilities
affecting their legs encountered more harassment than any other group.
This is not an ignorable matter, yet the National Action Plan, apart
from the one statement I have quoted, attends to the issue not at all.
Indeed, in the third priority area, that relating to girls who have disabilities,
the only harassment mentioned is racially based.

girls who have disabilities, those known to encounter most harassment,
not to be given the benefit of programs and strategies which reflect and
respond to their particular circumstances? Are they to generalise as best
they can from programs which relate to girls who do not have disabilities?
Are there to be no videos, texts, role models of girls and women who have
disabilities managing harassment in an effective way? Are these rhetorical
questions? I hope so.

brings me to:

the educational outcomes of girls who benefit least from schooling

many ways this is the weakest section in the Plan because it tries to
do too much, in the wrong place. In relation to girls who have disabilities,
I'm afraid it does worse than nothing because it eliminates them from
the lists even of its own subject matter. Let me illustrate. In the suggestions
for strategies and professional development for teachers the areas for
'critical reflection on their own assumptions and beliefs' include gender,
culture, ethnicity, rurality and socio-economic status. Are we to conclude
that no-one has any assumptions worthy of critical reflection about girls
who have disabilities?

I have
already commented on the lack of mention of sex-based harassment of girls
who have disabilities.

best way to improve the educational outcomes of girls who have disabilities
is to take the Disability Discrimination Act seriously and create schools,
systems and budgets which recognise that these girls, and their social
and political brothers, boys who have disabilities, are an inherent, integral
and necessary part of the school population. Their right to education
is ensured by the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural
Rights, as well as under the DDA.

terms of the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights make clear
that issues of equality, non discrimination, access and participation
have priority over issues of adequacy or availability of resources or
services in the areas covered. Whatever standard is attainable in the
progressive implementation of the rights recognised is required to be
respected and ensured without discrimination. These principles are expressed
again in the provisions of the DDA.

or not any legislative instrument can compel governments to meet desired
levels of commitment to education overall, we can at least expect non-discriminatory
access to whatever there is.

saying this, I do not dismiss the need for discussion of some more general
form of guarantees of rights in this area, to achieve results which anti-discrimination
law is not well suited to achieve on issues of overall adequacy of services
and resource allocation. An equal share of nothing is, after all, still

Disability Discrimination Act requires schools, teachers, planners, policy-makers,
funders to develop non-discriminatory mainstream educational environments.
It means that parents, students and their associates can begin to demand
them. The offering of parallel or segregated systems will not be seen
as sufficient. This is not to say there may not be choice: some parents
will prefer to send their children to schools which would be described
under the DDA as 'special measures', just as some now prefer to send their
children (who may or may not have disabilities) to private, religious,
community, experimental, Steiner or home-based schools. Now, however,
all those schools must, unless they can demonstrate unjustifiable hardship,
provide a discrimination free education to girls and boys who have disabilities.

would be quite difficult, I imagine, for the multimillion dollar state
system to demonstrate that it would be an unjustifiable hardship to provide
an education to students who have disabilities if they were obliged to
respond to a complaint under the DDA.

are a couple of cases which may interest you at this point: first, late
last year, under the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act, it was determined
that a rear access provided for people who have disabilities, 43 metres
away from the front of the Queensland Convention Centre which glories
in 27 steps, was not consistent with the principles or the provisions
of the legislation. The State Government was ordered to install a lift
at the front of the building. The Tribunal underlined the fact that 'adequate'
access is not 'equal' access, and 'equal' is what is required.

have also been several 'inaccessible bus' matters brought to the Commission
for Interim Determination and Hearing. It has been found on each occasion
that it is unlawful to purchase new buses which are not accessible to
people who use wheelchairs. The various Ministers of Transport are now
awaiting a report from a suddenly revivified 'accessible transport task
force'-as am I!

I hope
these decisions will percolate through to Ministers of Education so that
there can be a proper and equitable distribution of their resources, rather
than the 'you can get into our school if you bring Commonwealth dollars
with you' which pertains at the moment. No other child has to find her
own funding to be able to participate in the education to which she has
a right by birth.

will behoove curriculum developers and teacher educators similarly to
teach about the whole population of students, and not save 'special' education
for 'special' teachers. All teachers should have knowledge of disability
issues so that schools can be managed in a discrimination-free way.

the needs of girls at risk

this section from its silence on the matter appears to assume that if
a girl has been identified in the 'least benefit' section she does not
need to be brought forward again in the 'at risk' section. Girls who have
disabilities, however, are at great risk from out of school factors if
only because any such factor will have a significant impact on a life
already complicated by disability. Girls who have disabilities may also
be victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, they may also be anorexic
or bulimic, or have other secondary health problems, they may become pregnant
and they may become homeless. Added to this they, too, may have responsibility
for the care of younger siblings, household tasks, and other duties. They
may be arriving at a school at some distance from home having taken two
hours to get up and get dressed.

a teacher imagines that the only difficulties a girl with a disability
has are those directly related to the disability, then that teacher is
doing a great disservice to these students.

