You are here:

Women's Issues

Disabled Women Face 40% Higher Risk of Domestic Violence

Women with disabilities are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence, researchers at the University of Manitoba have found in a new study.

The study, published in the September issue of the research journal Violence Against Women, has found women with disabilities are almost 40 percent more likely than non-disabled women to be victims of violence at the hands of their husbands. Women with disabilities are at particular risk of facing severe violence, said author Douglas Brownridge, an associate professor in family social sciences.

"Perpetrators may feel that women with disabilities are less able to resist their dominating, jealous and possessive and violent behaviours, so simply it could be a factor of seeing them as being more vulnerable," Brownridge said Monday. Brownridge, who analyzed Statistics Canada data from more than 7,000 women across the country, found that male partners of women with disabilities were 2-1/2 times more likely to "behave in a dominating manner" and 1-1/2 times more likely to "be unreasonably jealous towards their disabled partners." "They, in fact, were more likely than partners of women without disabilities to engage in patriarchal, dominating behaviour, to engage in jealous behaviour, possessive behaviour. And ... those differences accounted for the higher risk of violence against women with disabilities," he said.

Abusers may feel their disabled spouses are less likely to report violent behaviour because they are more dependent on their partners for daily assistance, Brownridge said. "The women with disabilities may fear that they'll have no one to provide the essential care for them or that they'll have to move," he said.

Brownridge said he hopes his findings will be used to improve education among those who care for disabled women, especially their doctors.

Reprinted from CBC News, October 2, 2006:

Looking Out/looking in

Two winters ago, I was involved in a project called "Looking Out/Looking In", Women, Poverty, and Public Policy. This photovoice exhibit offered me and nine other women living in poverty, the opportunity to express ourselves through photographs and words--to portray our negative and positive viewpoints and feelings about what living in poverty is like for each of us.

"A vision-impaired person taking photographs?" you say. Yes, indeed.

Although I have enough sight to point the camera and take pictures, I have no doubt that someone without any sight could also have participated in the project, as did one of the women who did not have use of her hands.

Women involved with the project were from a variety of backgrounds and included women who were: single, Aboriginal, mothers, disabled, wives etc.

A couple of goals of the project were to hopefully bust some of the negative stereotypes that society has about poor people. Some of the people we were hoping to influence with our photos were the front line workers of service agencies, as well as the commercial and business sector. We also wanted to influence the policy makers to change policies around the issues affecting the lives of women and their families who live in poverty.

All that aside, I as a vision-impaired person found it to be a unique challenge and opportunity to not only express myself verbally on something deeply personal, but also to express myself through a visual medium.

Each woman was given a disposable camera for a couple of months and asked to take pictures of what was meaningful to her. I found that I was more inclined to express my feelings and thoughts about the economics of my life, rather than the vision-impaired angle. I guess that makes sense, since the overlying theme was poverty.

One cannot help wondering how being a person with a disability, and specifically a vision disability, played into my perspectives, and into my being involved in a project on poverty in the first place. This project also reinforced the fact that lack of eyesight is not all of who I am, and surprisingly--yet fortunately--being poor for over four decades is not all of who I am either.

Since the exhibit was put together, we continue to show it publicly at conferences, churches, organizations etc. I hope you will appreciate a few of my photos and the messages that I am trying to convey.

Photo: A dark gray cat with white chest and face sitting upright facing forward with one paw slightly raised

Captions: Suicide Prevention

I live alone and often suffer from depression and yet I am not allowed enough money to feed and care for my ?antidepressant.' If I commit suicide, who will take care of her?

Photo: The a full length silloette of a woman in dark clothes with her face covered. She is wearing her bra and panties on the outside of her clothing.

Caption: Walking Around In My Underwear As a person who has had to rely on social programs most of my life, I feel like public property. I have very little privacy and freedom to control myown affairs and create my own identity. I also don't get to participate equally in my community.

Photo: A pair of women's low healed dark dress sandals

Caption: Comfortable Shoes/Scared For My Life If I want to go out at night, I walk. Most people do not want their mother/daughter/sister/wife walking in the streets after dark, but it is okay for a partially sighted woman in poverty.

Photo: An empty coffee cup lying on it's side

Caption: My Cup Doth Not Runneth Over/I Have Nothing to Offer

I get the impression that society thinks that I have nothing to offer and it turns out that is true. I am so occupied using my energy surviving below the poverty line that I don't have anything extra to give.

