Disabled women and girls represent 16% of the European Union’s female population, but they remain invisible to society. According to UN Women, girls and women with disabilities face a higher risk of violence than those without disabilities. They are subjected to gender and disability stereotypes and have a higher risk of unemployment, which leads to poverty and social exclusion. In Greece, a study conducted by Magoulios (2012) showed that disabled women encounter more discriminations in the job market and their number of unemployment is higher than in men. They are perceived to be incapable of fulfilling the essential role that defines their gender, that of being a nurturer, thus, creating a sense of worthlessness for themselves. Unrealistic beauty stereotypes exacerbate their feelings of self-deprecation.
More precisely, disabled people in Greece are excluded from public life due to the lack of infrastructure designed for disabled people. An advocate for the rights of the disabled population in Greece states in a Vice interview by Korina Petridh (2020) that the quarantine didn’t change the lives of disabled people. Takis Alexandrakis continues by saying that the disabled people in Greece were already living a life in “quarantine”. They are forced to a life of invisibility and social exclusion, a result of the inadequate infrastructure and having to protect their fragile health without any substantial government help. It is a sad reality that in Greece, many disabled people are confined to the safety of their houses.
Public spaces and means of transportation, except for the subway system, are inaccessible to disabled people. There are no access ramps for wheelchairs and the tactile tiles designed to assist visually impaired people are often inaccessible or hidden under parked cars, outdoor seating of coffee shops. As reported by ΚΑΠΑ RESEARCH, in a research conducted on behalf of the National Confederation of Disabled People (Ε.Σ.Α.μεΑ.), 3 out of 4 disabled people are unable to move in public spaces, or they move with great difficulty. Furthermore, 71,8% of disabled people find the use of public transportation challenging and 88,2% of them attribute their low quality of life to the absence of infrastructure built to accommodate disabled individuals. I find alarming the fact that Greece is one of the European countries whose citizens haven’t been educated about the concept of disabled people receiving equal opportunities and enjoying the same rights as the able-bodied. A recent example of public ignorance, hate and discrimination is the vandalization of a chair, located in a beach of the island of Kefalonia, specifically designed to allow people using wheelchairs for swimming in the sea.
In Greece, disabled women and girls experience multiple discriminations and have to battle various stereotypes. It is difficult for the able-bodied to comprehend that women with “damaged”, “unattractive” bodies have sexual desires and can function as sexual beings. They are majorly considered asexual beings, unfit to be mothers. This particular stereotype is extremely hurtful for disabled women as it leads to feelings of inadequacy and makes them question their gender identity. They also face discriminations in maintaining romantic relationships, and it’s difficult for them to get married. As their access to employment is limited, and the lack of public infrastructure does not allow them to lead satisfying social lives, their main concern and aspiration are to have a “normal” woman’s life, being able to get married and give birth. By maintaining these traditional Greek females roles, they can experience a sense of fulfilment, normalcy, and establish their value as visible human beings.
Disabled women in Greece are subjected to a double oppression ( Mays: 2006, Serra: 2015); the first being the sexism cultivated by the patriarchal society and the second being the ableism expressed by both able-bodied men and women, victims and perpetrators of the standardized internalized misogynistic speech. This unpleasant situation is responsible for causing them feelings of extreme vulnerability and helplessness, for making them question not only their value as humans but their gender identity, their “womaness”. They are not only invisible to able-bodied men but to women, who are supposed to be their allies. Moreover, disabled women tend to find themselves excluded from studies and research that concern them. They cannot participate in economic, social and political life. The fact that their needs are often underrepresented or misunderstood by feminist activists only adds to their frustration.
