Disabled women call for ‘level-playing field’ in workplaces

Speed of shift to remote working ‘deeply frustrating’ for those seeking change for years

One of the most frustrating things about the Covid-19 pandemic for disabled people was “how quickly” changes they had sought for decades could be delivered when the able-bodied community needed them, campaigners have said.

Gillian Kearns, who is autistic, a mother and one of almost 650,000 disabled people in Ireland, said: "It was deeply frustrating to see how quickly things could go online, how quickly working from home could be done when it affected able-bodied people. So many disabled people had been asking for years – in colleges and workplaces [to be facilitated with such options]."

She is among five disabled women speaking in a short film by the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) produced to mark International Day for Persons with Disabilities on Thursday.

Nem Kearns, sister of Gillian, member of the board of Disabled Women Ireland and who also takes part in the film, dislikes the term "person with disabilities" arguing the term implies a person has a disability that is intrinsic to them.

“It is society that disables us, in the way it is organised and structured, so we are disabled women.”

She says the dominant narrative, that disabled people are “socially impaired”, have communications problems and are “odd” and “awkward” means when issues arise in their employment or education they are immediately seen as “the problem”.

“All of these things have massive impact so as a community disabled people are massively underemployed and tend to be in vulnerable work, short-term work, part-time work, low-paid work.”

The film’s title and that of the NWCI campaign, Disabled women in their own words, takes on board the argument that social assumptions and ways of working disable people more than their condition or injury.

Gladys O’Neill, a mother of three and active in the NWCI’s disability group, said it would be “just wonderful” if disabled people could participate in society as “just one of the crowd . . . Accessibility is really all that’s needed to participate.”

Elaine Grehan, who is deaf and advocacy manager for the Irish Deaf Society, said: "We're not necessarily limited but opportunities are not as frequent because of this attitude from hearing peers or colleagues . . . You feel 'I can do it' but unfortunately it's the hearing community's lack of understanding or experience."

Evie Nevin, who has a rare connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome meaning she is in constant pain, has unstable joints and often needs to use a wheelchair, said social attitudes were changing but too slowly. “It’s encouraging to see disabled people and women finding their voice.”

“There was a lot able-bodied people could learn from them,” she added, if they were more present in colleges, workplaces and in leisure activities . “What we ask is not special treatment. What we ask for is a level playing field.”