Photo: A white push-button telephone

Caption: Waiting by the Phone

Surviving below the poverty line means being isolated from loved ones in good times and bad. I do not have any money to put toward long distance calls. I cannot reciprocate; I just get calls when other people feel like calling.

Photo: The view of a city skyline through some vertical and horizontal bars

Caption: Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

With the amount of freedom and privacy taken away from me by the welfare system, it is difficult for me to appreciate a beautiful day without feeling like I'm looking at it from behind the oppressive bars of the prison of poverty. In order to survive, I cheat a little from time to time and pay the price of feeling like a criminal.

Abuse of Disabled High

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Starphoenix (Saskatoon), December 28, 2005.

The Saskatchewan Voice of People with Disabilities is gearing up to appeal to provincial politicians to better help women with disabilities escape abuse.

The move comes after the organization did a study on abuse that found 83 percent of women with disabilities in the province are being abused.

"I knew that it was going to be high, but I didn't think it was going to be that high," Voice's executive director Bev Duncan said.

The abuse is physical, verbal, sexual and emotional, and often comes from the woman's primary caregiver or spouse, Duncan said.

Women with a disability are also less likely to report an abusive spouse than women without a disability, she said.

What's keeping many women silent is isolation and fear, Duncan said.

"It's the whole idea of retaliation," she said. "It still happens. A family (member) could be a caregiver for an individual and if they don't do as they're told, maybe they won't get them out of bed. They might not provide them with things that are required for them, say, catheterizing someone, as they should be.

"This then leads to a criminal act, because that's a life-threatening thing. Yet, it's still not being dealt with. And people are afraid to say something because it's their family."

There's also the challenge of logistics. If a physically challenged woman wants to leave her home, she's got to find reliable transportation to a safe place.

That safe place may also require wheelchair ramps, elevators or low counters. Since 74 percent of Canadian women with disabilities are unemployed, many have no source of income to live independently.

"And then, of course, the person is thinking, 'Well I deserve this, because I'm disabled, and with my disability, this person is being such a great guy by being with me,' " Duncan said.

Women who live in remote areas have even fewer choices. The only police in town may be related to the abuser, Duncan said.

She relayed one anecdote where a woman who uses a wheelchair decided to leave her home and was wheeling down the road when her husband caught wind of the plan. He tried to run her off the road with his truck.

For people with an intellectual disability, often if they are in an institution or receiving care from a home-care worker, the victim can't communicate what has happened, and if she does report it, the authorities may not believe her, Duncan said.

The study found that when women with disabilities do look for help, they embark on a bureaucratic journey of referrals. The information they need isn't often in accessible forms like large print, audio and braille, and few shelters are able to house or care for disabled women.

Joanne Crofford, the minister responsible for disability issues and the minister of community resources and employment, said services are there to help women with disabilities. What needs work, she said, is how the government gets the information to them.

"I was wondering myself when I reviewed this (file) whether there's enough direct communication with persons with disabilities," Crofford said. "I don't know . . . how easy it is to identify those with disabilities in our caseload, but that's certainly something we could look at doing, making sure they receive some information directly."

Only 11 percent of people with disabilities are using the government services available to them, Crofford said.

Government-funded institutions and group homes must also have strict policies on abuse, she said, including staff training and a formal reporting process. The government also relies on staff to report abuse of people who have multiple disabilities that impede their ability to communicate, she said. This policy is currently under review, she added.

"A person's in a pretty vulnerable situation," Crofford said. "So, even though they can disclose it, they could not be aware that they can, and also, they could be worried about repercussions if they report it."

Any person who suffers abuse and needs shelter, but is getting shunted around, should call her office directly, Crofford said.

Two Saskatoon women's shelters say although they never turn anyone away, their facilities are not designed to house women with disabilities for the long term.

Barb Macpherson, executive director of the YWCA, said although the shelter is fully wheelchair accessible, it's designed for women who can live independently.

"When someone phones and they're in crisis, our first goal is to get her into safety," Macpherson said. "It may not be somewhere she can stay for any length of time, but to get her out of the sense of emergency and into a safe place and then work with the rest of it."

Possible places the women can go include social housing or a health region facility, she said.

Although Interval House is not wheelchair accessible, the shelter doesn't turn people with disabilities away, executive director Sharon Cunningham said. The shelter staff will phone around to find the right place for that person to live and receive care if necessary, she said.

Cunningham said home-care workers can come to care for clients at Interval House, and in longer-term shelter Adele House, just as they would in a person's home.

Cunningham said Interval House is planning to open a newer, wheelchair-accessible shelter in the future. What she wants most of all is more public awareness about the abuse.