The obsession of Greek society with the appearance and unattainable beauty standards adds to the oppression of disabled women and girls experience. The current status quo is extremely hostile towards disabled women and condemns them to a life of social exclusion. Garland-Thomson, in her report: “Re-shaping, Re-thinking, Re-defining” (2001) for the account of the Center for Women Policy Studies, states that “beauty has been framed as an aesthetic quality”. The inability of disabled women to conform to those traditional beauty forms makes them feel inadequate and unlucky. The unrealistic beauty standards and the stigmatization of their sick body impact their self-image negatively, as they are interrelated (Begum: 1992). In a society which favours beauty, good health and youth, women who do not fall into all these categories are ignored. Societal norms about beauty define not only disabled women’s happiness but are also a high factor of anxiety and stress for able-bodied women.
Another obstacle disabled women need to overcome is violence inflicted upon them. It is infuriating that women with disabilities are three to five times more likely to be victims of violence than able-bodied women (André Félix, external communications officer at the European Disability Forum: 2020 ). Research conducted in the US has shown that the perpetrators are often current or former romantic partners (Young et al. .78). Unfortunately, the majority of cases continue to be underreported in Greece as there isn’t enough data. Very few cases of able-bodied women who are victims of domestic violence sue their husband, family or even dare to ask for help. In a society where domestic violence is an affair that should be settled between the members of the family, without the intervention of the police, it is no wonder that the number of disabled women reporting their relatives or husbands is even lower. Multiple factors are responsible for this grim reality: the economic dependence of disabled women to their romantic partners or their family; for some their total reliance on them to satisfy their daily needs; their social isolation, and the lack of shelters and services available to assist them. Since disabled women do not form a homogenous group, but their needs are diversified; according to their gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation; the available services are not equipped to offer the appropriate help. If we add to the equation, the fact that disabled people are expected to hide their pain and that disability in Greek society is a private matter, one can understand the everyday struggle of disabled abused women.
If we are honest about wanting to change the current invisible status of disabled women in Greek society, we should acknowledge the need for a more comprehensive approach, by redefining disability as a social construction and not a limitation of physical functioning. The sporadic measures implemented until now are inefficient and are only short-term solutions.
First, it is necessary, as Morris says (1993) for non-disabled researchers to start questioning their attitude to disability. The current research perpetuates stereotypes about disabled women, reinforcing their marginalization. Mays (2006) adds that studies focus on the traits of individual women and pathologize the nature of violence against disabled women. By choosing to approach disability as a disadvantage and weakness, we deny disabled women their power to contribute to society . Able-bodied activists and feminists need to construct a better understanding of disabled women’s subjective reality and make an effort to not approach the discussion with prejudices about their weakness and helplessness. Morris (1993) believes that the input of disabled women can inform the viewpoint of able-bodied researchers and is an important step which will advance their case of social integration.
Next, according to Feminist Disabilities Studies, disability is a socially constructed identity. It should not be perceived as a medical problem, a personal issue that should be cured or fixed, a misfortune ( Wendell: 1989, Garland-Thomson: 2001). Feminist Disabilities Studies examines the “politics of appearance, the medicalization of the body, the privilege of normalcy, multiculturalism, sexuality, the social construction of identity, and the commitment to integration” ( Garland-Thomson, 2002: 4). The integration of the concept of disability to feminist theory challenges its limits, its perception about disabled women and creates more inclusive feminism. Disability is viewed as another form of social oppression that subjugates women, creates social inequalities and values women by judging their bodies ( Garland-Thomson: 2005). Society should be more concerned about redefining our attitudes towards disabled women. If we think of ourselves as “temporarily able-bodied”, a term coined by Garland-Thomson (2001), we would be able to comprehend the necessity of questioning and revising the existing cultural narratives on disability; narratives of prejudice, oppression and disempowerment. We ought to shift the focus from the individual perspective of disability to the collective, make the personal political. We should aim to redefine disability as a social justice model, where the members of society have a responsibility to improve the accessibility and inclusion of disabled people in the public sphere. The medical model where disability is treated as the individual’s burden is anachronistic and highly dysfunctional, and it is time for Greek feminists to take a stance against the multilevel oppression disabled women experience.
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