Home Social Justice Women’s Center speakers discuss life as disabled women

Women’s Center speakers discuss life as disabled women

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Carolyn Bailey Lewis, a media arts and studies professor at Ohio University, asked everyone in the room to close their eyes and imagine they were paralyzed on their bathroom floor. What would they do?

This is her story. She experienced persistent, aching pain in her arms and back for months. One day, she collapsed. The doctors told her husband she would wake up from her 11 hours of spinal cord surgery as a vegetable.

But Lewis sat in the Women’s Center on Thursday afternoon. Her surgery did not stop her from becoming the director and general manager of the WOUB Center for Public Media at Ohio University, a position she held from 1997 to 2011. However, it left her permanently immobilized.

“I’m a woman; I’m black; I’m in a wheelchair,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of things I’ve had to deal with.”

Lewis led a brown bag discussion with Dianne Bouvier, director of the OU Office of Equal Opportunity and Accessibility, as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act 25th Anniversary series of events at OU this week.

The two shared their experiences and presented information and statistics on abuse and sexual assault, gender contradictions, caregiving and health for women with disabilities.

Bouvier distinctly remembers being in New Haven, Connecticut, at the height of the feminist movement of the 1970s.

“I distinctly remember women in wheelchairs talking about the vulnerability of women with disabilities,” Bouvier said.

Despite the progress that has been made in equal rights for disabled women, the statistical evidence of hardships remains, as women with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic violence and sexual assault than other women, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services.

Family members and caregivers can target disabled individuals in ways that pertain to their limited mobility. Examples Bouvier gave of abuse that specifically pertain to disabled women include having medication withheld, being locked in rooms and having food be restricted.

“People define abuse really differently,” Bouvier said. “Women with disabilities are likely to experience more violence, more different kinds of violence and violence for longer periods of time.”

Lewis explained that caretakers are central to a disabled person’s existence. Her caregivers assist her in grooming, accessibility, transportation, safety and going to the bathroom.

“You have to depend on neighbors and friends,” Lewis said. “I’ll call my neighbor and tell them ‘If a tornado comes through, this is where I’ll be.’”

Despite trusting her husband as her primary caretaker, Lewis still keeps her phone and Life Alert on her at all times.

“The demands of caregiving are not gender specific,” Lewis said. “As a caregiver, you have to be an advocate.”

For students who cannot be caretakers but want to support disabled women, Lewis and Bouvier suggest they serve as an ally. Bouvier gave an example of a student who scouted out restrooms at OU for areas that were not handicap accessible.

Lewis noted that caregiving extends beyond the family and said students should think about the people around them and what they may need and ask if disabled individuals need or want assistance.

Jocelyn Bateman, a senior majoring in communication studies, works at a movie theater and is trained to use sensitive language regarding disabled individuals.

“We use terms like ‘limited mobility’ and ‘differently abled,’” Bateman said. “They made more sense than the word ‘disabled.’ You’re not entirely disabled. Only part of you is.”

Bouvier closed out the session by reminding the audience that disability is an area that crosses everything. Students studying communications can report on disabled women, and engineering majors can design accessible card swiping features for university buildings.

“Why do we have obstacles in everyday living?” Bouvier said. “This crossover of disability and women is interesting and complex. I feel like I’ve led a pretty good life, even though I’ve had a chronic illness.”

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One Comment

  1. Karen Drake

    October 30, 2015 at 5:31 PM

    This is a good article. I think we have to be aware of all disablitiys of men and women. Physical and mental.


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