"It's hard for the general public to understand how anybody could rape a woman in a wheelchair," she said. "How anybody could rape and rob a blind woman. How anybody could steal from a deaf, 83-year-old lady. That's all happened here in my tenure. The public doesn't understand, because most of them are good people."

The Saskatchewan Voice for People with Disabilities is currently choosing three or four priority recommendations from their report to present to the government in hopes of preventing further abuse.


Above is Ruth with two of her children

Early Childcare Techniques of One Blind Mother

Editor's Note: Kathy Nessner-Filion works for Statistics Canada and lives in Aylmer, Quebec.

If there are any books written for blind parents, by blind parents, I am not aware of them. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to share some of my experiences of how I, as one of many blind parents across this country, figured out some practical techniques for raising young children.

Our first child, Philip, was born in 1984 and our second, Alena, in 1987. Since my husband and I had very little experience in caring for babies, we made as many preparations as we could during my first pregnancy. Together, we attended Pre-Natal classes and read as much material as we could. We bought a couple of sleepers and a package of disposable diapers for newborns and, using an old doll of mine as a model, we practiced putting the diaper on the doll and dressing it in one of the sleepers. This proved to be a really useful exercise for me.

Not all the practice or reading in the world, however, could prepare me for the overwhelming joy, wonder and love I felt when I held my children for the first time. Probably like all new mothers, I examined their little faces, their fragile little arms and legs, and their tiny fingers and toes. The only difference between myself and most new mothers, I suppose, was that I did this all by touch. Furthermore, once I brought my babies home, I had to figure out some alternative techniques for caring for them.

Both of our children shared our room until they were a little over a year old, as I felt more secure knowing my babies were as close to me as possible while we all slept. When they were a year or so, the crib and change table were moved into another bedroom because of my problem getting a decent night's sleep. I soon learned that, if I could maintain a state of semi-consciousness while I changed and nursed them during the night, sleep often returned quite easily. During more serious bouts of insomnia, I find that my orientation and mobility, as well as my ability to concentrate, are severely impaired, which is serious enough for myself as a totally blind person, but more worrisome when there are tiny babies under one's care.

As with all tasks, preparing a work area and having the necessary tools immediately on hand are very important--and probably more so when one is a blind parent with a very young baby. Changing a baby's diaper, for example, is often a rather messy business for anyone. As a blind mom, some extra precautions were quite helpful to me. On the two shelves below the change table, for instance, I made sure I had a bowl that I could fill with water if needed, change pads, a bar of baby soap, baby facecloths and towels, diapers ready for use, Baby Wipes, a box of Kleenex, a tin of Penitin cream and extra clothing, if there was enough room. A covered diaper pail was also placed beside the change table, where I could easily reach it.

Through trial and error, I learned to change a diaper with a minimal amount of mess, and was usually able to keep diaper rash at bay. Another important thing I learned was to make sure the dirty diapers were placed in the closed diaper pail as soon as possible. As gross as this may sound, some guide dogs find dirty diapers very interesting. Thinking that you might be able to put the diaper into the pail after you answer the door or the phone, for example, is not a good idea. It is best to clean baby and the entire change table area first before doing anything else.

When bathing my children during the first few months, I found it much easier to use the regular bathtub than the baby bath that came with the change table. I would place a facecloth or hand towel on the bottom of the tub so that the baby wouldn't slip, fill the tub with lukewarm water, just enough to cover their bodies, and holding their head and neck just above the water with my left hand, I would wash them with my right. Once they were able to sit up more independently, I learned quickly that I could not turn away from the tub for even a few seconds. I did this once, and Alena fell face-first into the water. I never made this mistake again!

When my children were able to eat solid food, spoon-feeding them was, for me, another challenge as a blind mother. I made sure they wore their larger bibs and, in at least two of our homes where there was wall-to-wall carpeting, I put a square plastic sheet under the highchair to protect the carpet. The plastic extended out maybe two to three feet on each side. Now that little hands could reach and grab things (and swipe them right off the highchair tray!), I also had the food jar or bowl out of reach on the kitchen table. The trick was to get some food on the spoon, bring it towards the baby without spilling its contents, and introduce it to the mouth. Since I have never been very good at holding things straight so stuff will not spill, the plastic sheeting on the floor was there to protect the carpet from me as much as from Philip and Alena!

Holding the spoon in one hand, I used my free hand to find the baby's cheek and turn his or her head towards the front of the highchair, and also towards the oncoming spoon. I would not chase them around the highchair; they had to come to the spoon, which I held over their tray. If they wanted the food, they very soon learned to turn towards me and let me slip the food into their mouths. In a short time, both babies actually guided my hand, and soon I was able to place the dish of food on their tray for them to eat independently.

