​Disability and Gender Stereotypes: Exploring Self-Advocacy for Women Living with Paralysis

Posted by Lauren Presutti in Life After Paralysis on April 06, 2021 # Lifestyle

Strong self-advocacy is critical for living an empowered life with paralysis. Whether you are newly injured or have been living with paralysis for years, sometimes it can be challenging to express your wants and needs in the face of accessibility barriers, disability stereotypes, or misunderstandings from others. Particularly for women living with paralysis, the double minority status of facing disability oppression combined with gender inequalities can diminish one's ability to feel heard. Understanding the intersections of advocacy, disability, gender, assertiveness, and empowerment can help women with paralysis to exert greater control over their lives, to enhance their sense of identity, and overall achieve better mental health outcomes.woman in front of garden

What is self-advocacy?

First, it's important to reflect on how you define self-advocacy. As a wheelchair-using woman and mental health therapist, I believe engaging in self-advocacy means that you are speaking up for yourself, assertively communicating your needs, learning how to obtain accommodations or resources, and making your own decisions for your life. It also means utilizing information to your advantage, knowing what your rights and responsibilities are, accessing support from others to help you achieve goals, and not giving up or backing down when faced with opposition or setbacks.

Where does self-advocacy take place?

Many people tend to think of advocacy from a political standpoint, such as lobbying for disability laws and policies. But advocacy can occur in almost any setting, especially when you are self-advocating for your needs. Self-advocacy might occur within your families or social circles as you explain that holidays and hangouts must occur in wheelchair-accessible spaces. It may occur in your community when you speak up about a restaurant not being accessible or when you call a concert venue in advance to ask about accessible seating options. Self-advocacy may occur through school, as you communicate closely with teachers about classroom accommodations or work with your college advisors to prepare for living independently on campus. You might need to advocate for yourself in your work environments, such as securing employment accommodations or access to wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and parking spaces. Even in healthcare centers, where you might expect to engage with disability-friendly professionals, you might find yourself self-advocating for equal medical treatment or access to needed equipment.

Why is self-advocacy so important?

Because of widespread social inequalities, chronic misunderstandings of disability, and limited exposure to the realities of life with a disability, many people in the world have inaccurate ideas about what it means to have a disability. This leads to disability stereotypes and ableism, which only perpetuates further misunderstandings of disability. Unfortunately, it can position people with disabilities as a minority group that diminishes their voice or ability to speak up.

Individuals with disabilities…

  • May be perceived as less intelligent than they are
  • May experience others being uncomfortable around them
  • May be socially excluded due to the lack of inclusive practices
  • May be subject to other people speaking over them (teachers, healthcare professionals, etc.)
  • May be given less information because they are perceived as not capable of autonomy
  • May be ignored as professionals may speak to caregivers or parents rather than the individual

Unfortunately, most people with disabilities experience oppression like this at some point in their lives, and this can take a big toll on your mental health and ability to feel empowered. This is why learning about self-advocacy is so critical.

How does gender inequality impact self-advocacy?

The impact of gender oppression results in different self-advocacy experiences between men and women. Historically, women were dominated by males. Since the women's rights movement, we have come a long way, but women are still considered a minority group because many gender inequalities still exist today. These inequalities are embedded throughout our social systems, and they result in gender-related stereotypes and behavioral patterns that are noticeably different between men and women.

For example, men are generally expected to be self-confident and assertive, whereas women are expected to be accommodating, passive, and emotional. Think about how this can impact self-advocacy. Sometimes it's important to be assertive when advocating, and that might feel challenging for you if you struggle with self-confidence. You might feel obligated to be overly accommodating to others. You might also feel like it's not your place to speak up. Even subconsciously, you may be more passive as a woman because of these stereotypes. This can have an enormous impact on your ability to self-advocate.

Further, men are generally more likely to communicate to maintain their status and independence, whereas women tend to view communication as a path to create friendships and build relationships. Because of these gender stereotypes, women may be reluctant to speak up and advocate for their equal rights and opportunities because they might care more about hurting another person's feelings or making someone else uncomfortable than getting their needs met in school or in the workplace, for example. As women, sometimes we view communication as an avenue to bond with each other. This can be a problem for self-advocacy because it limits our assertiveness and can portray the idea that our needs are not important. I want to encourage all of you to reflect on whether you have ever sacrificed your needs just to keep the conversation civil in order to avoid conflict. If that's a pattern for you, think about how you can change that habit. Remember that sometimes self-advocacy will be met with opposition, but it's important to continue advocating so that you access what you need to thrive as a woman with paralysis.

Women also face a double standard in regard to their assertiveness. This is often apparent when women are in leadership roles. If women are too nice as a leader, they are judged as weak or manipulative. If they are too aggressive, they are judged as acting "too bossy." Due to this double standard, you may be reluctant to self-advocate for your needs out of fear of being judged as "too bossy" or "demanding." Remember that sometimes opposition or misunderstandings can result from self-advocacy, but it's okay if those occur. Not everybody is going to understand you as a woman with paralysis, and your job is not to please everyone or concern yourself with being liked by everyone. Instead, your job should be to ensure you are getting the accommodations, the healthcare, the social inclusion, the access, the services, or whatever it is you need in order to thrive as an individual.

Tips and strategies for developing strong self-advocacy skills will be shared in my next blog!

To learn about River Oaks Psychology, visit www.riveroakspsychology.com and follow River Oaks Psychology on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Lauren Presutti, founder of River Oaks Psychology, is a psychotherapist and advocate for individuals and families affected by disabilities of all types. Born with Muscular Dystrophy and using a wheelchair throughout her life, Lauren is passionate about helping others overcome barriers and reach their fullest potential. Lauren also enjoys writing, speaking, and providing education on subjects relating to mental health and empowerment.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.