Earlier this year, about 30 disabled people gathered in Dublin, with some more participating via conference calls from Brussels and different parts of the country, for the inaugural annual general meeting of the Disabled Women of Ireland (DWI). Mostly comprising women who met through Twitter, DWI aims to advocate for the rights of women with disabilities in Ireland by becoming the national representative organisation for disabled women.
A feminist movement that was born online, organiser Maria Ní Fhlartharta saw the need for a group like this when she noticed how regularly she and others complained about the discourse around disability in the build-up to the Eighth Amendment referendum.
“We had basically a group chat on Twitter of disabled women who were really p*ssed off. I think that worked on two fronts; we were ridiculously annoyed by absolutely everything the Pro-Life campaign said – and said about disability in particular – but then also kind of annoyed at the progressive feminists’ response, if that makes sense,” says the Galway-based reproductive rights law researcher, who feels that disabled women were underrepresented during this timeframe. “We were like oh, no one is getting this right and we realised that the conversation [about disabled women] wasn’t happening.”
Ní Fhlartharta called in Alannah Murray, Amy Hassett, Niamh Herbert, Roisin Dermody, Eleanor Walshe and two women named Roísin Hackett – all disabled women under the age of 30 – and on May 11th, 2018, DWI was officially launched.
Beyond the referendum
Using social media hashtags such as #AbleHour or #CripTheVote, they discussed issues concerning reproductive rights, autonomy and disability rights. Ní Fhlartharta knew that they had to continue beyond the referendum. “The numbers we were getting from Twitter were pretty good and we were seeing more people starting to use our arguments in the campaign. We were seeing people screw up less on disability,” she says, “so I knew we couldn’t stop.”
Inspired by disabled feminist groups in London (Sisters of Frida), Iceland (tabú) and Australia (Women with Disabilities Australia) and the growing networks of disabled women in Poland and Kenya, DWI's goal – as per its mission statement – is to promote "the participation of women with disabilities in all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life".
Murray, a postgraduate researcher from Cavan, is eager for DWI to contribute to the Objective Sex Education Bill, a Bill that proposes factual and objective sex education in schools. “Disabled people are often left out of conversations surrounding sexual health and sexuality as a whole, as well as sexual violence,” she says. “This is despite the fact that disabled women are more at risk of experiencing abuse and sexual violence.”
The plastic straw ban, she says, will also fall under DWI’s agenda: “This is probably one of the most pressing issues of our time. Environmentalism and disability are normally pitted against each other, when really I think it’s important to note that disabled people do care about the environment; we also care about being able to drink unimpeded.”
To accommodate the various conditions of members, DWI will have rolling committees and chairpeople. "There's so many factors where people will need to take time out – emotional burnout from activism is such a thing," says sociology and social policy student Róisín Hackett, who's currently doing a split year in Trinity College to accommodate her recovery from a recent surgery. "People will need to take an unknown amount of time out for flare-ups to manage conditions and having a flexible structure takes care of that."
By pairing online activism with in-person activism, members can participate however they choose, wherever they are in the country. “So much of traditional activism really values embodiment. Like being there in the moment, physically occupying a room in Frederick Street, which is up five flights of stairs and you have to stay there for an eight-hour shift,” says Hackett. “There’s a sentiment that if you’re not doing that then you’re not a real activist but I definitely think it is changing.”
While there were new faces at the agm (including the parents of a 12-year-old girl who want to teach their daughter about self-advocacy), established disability activists such as Suzy Byrne and Rosaleen McDonagh proudly watch on. "I'm delighted," says Byrne, of the new group. She believes DWI will "bring forward new generations of leaders" and that the wider women's movement should take note.
“I think it’s really important that organisations that are commenting on public policy are not doing it in a vacuum. Or are not saying we’ll throw in the word disabled here.”
DWI is open to women, trans and non-binary people with physical and intellectual disabilities, hearing and sight impairments and members of the Deaf community, and the room (and conference calls) reflects that diversity. Hackett explains why that matters. “Even if it did nothing, even if it achieved no concrete goals, it’s still worthwhile to have a union of disabled women,” she says. “I was almost moved to tears at one point because I was looking around and I was like holy sh*t, there’s so many talented and supportive and amazing people here.”