I also learned some general but very useful tips. Babies quite regularly spit up, and they also slobber a good deal as their teeth are coming in. I had a good supply of bibs that I kept on Philip and Alena all day. When one was dirtied, I removed it and replaced it with another. In most cases, this prevented me from needing to change their clothing so often. To protect my own clothing, I always laid a receiving blanket or a small towel over my shoulder when I was carrying them in my arms.

Receiving blankets were also one of the important items to be kept in their diaper bag when we were shopping, travelling or visiting friends. When they became hungry, I was able to lay the blanket over my shoulder and nurse them under it. People knew what I was doing, of course, but all they could really see were the baby's feet. I realize there are many opinions on nursing babies in public, but this method is the one that made me feel most comfortable, and Philip and Alena do not seem to have suffered for it.

When my children were young, I was not aware of any accessible thermometers, so I learned to find out if they had a fever by putting my lips on the top of their heads when they were babies, and when they had more hair, by touching my lips to their foreheads. I also found ways of having medicine applicators notched so that I could tell if I had the correct amount when drawing the liquid from the bottle.

Scraped knees and elbows and a few deeper cuts were as common an occurrence in our home, I imagine, as they are in families with two sighted parents. The best way I found to manage these situations was to get the child into the bathroom as quickly as possible and to calm him or her down enough so that they could take my hand and show me where the injury was. In this way, by touching it as gently as I could, I was able to figure out just how serious it was and usually how large a bandage I would need. Even while crying and screaming, they were always able to tell me how much it was bleeding and to help me trace the size of the wound with my fingers. Then it was a reasonably simple matter of cleaning the area and putting antibiotic ointment onto the pad of the bandage. I then asked them to guide my hands to the injury so that together we could cover it properly with the bandage. I believe this helped them to concentrate on other things instead of the pain.

For reading stories to my children, I was able to purchase and borrow a number of print/braille books and, in fact, I have kept a few of them for sentimental reasons--and for reading to my grandchildren, if I should have any!

If I needed to leave the house and my husband was unavailable to help, I would carry the kids in a snugly on my front when they were tiny, and in a carrier on my back when they were older. By the time Alena was able to sit in the back carrier, Philip was four years old and able to hold my right hand when we went out to do errands, while I held my guide dog's harness with my left.

My marriage to my children's father ended when Philip was eight years old and Alena was five. He is a sighted man. Driving the kids to Beavers, Cubs and dance classes, and helping me to get the weekly groceries were all ways in which his help made my life easier. When I became a single parent, it was important to organize my life in a different way. Although each of us had both children on numerous occasions, Philip lived mainly with his father and Alena lived primarily with me. Apart from those times when I could arrange rides for her, Alena became accustomed to travelling to and from appointments, ballet and art classes, and to Brownies with me on foot or on public transit.

Shopping trips had to be well organized and well timed, as, like most single parents, I no longer had another parent to fall back on for childcare when I left the house. I had an arrangement with a couple of grocery stores where I made a list of the items I needed, faxed it to the store, and then went with my guide dog and bundle buggy to pick up the order later the same day. This was a method that generally worked very well for me with large orders, and one I preferred.

When Alena began school, I established the best working relationship I could with the principal and her teachers. A good deal of print information came home in her backpack that she could not read to me, and I often had to take it back to the school to be read or have it explained over the phone. Volunteer readers who helped me with my mail were able to assist me to a certain degree with school-related correspondence but since it became clear to me that Alena needed some extra help with reading and math, very soon I needed the school's assistance to find a tutor. When this was arranged, her schoolwork improved.

The school years presented me with challenges quite different from those I experienced at home when my children were very young, but these are best explained another time.

Alena is now 19 years old and is attending her second year at the University of Ottawa's School of Management. She lives with me and my second husband. Philip is 22 and lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where his father also resides. He is the Assistant Manager of a store in West Edmonton Mall, does some contract work for Travel Alberta, and also some modeling for the fashion section of an Edmonton newspaper.

Public Forum Tackles Abuse of The Disabled

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, June 11, 2005.

Some 120 people crowded the halls of the Law Society of Upper Canada last week to talk about dignity, respect and the rights of people with disabilities to live free from abuse.

What can you do if you are being maltreated by service workers or others responsible for helping with personal care?

What happens if you report that abuse? What can authorities do?

