HomedisabilityThe Similarities Between Disability and Female Equality

This was written with Across Women’s Lives in mind.

Eye to Eye doing a great job at battling the
stigmas of dyslexia and ADHD.
by Eye to Eye National [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

According to Reverso, the German word for learning disability is lernbehinderung, and it’s considered a feminine word. WordReference.com tells me the common words for learning disability are discapacidad and desventaja, both are considered feminine.

Interestingly enough, WordReference tells me the Spanish word for actively learning is aprendizaje, which is a masculine word. Reverso says the German word for learning is lernen and it’s a gender neutral word.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections between shame, guilt, disability and gender, lately. I know just enough about the German and Spanish languages to know they assign gender to certain words, so I grew curious enough to look the above up.

I find it interesting that a masculine or neuter word is converted into a feminine word when disability is applied to it. I didn’t include the terms for physical disability that popped up, but they were all designated as feminine, as well.

Why is that? Why is the image of the weak female so deeply entrenched into western culture that it seeps into the fabric of our languages?

English may not assign gender to individual words, but think for a moment about how we use words relating to female anatomy or “amoral” women in our speech? The dirty words relating to our anatomy are almost always used as insults, as are terms for women who don’t fit in with the status quo. 

Even the word most commonly applied to men, bastard, is more a comment on the target’s parentage, often an unmarried mother, than the target themselves. They can’t help who they’re born to, so it’s the mom’s fault for bringing someone you don’t like into the world.

When it comes to the educational and social experience, the shame of having weaknesses and the guilt of consuming specialized resources are both subtly encouraged by a world that prizes self sufficiency. I’m sure boys feel those things acutely, but there are still subtle ways in which girls are taught to feel those emotions magnified.

Our girls are still taught to be meek and self sacrificing by the media at large, where the ideal for masculinity is in taking what they’re entitled to. Regardless of how hard parents my try to shield their kids from these damaging attitudes, they’re still faced with them, even in school.

All of the dress code stories, like this one, where girls are targeted to “prevent the boys from being distracted” are great examples. These unequal dress codes are teaching girls that they are responsible for boys’ behaviors. Girls must sacrifice individual expression and comfort, so the boys held helpless in grip of their hormones can study. Instead, boys need to be held accountable for their own actions, and need to learn how to reign in their impulses.

When girls are taken out of class and shamed for wearing a certain type of clothing, they’re also being given the message that their education really isn’t as important as it is for boys. It reinforces the idea that girls must defend themselves and assume responsibility for another’s behavior, when they should instead be taught the only person they can can control is herself. Girls need to also learn how to hold boys accountable for bad behavior. Abuse and harassment of any kind is always a choice.

My mind’s still boggled at how severely yoga pants are frowned upon. I don’t find them very comfortable, unless they’re loose around my legs, but are they really that offensive or distracting? If you’re trying to establish a formal environment, sure, they’re probably too casual, but otherwise, what’s the big deal?
by m01229 [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

I haven’t had personal experience in unfair school dress codes, but I have been in a few jobs that had ridiculous standards or outright sexism. I got written up at one short-lived job for not wearing a belt with a pair of pants that fit well enough not to need one, for instance.

At another job, one of the male co-workers was comfortable enough to compare his female counterparts’ bodies out loud. Because I have a small stature, and the young lady I was working with at the time was tall and curvy, he deemed me as disgusting and substandard.

To our manager’s credit, that guy was fired on the spot. Unfortunately, that manager left when the organization started going downhill, which opened the door to disability discrimination, but that’s another story.

The thing is, weakness of any kind is seen as unforgivable by a large part of the population. Too often, it’s equated with being female.

For many boys, this is seen as absolutely taboo. If they need help, they may turn it away, because that’s what guys are “supposed” to do. That, of course, hurts them in both the short and long run. While the original difficulty may be hidden from their peers, guys are still emotional beings, and the strain will eventually leak into their behavior. For guys, acceptable venting is through violence, yelling, physical acts and blaming someone else for ‘making them’ act that way. If they hurt someone, the vast majority of boys and men will feel guilty for it, if only for a little while, which just adds to the never ending cycle.

Women are told from an early age to expect help if they need it. We’re still seen as weaker, but that’s apparently ok, because we’re not supposed to be strong. That’s also extraordinarily dangerous. Passivity and the ingrained need to conform to others’ wishes opens us up to physical, mental, emotional and sexual violence. If we’re not taught to embrace our drives to achieve dreams outside of the “traditional goals” of marriage, motherhood and domesticity, the world at large will suffer from a lack of  our unique form of leadership.

Note: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a more domestic life. I’m just saying it shouldn’t be our only option.

I don’t want to erase the transgender and non-conforming populations, either. These groups have unique gender-based issues to address. Although determining the sex of a baby at birth is vital to its physical health, it doesn’t necessarily align with their gender identity later in life. These kids face difficulties associated with body dysphoria, the pain of hiding who they are before transition and perhaps a feeling of being defective. If they can transition into who they feel they truly are, they then face the possibility physical violence brought upon by a hateful, ignorant population, especially when it comes to trans-women. To say nothing of family and friendship problems.

It all leads back to the equation of female = lesser, and the shame attached to that stigma.

Now, let’s tack on the stigmas associated with disability, invisible disability in particular.

In my experience, people tend to fall into three categories when they learn about my dyslexia:

  1. They refuse to believe me, opting instead to see me as wanting attention, being lazy or not being very smart to begin with.
  2. They pity me.
  3. They want to learn more about my experiences, dyslexia itself and perhaps how to help.

Number 3 is by far my favorite kind of person to interact with.

Numbers 1 and 2 have fallen for the stigmas associated with disability in general: that we’re weak and/or lazy. Usually, number 2 is willing to learn more, and can eventually learn how to see people with disabilities as people.

Number 1 is the major problem. These are the people who may be well meaning in their demands to just try harder or walk off the pain, but ultimately cause more damage than good. They refuse to listen when we say we’re already working twice as hard as everyone else, and dismiss the science pointing to physical differences as junk.

They’re also often the people who lack a fair amount of empathy, and posses something of a rigid point of view. They, like person number 2, may be able to change, especially if someone close to them helps them see just what goes on behind the scenes.

Persons number 1 and 2 may have similar points of view regarding women, though that’s not always the case.

The attitude is pretty similar, though. Unless I do my best to look like a boy, I’m obviously female. That’s usually the first thing people react to when they see me in person. I stand at around 5’2″ and weigh in at just over 100 lbs, so I’m only physically intimidating if I demonstrate my martial arts training. People who react to this visual information like persons 1 and 2 either want to take advantage of or protect me, much as they tend to when I first disclose my dyslexia.

Person number 3 sees my gender and stature, but still treats me as an equal, just as they do once they learn about my wiring.

It’s surprising how similar the attitudes are when it comes to gender and disability.

The best way to combat that is through education and teaching respect from an early age. Boys, girls and all genders must learn from childhood to accept differences, and admire the gifts they bring. Yes, we each struggle with challenge, and that’s important to address, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have something to bring to the table.

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