of children with disabilities are known to be among the most stressed.
Parents often split up, leaving the child in the care of a single parent.
Siblings may put huge pressure on the child or the mother, thus exacerbating
the stress. There is often an atmosphere of blame, or of tragedy, for
which the girl who has a disability may feel responsible. She may be isolated
at home, lonely, unable to visit friends or even venture outside the front
door without assistance.

risk factors will have a deleterious effect on her capacity to create
her own future. If nobody talks to her about anything other than disability
related matters, she may never find the appropriate moment to bring forward
her own concerns. Then she will be at risk indeed.

the curriculum

this priority area there is no mention at all of influencing the expectations
of girls who have disabilities. Should not such reform include consideration
of why the experiences, achievements and contributions of women and girls
who have disabilities have been excluded from the knowledge that is valued
by society? I do not mean trotting out the same tired old examples of
what we used to call 'super crips' (who were largely male, by the way!),
but including in the ordinary course of events the ordinary women who
have disabilities and contribute to the social, economic and political
life of our community.

not access to a 'wider range of knowledge, skills and ways of being' include
as a matter of course the ordinariness of having a disability, the ordinariness
of the girl in the desk next to you who has a disability?

in the acknowledgment of the 'multiple perspectives which women have because
of ethnicity, culture and class' is the perspective of disability suddenly
eliminated from the list? Are we not to be interested in this?

does the unravelling of 'dominance' not reflect the real world of the
dominance of experts, of professionals, of the informed-whether they be
men or women? I can assure you, the perspective of a person who lives
with a disability would be very illuminating!

is the concept of social justice narrowed to the analysis of 'what it
means to be male and female'? In this section all the so called 'disadvantaged'
groups were left off the list.

effect of language on, and the hurtful use of language about, people who
have disabilities is not mentioned as an area of concern for curriculum
reform. Neither, in the notes on post-school choices and the domain of
unpaid work, is there any acknowledgment that girls (and boys) who have
disabilities will contribute enormously to the nation's voluntary work

key strategies and questions for schools for this section similarly ignore
matters of significance in the education of girls who have disabilities:
non-discriminatory assessments, examination of social practices and structures,
access to all areas of the curriculum, skills to meet needs of dependants
and domestic responsibilities, and programs about relationships and sexuality
(including information on conception, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth
and child rearing, and parenting) are all central to the lives, aspirations
and sense of self of students who have disabilities, yet are approached
as if these students did not exist outside their segregated chapter.

I can
make the same criticism of the priorities on improving teaching practice
and changing school organisation and management practice. The whole document
is predicated on girls with disabilities being a separate group from girls.

brings me to the next two questions which can, I think, best be answered

strategies have worked well? What are the areas of most pressing need?

don't know what strategies have worked well. I suspect, given that girls
who have disabilities are relegated to a fifth part of an eighth part
of the National Action Plan, that there has been little or no evaluation
of strategies designed to enhance the ways in which education may benefit
them. Perhaps you can cheer me with unexpected good news on this shortly.

most of the complaints relating to education which come to me at the Commission
concern the reduction, withdrawal or absence of assistance for children
who have disabilities to be educated in mainstream schools, and the lack
of choice for parents in the education of their children with disabilities.
Neither parents nor students are yet well enough established as consumers
of mainstream education to be picky about the types of issue outlined
in the National Action Plan. When you are dying for want of food
you don't fuss because there's not enough choice of condiment.

does not in any way mean that I consider the issues raised in the National
Action Plan to be unimportant. Perhaps if the improvement of educational
experience and opportunity for girls who have disabilities were taken
seriously, some of the other problems of funding and equity would begin
to be resolved.

me underline one very important thing: education in a 'special' school
is not and never can be the same as education in the mainstream. The range
of subjects offered is very limited: science, Latin, art, languages, biology,
advanced mathematics, literature, home economics-these will not be taught
to the required level, if at all, in 'special' schools, most of which
have no facilities at all for teaching technical or laboratory based subjects.

girls who have disabilities have been restricted in their future choices
by being exposed to the narrow curricula of 'special' schools.

the range of experiences offered is limited-the ordinary competition and
rough and tumble of school life is not present in segregated education.
Ordinary expectations, naughtiness, opportunities for risk, failure, success,
personal challenge, anonymity, leadership, responsibility-ordinary ordinariness-cannot
be found in the segregated system.

areas of most pressing need have, I think, been sufficiently outlined
as I have discussed the National Action Plan. Without doubt the
most significant advance required is the placement of girls who have disabilities,
and boys, firmly in the mainstream of teacherly discourse and professional
development. The fallacy that there is a 'normal majority' and a series
of 'special minorities' is not helpful in planning any social benefit,
including education. The even greater fallacy that if a child fits one
category she need not be taken into account in any other group, is the
most segregating of all.

who have disabilities are girls. They worry about their looks, their attractiveness
to boys, the unattractiveness of scholastic success, whether or not they'll
find true love, their parents' marriage, their siblings' peccadilloes,
their puberty, their future, their employability, religion, music, peer
pressure, self identity-and if they have time, they notice that they have
a disability.

is up to education authorities, schools, teachers and curriculum designers
not to create conditions which are in themselves discriminatory and disabling.