These questions were central to last week's public forum presented by the Law Society and ARCH, a legal resource centre for people with disabilities. It followed a story in the Star in which artist Anne Abbott spoke out about a widespread pattern of emotional abuse against people with disabilities.

Abbott, who has cerebral palsy, is quick to point out that many personal care assistants are sensitive, considerate and respectful of dignity. But others are abusive in many subtle and not so subtle ways.

Among other things, they may handle fragile bodies roughly, use unnecessary force doing simple things like brushing hair, leave people stranded on the toilet for hours, threaten, shout or otherwise try to intimidate.

So what do you do if you are the victim of neglect, harassment or emotional or financial bullying?

How do you go about telling someone you feel scared and humiliated? How can you be sure that telling won't put you or your pets at greater risk?

"It may be hard to decide if you should tell someone," says ARCH, which offers a range of advice pamphlets. "You might be scared of what people will say or do if you tell ... of how your abuser will react or that you will lose some of the supports you need."

But reporting abuse may be the only way to stop it, to restore your sense of dignity, the group notes. It also may protect other people from being abused.

Speakers at the forum, moderated by Jos Bouchard, equity adviser for the Law Society, included ARCH staff lawyer Lana Kerzner, Fran Odette, project coordinator for the women with disabilities and deaf women's program at Education Wife Assault, Nevina Crisante, counsel to the Ontario Victim Service Secretariat at the Ministry of the Attorney General, and Gwen Reid, an abuse counsellor and sexual assault survivor, who spoke about her experience as a witness at the criminal trial of her assailant (where the witness box was inaccessible to her wheelchair.)

Abbott, whose courage to speak out has helped focus renewed attention on preventing abuse, says little has changed with the personal assistants supplied to her by Tobias House Attendant Care. But she intends to keep fighting for justice. As does ARCH.

"This is only the beginning," says executive director, Phyllis Gordon.

If you are in danger, the Assaulted Women's Helpline has a 24-hour crisis line for both men and women. Call 1-866-863-0511 (voice) or 1-866-863-7868 (TTY).

Other sources for information include:

ARCH: See (opens in a new window) or call 416-482-8255 (voice) or 416-482-1254 (TTY) or write 425 Bloor St. E., Toronto, Ont. M4W 3R5.

Community Legal Education Ontario, which offers simple, clear booklets on everything from elder abuse to consumer rights. Most are free. See (opens in a new window) or call 416-408-4420 or write 119 Spadina Ave., Suite 600, Toronto, Ont. M5V 2L1.

National Clearinghouse on Family Violence: See (opens in a new window)or call 1-800-267-1291 or write 1907D1 Jeanne Mance Building, Tunney's Pasture, Ottawa, Ont. K1A 1B4.

Education Wife Assault: See (opens in a new window) or call (416) 968-3422 (voice), (416) 968-7335 (TTY) or write Suite 220, 215 Spadina Ave., Toronto, Ont. M5T 2C7.

The Advocacy Centre for the Elderly: See (opens in a new window) or call 416-598-2656 or write 2 Carlton St., Suite 701, Toronto, Ont. M5B 1J3.

The Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse: See (opens in a new window) or call 416-978-1716 or write 222 College Street, Suite 106, Toronto, Ont. M5T 3J1.

Reprinted with permission--Torstar Syndication Services.

Layers of Discrimination: Disabled Women in Zimbabwe

Editor's Note: This article is part of Gender Link's Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news. It was first published through the Service in September 2005.

"We do not network with people with disabilities. What will [people] say if I am seen having a meeting with you? You have to stay indoors and ask the Department of Social Welfare to assist you with food."

Can you imagine what it feels like to be at the receiving end of this comment? I can tell you, it is painful and upsetting. These words were spoken to me by an influential and well-respected director of a woman's organization in Zimbabwe as I attempted to get an appointment to share the work of the Disabled Women Support Organization (DWSO) with her.

Her attitude is reflective of many in society who view disabled people as useless liabilities who have no role to play in society. And there are many of our sisters who, instead of showing us empathy and supporting us, discriminate against us, as the statement above shows.

Our work in Zimbabwe has shown that women with disabilities experience extreme discrimination, which is compounded by their disability. Sexual violence, which is fuelling the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region and which affects all women alike, is reportedly on the increase amongst women and girls with disabilities.

A report by Save the Children Fund, Norway, in December 2004, revealed that the sexual abuse of children with disabilities is on the increase in Zimbabwe. The study found that 87.4 percent of girls with disabilities were reported to have been sexually abused. Approximately 48 percent of these girls were mentally challenged, 15.7 percent had hearing impairments and between 12-25.3 percent had visible physical disabilities. Out of the 87.4 percent who had been sexually abused, 52.4 percent tested HIV positive. Sadly, the situation is similar in Namibia and Botswana.

