Disabled people have been made to believe they are the problem

Rosaleen McDonagh: Article 41.2 has marginalised disabled feminists. Time for change

Rosaleen McDonagh: Care support work is undervalued and underpaid, and it continues to be a significant indicator of gender inequality.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Rosaleen McDonagh: Care support work is undervalued and underpaid, and it continues to be a significant indicator of gender inequality. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Under article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution, caring work is identified as the duty and responsibility of women: “the State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

A weekly column by writers with a disability.
A weekly column by writers with a disability.

Duties “in the home” cover a multitude of roles, including childcare, care of older people, and supporting people with impairments. More recently these have expanded to include roles for women in supporting their male partner on the farm or in small or family businesses. The assigning of these roles demands devotion and calls for the unpaid labour of women.

Article 41.2 was due to have been voted on the same day as last year’s Eighth Amendment referendum but the vote was postponed. The article remains outdated and unacceptable. Traditional values and perspectives are becoming ever more redundant, in particular with ongoing secularisation in Ireland. Caring or being “in the home”, for a multitude of reasons, must not be understood as gender specific. The feminisation of care is deeply embedded in patriarchal concepts and structures in our society. Care support work is undervalued and underpaid, and it continues to be a significant indicator of gender inequality. Within this, there can be an understanding that disabled people, both adults and children, are implicitly part of the societal positioning of women and their experience of exploitation.

We were made to believe that somehow we were part of the problem by “holding women in the home”

The ensuing guilt for many disabled feminists is difficult to articulate and to deconstruct. Throughout our lives, most of us will find ourselves both as the caregiver and the recipient of care. Previously, arguments among women around the right to work and the right to stay at home brought huge discomfort to adults with disabilities. We were made to believe that somehow we were part of the problem by “holding women in the home”.

A damaging belief accompanies this perspective: that disabled people and others in need of support and care should be consigned to State institutions or other large communal care settings. While this may solve the problem for women carers in the home, it consigns disabled people to settings that form part of the commodification of our bodies and constitute an abuse of human rights.

Devotion, strength and love are the attributes of mothers, fathers and siblings who support and care for us in the family home. Respect, dignity and freedom from abuse, violence and exploitation must be the fundamental values motivating the giving and receiving of care, no matter who is providing it. Receiving support in our daily tasks often positions disabled people as being incompetent. We are assigned the role of passive users of services. This process of infantilisation imposes vulnerability. Our status and bodies are held to ransom in a heavy mix of blame and shame. Compromised autonomy brings domination and oppression.

The medical model of disability oppresses people with impairments, and it underpins exploitative practices of care and support. Women who are in the caring roles, be they formal or informal, are compromised by this outdated and unacceptable model of disability. In order to find a better way of living and working for all women, there needs to be new thinking around issues of dependence, independence and interdependence.

As disabled people we share key feminist goals, including control over our bodies

The key to generating this new thinking is appreciating the intertwined rights of both women and disabled people. We share a legacy of abuse, violence and neglect by the State. All of us, as women, are compromised and have paid the price of our gender; a price we continue to pay in very practical terms through issues such as the gender pay gap. As disabled people we share key feminist goals, including control over our bodies, the right to protect our bodily integrity, and socio-economic independence. Central to this thinking are respect and equality between women. All of us women thrive only through our interdependence and multifaceted positioning in the dialogue on women’s equality and human rights.

Our Constitution has changed dramatically during the last 15 years. Very few women, if any, had an influence on the original writing of the Constitution of 1937. As a result, the role of women within the wording of the Constitution has always been contentious. Even when article 41.2 is removed or amended, that development alone will not remove the residue of its values, which remain ingrained in social policy and services. The removal or amendment of article 41.2 must result in a new debate that values care work as the equally shared domain of all genders and that accommodates the rights of care recipients in any new formulation.

Platform Series: Rosaleen McDonagh
1) He’d look for a kiss from his gypsy girl
2) Perniciousness of racism and ableism
3) Life should be about living, not existing
4) The disabled spoil the presentation
5) When will there be an official apology?
6) Theatre access for those with a disability
7) Believing disabled sexual assault victims

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