Speaking Notes for International Women's Day

Yvonne Peters

March 8, 2011

Happy International Women's Day (IWD) everyone!! Thank you for the opportunity to share with you some of my personal reflections on the recognition of the rights of women with disabilities. I think it is remarkable that on this auspicious occasion of the hundredth anniversary of IWD, we are recognizing the achievements of women with disabilities. Not all that long ago, women with disabilities were invisible within the general society as well as among those promoting the rights of persons with disabilities, and those promoting gender equality. But today, here we are at the Manitoba legislature celebrating women with disabilities. I heartily commend Minister Howard for making this historical event happen.

Back in the 70s, when I was a young woman, I was excited and inspired by the women's movement as it took hold in Canada. Through meetings, conferences, rallies and protests, we claimed our right to equality and autonomy. And so for me, the seeds of feminism were sewn passionately and deeply in to my life. In addition, my experience with the early days of the women's movement and the realization that you can never take rights for granted sparked my interest in how a society protects and promotes human rights, which I guess contributed to my desire to become a human rights lawyer.

Parallel to the debute of the women's movement, was the emergence of the Canadian disability rights movement. Like the women's movement, the disability rights movement argued that persons with disabilities were entitled to the right to equality, the right to control their lives and make decisions for themselves and the right to participate as equal citizens in all aspects of society.

While I could easily relate to the women's movement, I was not so quick to embrace the disability rights movement. I thought if I tried hard enough I could overcome negative stereotypes and barriers with respect to my disability all by myself. But one day I learned that we had human rights legislation and that this legislation prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, but not disability. And so I also became a staunch supporter of the disability rights movement.

Despite my enthusiasm and support for both rights movements, neither the women's movement or the disability rights movement accurately reflected or understood the reality of my life as a woman with a disability. Gender issues were left to the domain of the women's movement, and disability issues were relegated exclusively to the disability rights movement. But my gender and disability are interrelated and it was not easy for me to divide my experiences into distinct categories of gender and disability. And so I and many other women with disabilities urged both movements to recognize the compounding effects of gender and disability. Early on, this was a discouraging and frustrating exercise. The women's movement responded that its plate was too full just dealing with gender issues, and the disability rights movement argued that feminist analysis had nothing to do with disability rights. And so, as is often the case for women, women with disabilities took matters into their own hands and in the early 80s, launched their own organization known as DAWN Canada. Thirty years later it is still an important voice for women with disabilities. Here in Manitoba, we now have DAWN Manitoba. I would like to thank Laurie Helgason and Emily Ternette and the many other women of DAWN Manitoba who are doing an outstanding job of ensuring that women with disabilities are heard and included in all aspects of Manitoba life.

DAWN Canada helped to raise the profile of women with disabilities in Canada and foster a greater understanding within both the women's movement and the disability rights movement. Women with disabilities are not so invisible anymore. And, there are more and more occasions where the women's movement and the disability rights movement are working together to advance the rights of women with disabilities.

Like many rights seekers, women with disabilities have a very long way to go before true equality is achieved. Poverty among women with disabilities remains a significant and crushing reality. But small victories have been gained, particularly at the political level. We now have an international convention on the rights of persons with disabilities which contains a specific article proclaiming the rights of women with disabilities. The convention also makes several references to girls, women and gender issues.

I have also seen progress in my own work. I am privileged to be working on the development of a community birth centre which will open in Winnipeg this summer. I am very pleased to report that the birth centre will be accessible to women with disabilities who wish to birth at the centre, or who may wish to volunteer or work at the birth centre.

On the legal front, I am happy to say that I have been involved in a number of cases where disability rights organizations and women's organizations have worked together to promote a comprehensive and inclusive definition of equality. For example, when the first equality rights case under the Charter was being considered by the SCC, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and LEAF combined forces and together persuaded the Court to define equality in a progressive and substantive manner which has had a profound impact on our understanding of equality in Canada. And this vary week, CCD and LEAF are seeking leave to intervene at the SCC to uphold the right of a woman with an intellectual disability who was sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend, but who was denied the opportunity to give her evidence because the judge raised questions about her disability and her competence to speak truthfully. Such situations underscore the enormous barriers that women with disabilities continue to face. But I feel more reassured knowing that both disability rights and women's rights organizations are working hard and cooperating to overcome these barriers.

Thank you.