Despite the high rate of HIV infection amongst women with disabilities, our access to voluntary counselling and testing facilities and centres is severely limited. This is due to a number of reasons, including the biased attitude of staff towards people with disabilities; the physical construction of buildings; and the lack of information available on HIV/AIDS in braille or staff who are able to use sign language.

Disabled people have particular experiences as a result of social exclusion, marginalization, vulnerability, isolation and other social, economic, political and cultural factors. Already more vulnerable, poverty combines with these factors to render disabled women at even greater risk. In Zimbabwe, women and girls are the poorest of the poor.

The recent Operation Murambatsvina being carried out in Zimbabwe since May this year is worsening the situation. I was shocked at the announcement made on national television on June 26 that people with disabilities and the mentally ill would be taken to institutions! How can we be put into institutions when we are fighting to be integrated into society?

I want to remind my sisters that there is a need to promote the inclusion, integration and human rights of women with disabilities in our work across all sectors. It is important that an environment be created to encourage and support the participation of women with disabilities in structures and processes that affect our lives. No decision that affects us should be made without our input. After all, there is "nothing about us without us".

Gladys Charowa is a single mother who has been living with disability since December 2001, after a car accident that left her wheelchair-bound. She is the founder member and Executive Director of Disabled Women Support Organization (DWSO), an organization that focuses on women and girls with disabilities.

Blind Women Around The World

Recent studies indicate that women now represent close to two thirds of all blind persons in the world. According to statistics published by the World Health Organization in 2004, there are about 37 million blind persons and a further 124 million persons with low vision around the world, 80 percent of whom come from developing countries. Moreover, at least 75 percent of blindness and low vision is either preventable or avoidable, the leading cause worldwide being cataracts.

The proportion of women affected by blindness is astounding, but understandable when one considers factors that contribute to their increased vulnerability. In developing countries, for instance, women are usually the primary caregivers and are often exposed to water-borne infections introduced by other family members. Women, furthermore, generally have less access to information about available treatments than do men. Even in industrialized countries such as Canada and the United States, women are affected in larger numbers since they typically live longer than men and many types of vision loss are related to the aging process.

For blind women and girls living in developing countries, the situation is truly appalling, as they have less access than males to rehabilitation and educational programming, as well as to basic health care. Only about five percent of blind children, for example, get to go to school in these countries, but the number is half that for blind girls. Blind females may also be excluded from their families as they are perceived to have no way to contribute to the family's well-being, and many are forced to earn a living "on the street". A good number, furthermore, are subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse by family members, service providers and members of the general public.

Because of the desperate situation faced by blind women in developing countries, the World Blind Union has made it a priority over the last decade and a half to improve their circumstances. Through such means as encouraging the development of local women's committees, providing leadership seminars in all developing regions, and ensuring that women play a stronger role in the leadership of organizations of and for the blind, more women are being developed as leaders and are helping to influence program improvements.

An encouraging outcome is that many organizations insist on the involvement of equal numbers of women in their development programs, guaranteeing women the opportunity to benefit. A number of women are emerging as leaders in Africa and the Caribbean, and this evolution will undoubtedly help to influence improvements to the situation faced by blind women around the world.

The Working Life of An Independent Blind Woman Annoyingly Independent? Maybe...But You Go, Girl!!

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLIII, No. 3, November 2004.

Let me preface this piece by stating that seeking autonomy and independence for any woman in the 20th century, blind or sighted, was, and to some extent, still is, a daunting struggle.

My working life as a blind woman for the past 30 years has been an odyssey, navigating through a sea of bureaucratic storms, battles and occasional anchorages at peaceful ports of employment.

This odyssey began with an application to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. In those days the choices for a blind woman were quite limited. I am aware that many blind men would claim the same restricted opportunities. While this may be true to the extent that any person with a disability has faced barriers to employment, the fact is that males have had and still have an advantage, simply by virtue of their gender.

As a blind woman, I was limited to the job choices of medical transcriber or BEP vendor. I tried the latter for a year and had to leave because the long hours were incompatible with my single parent responsibilities. So I ended up spending nine years as a medical transcriber in order to support my three young children. This was a good job, paid the bills and saw me and my kids through those stormy years.

