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Female strength for disability rights

Photograph: Pexels

Text: Michaela Medveďová / Anna Pawlowicz

In honour of International Women's Day, for this issue, we decided to highlight some of the most inspiring female disability activists and two major women's advocacy groups of today - but also look into the history of female disability activism.

Who paved the way for the women of today?

History is full of inspiring female activists - we chose to highlight Judith Heumann, one of the most influential figures in contributions to the rights of people with disabilities.

Considered the mother of the disability rights movement in the United States, Judith advocated for rights for people with disabilities both as a protester, grassroots organiser and policymaker. Judith lost her ability to walk after contracting polio when she was two. Initially denied access to schooling because of her disability, thanks to her parents' fight for her right to education, she went on to attend university and earn a Master's.

In the 1970s and 80s, she went on to successfully sue the New York City Board of Education after they denied her a teaching job because of her use of a wheelchair; she organised a 28-day sit-in at a federal building to enforce crucial parts of the Rehabilitation Act along with a fellow disability advocate Kitty Cone; and was a co-founder of one of the first global disability rights organisation that is led by people with special needs, the World Institute on Disability (WID).

In the following decades, she moved her influence into policymaking, serving "as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Clinton Administration from 1993 to 2001. 2002-2006, she worked at the World Bank as their first Advisor on Disability and Development. In 2010, Heumann became the first Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department.

While the legacy of Judith Heumann is seen as the greatest influence on the disability justice movement, other female activists (like Marilyn Hamilton or Harriet McBryde Johnson) have made their mark, too.

"Considered the mother of the disability rights movement in the United States, Judith advocated for rights for people with disabilities both as a protester, grassroots organiser and policymaker."

Who is taking up the mantle today?

We wanted to highlight the activities of these 5 women who are advocating for others with disabilities in the present day:

Emily Ladau is an American disability rights activist and writer. Born with Larsen syndrome, a genetic, physical disability, her advocacy for disability rights began already at the age of 10 as she appeared in a few episodes of Sesame Street to educate children about what life with a disability looks like. On top of published work across many publications, in 2021, she published a book, Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be An Ally, and is a co-host of The Accessible Stall Podcast. You can follow Emily here.

Nina Tame, a British counsellor and disability mentor, was born with spina bifida, because of which she ultimately started to use a wheelchair in her thirties. She is using her extensive social media following to talk about disability, highlight the issues disabled people face, and break outdated stereotypes. You can follow Nina here.

Imani Barbarin, an American writer, speaker, and disability activist with cerebral palsy, launched her blog Crutches and Spice to discuss her experience. Creating dozens of trending hashtags, she's been using her social media platforms to promote the discussion of the issues and experiences of people with disabilities. You can follow Imani here.

Molly Burke is an American writer, digital creator, and activist for people with blindness. As a child, she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare degenerative eye disease that causes eventual blindness, and lost most of her vision at 14. She started her public speaking journey at age five and has since given speeches at the United Nations and the World Economic Forum in Davos. Molly became the first blind content creator with a million followers on social media, pioneering an online space for the disability community. You can follow Molly here.

Sinéad Burke is an Irish writer and activist, well-known for her 2017 TED talk Why Design Should Include Everyone. Born with achondroplasia, in 2020, she founded her company Tilting the Lens - "a consultancy that asks, 'is this accessible?'. We start conversations in every room to address inaccessibility. We design with Disabled people, not for Disabled people. We craft solutions to intentionally build an accessible and equitable world." You can follow Sinéad here.

Organisational support

Among others, these two major human rights organisations are operating on the intersection between gender and disability:

One of the focus areas for UN Women, the United Nations organisation delivering programs and policies for upholding women's rights, is specifically the rights of women and girls with disabilities, as they can "often experience profound discriminations. This can lead to lower economic and social status; increased risk of violence and abuse, including sexual violence; gender-based discriminatory practices; and limited access to education, health care (including sexual and reproductive health), information, services, justice, as well as civic and political participation."

The organisation recognises that a gender-neutral approach to disability inclusion can perpetrate these discriminations. They aim to establish active participation and consultation from women with disabilities and their organisations.

The second organisation we wish to highlight, Women Enabled International, focuses on improving the situation of women with disabilities across 5 key issues: sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender-based and sexual violence, participation and inclusion, discrimination, equality, stigma, and stereotyping, and accountability and access to justice. Through legal advocacy, collaboration with partners, working with the United Nations to shape policies, and building inclusive movements, they are working towards a "world where women and girls with disabilities claim human rights, act in solidarity, and lead self-determined lives."

Do you have questions about this topic? We'd love to hear from you! Please write to us at

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