Our Watch

Skip to content

I am proud of being Deaf, but everyday ableism, audism and sexism is exhausting

February 15, 2022 / By Our Watch Ambassador Drisana Levitzke-Gray

I am a strong, empowered fifth generation Deaf woman, but I have lost count of the number of times I have been excluded, or told ‘I can’t do that,’ due to my gender and being Deaf.

Our Watch in partnership with Women with Disabilities Victoria has launched Changing the landscape: A national resource to prevent violence against women and girls with disabilitiesRead the resources here.

I am, and remain, extremely proud of the generations of Deaf and disability activists who fought for the rights and privileges I have today.

But despite these steps forward, I am still exhausted by the discrimination I personally experience, and the stories I hear from other women with disabilities.

With 1 in 5 Australian women and girls living with a disability – whether that’s physical, sensory, intellectual, neurological, or mental – that’s a lot of us who may face sexism, audism and ableism in our daily lives.

But ableism can be so subtle and so ingrained within our society that many people are unaware that they have this prejudice.

Women with disabilities often face the stereotype that they are ‘child-like,’ ‘vulnerable,’ or need to be protected. Despite many people believing they are being kind, this stereotype is harmful, not helpful.

When I was at university, a lecturer absurdly assumed that being Deaf meant I wasn’t fluent in English. This was a frustrating experience as I had to sit there and reassure the teacher that I was more than capable of submitting assignments and papers in written English.

Often the main issue is that choices are being made for us, instead of by us. This means being forced to lip-read instead of respecting my request for people to either gesture or write things down. This is especially stressful during the pandemic, where my health is put at risk due to people pulling down their masks.

This inequality is not just about individual attitudes, it is also systemic, and its roots go deep within our medical and disability services, our workplaces, schools, governments and communities.

This has immediate and ongoing repercussions, including how women with disabilities experience violence, and how society treats and responds to this violence.

A new resource published by Our Watch and Women and Disabilities Victoria shows that it is the intersection of gender inequality and disability inequality that leads to the alarmingly high rates of violence women with disabilities experience.

Women and girls with disabilities are twice as likely to experience physical and sexual violence compared to women and girls without disabilities, and 65 percent of women have experienced violence.

Women and girls with disabilities are not more ‘vulnerable’ to being abused, it is ableist and sexist attitudes, systems and practices that allow this to happen.

It was only in 2020, that Ann Marie Smith, an Adelaide woman with cerebral palsy, died as a result of sickening abuse and neglect by her carer.

It emerged that she spent up to a year confined to a cane chair for 24 hours a day. This raised serious and crucial questions about how many people looked the other way, excusing the abuse because her carer was ‘burnt out,’ or because looking after a woman with disability was a ‘burden’.

Since the establishment of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability in 2019 we have heard thousands of other disgraceful and shameful stories.

These stories are confronting – but we must listen, learn, and take urgent action to stop this violence from happening again.

We know this violence is preventable, people are not born being ableist, audist or sexist, nor are current systems and practices set in stone.

As individuals we can often feel powerless to make change. But there are simple ways you can be part of progress and be an ally.

If you are a person without a disability, it is important for you to listen and understand the different experiences women with disabilities face and call out discrimination when you see or hear it. This doesn’t mean you have to launch into a debate, it can just be an eyeroll, having your arms folded, or anything to show you don’t approve of sexist and ableist attitudes and practices.

These small individual actions can help us shift and change what is socially acceptable. But they must run alongside action and commitment from our governments, workplaces, education institutions and medical and disability services.

This is not just about ending violence against women and girls with disabilities, it is also about building a society where all women are valued, respected and have equal rights and opportunities.

I will continue to be a proud Deaf woman and activist, following in the footsteps of Deaf and disabled advocates before me.

If you agree that every woman has a right to feel safe and equal, join me.

This op-ed was first published on February 15, 2022 in Australian Community Media.