However, it was not an opportunity to fulfill my human potential. It was an entry level, dead-end job and I needed more in my life. Now you ask, "Why are you complaining? You had a good job and many people with or without disabilities would be satisfied." I have never bought into the concept that "being satisfied" was the end-all of my life journey. Therefore, I have travelled many risky roads, keeping in mind that this is my very own one life and I will spend it being the best and the most I can be.

The question that has travelled those roads with me has been who or what defines the sum total of my being: my values, my choices, my needs, my joys? And the answer is always, "You, Teddie-Joy, you are the keeper of this definition." Therefore, I have had a somewhat speckled 30-year working life, but exciting and always filled with self-discoveries and epiphanies.

I spent nine years as a medical transcriber, one year as a vendor, five years as a recreation director with the Department of Recreation and Parks, two years as an advocate for the Client Assistance Program, one year as a CAP trainer, and the last four years as a community liaison and disability rights advocate. In between I spent time being unemployed and five years going back to college at the age of 49 and graduating at age 54 with a degree in gerontology.

It is certainly true that many bureaucratic systems have assisted me in this journey, but I have always made the life choices. They have not always been ones of which the systems approved. I don't have the time to wait on either systemic or popular approval.

After these 30-plus years, I am exceedingly pleased and proud of the woman I have become. My values, needs, choices and joys have all been owned by me alone and I celebrate that achievement! The sorrows and pain in life cannot be escaped, but I live it all with commitment to my independence and autonomy.

Staying in Style

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted with permission from Dialogue Magazine, Winter 2003.

There is an old saying that everything will come back into style eventually. Miniskirts, popular in the 1960s, came back into style in the '90s. Shoulder pads, so fashionable in the '40s, became stylish again in the '80s.

Men have less trouble than women do with style, but there are small details, like cuffs on trousers, that can make a man's clothes look dated.

So how can you be sure you are in style? One way is to listen to others. I overheard a woman at church telling another about a new suit she had bought, and said, "It has a short jacket like they're wearing nowadays." Sure enough, the jackets were all about three inches shorter than the ones in my closet.

Another time, I overheard a male acquaintance say, "Those capri pants all the women wear now sure are ugly." Inquiry elicited the description of tight pants ending two inches above the ankle.

Another source of information for me is the woman who does my alterations. I showed her the desired length of the pant legs I wanted hemmed, and she said, "But that's not the style now." I also overheard another customer asking to have her shoulder pads removed. "No more football player look," she said. That confirmed that shoulder pads were out of style.

Television is another source of fashion information--not sit-coms, but talk shows. I leave the "Today Show" on as I dress for work in the morning. Often it has a segment on fashion. A narrator describes what the models are wearing. "This skirt is right at the knee, which is the best length for everyone. The sweater dress is a nice informal look for all; with a blazer, it can be worn to work."

An unlikely but rather reliable source of fashion information is, believe it or not, current mystery and romance novels. The ones published in the last year to two can give you good information, such as a character's scornful reference to "the floppy bow tie and sheer stocking type." So that must mean blouses with bows at the neck were out and women were wearing coloured stockings.

You can also check what is being displayed in stores. You have to be careful here, since stores also stock clothes for women who don't like the modern look. A personal shopper, employed by many stores to choose outfits for your approval, can be an excellent source of current information. You are not obligated to buy what they show you, but it's a good way to find out what new fashions make your favourite clothes obsolete.

Men can take advantage of such shoppers, too. Shoppers can coordinate shirt, tie and sweater, or just update a look with a new four-inch wide tie or a Tabasco tie-a colourful tie with little tabasco bottles on it. Looking at the Tommy Hilfiger section is always a good idea. This brand is the latest fashion for men--and there is a Hilfiger line of clothes for women, too.

It's not unmanly to ask a woman for fashion advice. Most men let their wives choose their clothes, matching socks to trousers and belts to shoes. An unmarried man can ask a female friend for advice. My boyfriend, George, who is sighted, relies on the advice of a co-worker whose taste he admires. She gave him a list of colours that look good together, and he relies on it when selecting his clothes in the morning.

I have an advantage that many women don't have. My three sisters live in the same town I do. They sometimes take me shopping, but it's just as informative listening to them talk or asking them about fashions. Now and then I get one of them to go through my closet with me and cull out the garments that are hopelessly out of date. They often give hints on modernizing a favourite that I don't want to give to Goodwill. "This would be ok with a chain belt,"or "these pants would be ok with a long sweater." But the verdict is sometimes a simple "no way."

These are just a few of the ways I use to stay fashionable without hiring someone to read Vogue. I still make mistakes, but I've learned one thing from my sisters; you don't have to follow every fashion slavishly. If those capri's make your ankles feel naked, don't wear them.

