Able-bodied women: it’s time to care about disability policies and, more importantly, care loudly. Disabled women and women with chronic illnesses are marginalised in the workplace by both the misapplication of disability policies and ongoing stigma. While some women may go through life without having to rely on anti-discrimination policies, this is a privilege not extended to all. Able-bodied women should ensure that their allyship and advocacy for disability rights is solid.
According to the International Labour Organisation, men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than women with disabilities, while women also face unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal access to credit for their work and occupational segregation.
With one in five women living with a disability globally, this shows how disability, gender and discrimination are linked structurally in our workplaces. As a community, it should be our priority to amplify marginalised voices and listen to the contributions of disabled women.
March is a month all about women, with International Women’s Day and Endometriosis Awareness Month highlighted in the calendar, and so it is a good time to reflect on how we can all support one another.
The Equality Act 2010 protects disabled people from discrimination in job selection processes, redundancy selection, harassment, and victimisation. However, women with disabilities or chronic pain conditions often face discrimination which is left out of written laws or workplace policies.
Palmyre Fevrier, 33, describes one experience in hospitality, where her manager was “a bully.” Despite her protests, this manager kept putting Palmyre on the same number of longer, later closing shifts as other colleagues, which exacerbated the fatigue and pain from her diagnosed condition of fibromyalgia.
“We had a meeting with the owner about it… It’s quite hard to hear someone say that you milk your illness to get away from things. They weren’t happy about what the manager did to me, but they didn’t take any actions,” she says. Palmyre’s experience shows an example of indirect discrimination, where rules are put in place that apply to everyone but that unfairly disadvantage disabled people.
Alongside a lack of education about disabilities and chronic illnesses, Palmyre suggests another reason why discrimination against disabled people in workplaces persists. “I feel like companies just see people as numbers and as targets – they don’t see the person as a person,” she says. “Even the pace of work. I feel like that’s also a conversation that needs to be talked about in companies because they try to impose a pace to everyone, but not everyone can do it.”
Amanda Gentry, who has chronic pain and fatigue, agreed, saying: “They only cared about statistics, but I couldn’t put on my coat at the end of the day because my hands would freeze up.” Amanda, 28, was told she couldn’t reduce her contract below 30 hours per week because she was on an apprenticeship. “When people saw me crying at my desk, some just walked past. It’s things like this that give companies high turnover.” She believes that if companies were more compassionate, her experience wouldn’t have felt so discriminatory.
Not only are disabled women affected by what is left out of policies, women are also more likely to not be believed about their disability or illness. Chronic pain conditions, like fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and neuropathic pain are statistically more likely to affect women than men and under researched conditions often take a long time to diagnose – an average of 7.5 years for endometriosis.
Bethany Bale, Co-Founder of BVisible, explains: “Disabled people or people with chronic illnesses are always the ones that have to work so hard to feel as though they’re being heard. People without disabilities can be very unaware of the gatekeeping that happens in disability policy, narrowing the definition of what we’re allowed to call disabled.”
This gatekeeping, she says, keeps the creation of disability policy as a tick-box exercise and creates an environment where able-bodied people might call out those who have invisible disabilities for using services like Personal Independence Payments (PIP) or blue badges for vehicles. This means it’s also common for women to not disclose disabilities at work.
Hortense Julienne, 45, recalls the impact of this doubt about her chronic pain on her mental health. “It becomes a heavy mental challenge. It’s almost like you have to justify yourself to everyone and you want to be accepted, but they’ve already dismissed you,” she says.
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Loopholes and discriminatory environments create breeding grounds for the kind of stories told by Palmyre, Amanda, Hortense and Bethany, but things can improve. Bethany advises companies: “Reach out however you do in your workplace, and really try to openly, without judgement, say to people, do you feel like we’re doing enough and how can we improve?”
Open conversations and a strong shift toward solidarity and allyship from the able-bodied community could be the game-changer disabled women need in workplaces up and down the UK.
Whatever your health, taking an active interest in disability policy at your workplace and in wider political society is a necessary step to protect the marginalised. Women know that the personal is political, and that we grow as citizens when we empower others. We can all do more and speak up when we see injustices at work, so that discriminatory policies and behaviours towards disabled women are stopped in their tracks and those who suffer are not left voiceless.
Therefore, this March, I challenge you to be as inclusive as possible in your celebrations. When you talk about International Women’s Day to your family, friends and colleagues, make sure you’re remembering the contributions and challenges of all women. Use your own power in everyday conversations and actions to amplify other women’s voices and advocate for marginalised disabled women’s rights.
Felice is a freelance political journalist covering politics, gender, disability, and queer issues. She is passionate about finding and breaking diverse, distinctive political news stories. Her pain may be chronic, but her hot takes are iconic.