Being a Female with a Disability by Audree E. Porter
Disability is, as defined by The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “With respect to an individual, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.” The ADA also goes on to define “major life activities” generally as including but
not necessarily limited to, “…caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working”, and also includes the impairments of major bodily functions such as, “…functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions” (2009).
This definition is broad and relatively all-inclusive, allowing for many people with many different types of illnesses to fall into the category of disabled. And yet, within society, we seem to only view disabilities as what we can physically see. It has taken me quite a long time to consider myself disabled, given that I have been conditioned to believe a very narrow-minded view of what it means to be disabled. As the ADA states, the term “disabled” includes anyone who has any type of impairment that significantly limits their functioning in daily life activities. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia roughly 4 years ago, which
is defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a condition which causes widespread pain, sleep problems, and fatigue (2017). This disorder greatly impacts my daily life, in that I am unable to function at the same capacity as my able-bodied counterparts. I work part-time and am a part time student. Those two things alone just about drain me of all of my energy. Just by looking at me, you cannot tell that I am disabled, and if I state that I am in fact, disabled, everyone, disabled and able-bodied alike, call into question whether or not I can claim that label.
Just this semester in one of my classes, I dared to refer to myself as disabled, and a fellow student who is also disabled, stated that he does not “trust passables”, using the term passable as someone who is able to pass as an able-bodied person, and how am I disabled? This is the response that I get on a daily basis. I am constantly faced with assumptions and questions, because not only am I a person with an invisible disability, I am a woman, who has a disorder that is most common among women, and therefore questionable. The struggle that women face within the disabled community, and within the medical community, is insurmountable. Instagram user whimsical.autistic , posted the following onto her story, which is a perfect visual representation of why you should never simply assume based on what you can see.
The terrible truth of the matter is that as women, we are often times ignored and brushed aside in medical settings, and our pain is hardly ever believed to be true and present. This is true for many women, and even more so for those with disabilities such as myself and other disorders that are most common among women. My coworker, Laura, is currently in her early 40s, and had been experiencing severe abdominal pain since she was 14. Her whole life, she was brushed aside, and told that it was just cramps and that she was just on her period. When she was 25, she had her daughter, and three months later had to call an ambulance because she was bleeding insane amounts. The EMT’s, who were both male, did not believe her, until she pulled down her pants and showed them the fist-sized clots that were coming out of her vagina. They then called Advanced Life Support due to the amount of blood that she was losing. Once she got to the hospital, their explanation was that she had given birth, and that it was normal. Fast forward ten more years, and Laura was 35, having a particularly rough day of pain. It wasn’t until she began to head home from work, that she began passing out from the pain. She yet again endured an ambulance ride with male EMT’s who did not believe that she was in as much pain as she claimed, until she got to the hospital, and it was eventually determined that she had severe, stage IV endometriosis, that had caused significant adhesions on her uterus, bowel, and bladder, essentially adhering them to each other. This then led to a Unilateral Salpingo Oophorectomy which is a fancy term for the removal of one of the ovaries and fallopian tubes. All of this happened because no one would believe that something was actually wrong, and simply chalked
it up to another whiny teenage girl complaining about menstrual cramps.
Endometriosis is manageable, if you know what to look for and have a doctor who will believe you. Unfortunately, given that this is a disease that only occurs in those who have a uterus, this is a difficult task. This type of experience is unfortunately all too common among many women. There are so many stories just like Laura’s, where they were not believed or treated with less respect by their doctor simply because they were female, or had a disorder that is more prevalent in women. Being a disabled female with a disorder that is most common in women, and much less an invisible disability, creates a multilayered experience of discrimination, and feels like an uphill battle.
In an article by Thomas J. Gerschick, he states that, “To have a disability is not only a physical or mental condition, it is also a social and stigmatized one” (2000, 1264). This statement very concisely summarizes the entire point that I am attempting to make. Living within this society is tough enough as a female, but add a disability on top of that and you have a whole other layer of discrimination and hardship. It is my hope that we can one day move past this stigma and begin to see invisible disabilities as just as real as visible ones, and that women will stop being penalized for simply being women, but there is quite a ways to go before we can even begin to solve this problem.
Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended. (2009). Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm
Fibromyalgia. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/fibromyalgia.htm
Gerschick, T. J. (2000). Toward a theory of disability and gender. Signs, 25 (4), 1263-1268. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3175525