Also, you can update your look by changing only a little of what you wear. For instance, a year or so ago, the Donna Karan look demanded that shoes and stockings be the same colour as the skirt. Who can afford to buy shoes to match every skirt she owns? But you could get just one outfit in the Donna Karan look, or just buy black stockings to go with the black shoes and skirt you already have. When jackets change dramatically, don't hem yours that short. Just buy a short jacket that will be wearable with what you have. It will give you an up-to-date look without destroying your budget.

Blind people can't be expected to intuitively know what's fashionable. You can stay stylish by listening to others and being aware of clues from other sources. Staying in style takes vigilance, but it can be done.

Dialogue is a publication of Blindskills, Inc., PO Box 5181, Salem, OR 97304-0181; Phone: 800-860-4224; Email: and Website:

White Girl With a White Cane

Editor's Note: Julie Sanfacon now lives in Longueuil, Quebec, where she works for Visuaide.

I am a young woman with a vision impairment. I have myopia, nystagmus and a rare type of night blindness. I also have a serious and incurable condition--an acute and persistent case of the travel bug!

For the last five years, I have either taken part in international projects or prepared for international projects. In 1998, I heard about a fantastic opportunity. The Programme Cooperant-Volontaire (Volunteer Development Worker Program), which is offered in the province of Quebec, gives young Canadians aged between 22 and 32 the chance of studying in international development and of doing an internship in Africa or in South America. However, I was only able to take part in this program in 2003, after participating in several international projects and finishing my university studies.

When I started the Programme Cooperant-Volontaire, I first took part in intensive classes in African language, politics and history, in project management and on team leadership. And then, off I went to Mali, where I took part in an internship in education and capacity building with the Malian Union of the Blind. While I was getting ready for my internship, a question sprang into my mind: What kind of challenges would I face in Mali How would I be perceived as a Canadian intern with a vision impairment

I realised that my white cane would be well perceived in Mali and that it would even be an icebreaker. The white cane is a universally recognised symbol and, since there are many vision-impaired Malians, most people are familiar with this symbol and respect it. But what happens when a white cane ends up in the hands of a white girl I found out that this turns the white girl into a more approachable person.

Thanks to my white cane, I was able to make contact with many people who may not have talked to me otherwise. I was told that in Mali, colonisation has left deep scars and has damaged relationships between black and white people. When I came to Mali, I knew that, even as a development worker and an intern, I was carrying the burden of this wounded relationship. However, I have a degenerative retinal disease, a condition that many Malians have. Moreover, by talking about our lives and our backgrounds, Malian women with disabilities and I discovered that there are more elements that unite Malians and Canadians with disabilities than elements that keep them apart. In a way, we are all in the same big boat.

I know that many specialists on disability and development and development workers will disagree with what I am saying. How can a Canadian intern and a vision-impaired Malian woman share the same realities and challenges How can we be all in the same big boat What about the link between disability and poverty

Indeed, the causes of disability may vary greatly from one country to another. In Mali, there are many cases of preventable blindness caused by easily treatable conditions such as trachoma or vitamin A deficiency. However, the consequences of disability on one's professional and personal life, and attitudinal barriers towards people with disabilities can bear many similarities.

Both Canadian and Malian women with disabilities may be overprotected by their family or considered as not as gifted as their siblings. Both may have difficulties in accessing equal education opportunities, in finding and keeping a job and in meeting people who will consider them for their abilities rather than their disabilities. Both may have difficulty in finding a spouse or may be considered as inadequate mothers because of their blindness. Both may meet people who will say that their disability is a tragedy and who will pity them.

I also learned that Canada was sometimes perceived as a country where discrimination does not exist. When I told my friends that, when I was a student, many of my job applications were turned down, that I was discriminated against during job interviews, that I was often laid off from work because of my disability, that some of my teachers gave me a hard time and that I had to rely on justice to untangle two cases of discrimination based on disability, a huge myth came crashing down. There is discrimination in Canada too!

I adored my experience in Mali, made great friends in Bamako and wanted to stay there for longer than the duration of my three-month internship. When I was in Mali, I tried to find opportunities to work with Canadian development agencies in programs on a disability and development or disability-mainstreaming project. However, I was also told that none of the main Canadian development agencies initiated a project in this field.

I hope that this will change soon. Since we are all in the same boat, I hope that we will start working together. When this happens, I'll be ready to go!

*Image: Author Julie Sanfancon


Subscribe to RSS - Women's Issues