It is important to recognise that gender and disability operate as structures of oppression for both disabled men and disabled women and that this happens in different ways, primarily because of the way in which dependence and independence are key parts of the social meanings of what it is to be a woman or a man (Morris, 1993).
Gendered analysis within the intellectual disability research literature has typically focused on issues faced by women and girls with intellectual disability (Wilson et al., 2010). This gendered analysis has usually drawn from a range of perspectives within the paradigm of feminist theory (Wilson et al., 2010). It argues that women with intellectual disability face both gender-related and disability-related discrimination, often referred to as a ‘double disadvantage’ (Collins & Valentine, 2003).
This body of research tells us that:
- Women with intellectual disability are more likely to experience economic disadvantage and poverty compared to men with disabilities and the general population (Mitchell, 2011)
- Women with intellectual disability are disproportionately vulnerable to victimisation, abuse, exploitation and harm. Statistics suggest that the majority of women with intellectual disability will experience sexual assault and exploitation by age 18 (MacDonald, 2008)
- Women with intellectual disability are particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of violence, abuse and exploitation in the home, community, institutions and workplaces (Frohmader, 2010)
- Women with intellectual disability are routinely denied choice and autonomy over decisions regarding sexuality and fertility, and are not provided with accessible information to make informed choices (McCarthy, 2011).
- Women with intellectual disability are often constructed as asexual or promiscuous and these negative stereotypes reinforce discrimination and oppression (Chenoweth, 1996) _ Women with intellectual disability who choose to become parents face attitudinal barriers such as stigma and discrimination and do not share the same rights to fulfil gendered identities. This further marginalises and devalues women with intellectual disability, in terms of their contribution to a gendered society (Collins & Valentine, 2003, p. 36).
Gendered issues are not exclusive to women and girls, yet a similar body of work looking at the male experience of intellectual disability and how it may differ to that of women is largely absent (Wilson et al., 2010). It is important to recognise that men with intellectual disability can and do experience social constructions of masculinity as oppressive. In today’s cultural context, to be a disabled man is to fail to measure up to the general culture’s definition of masculinity of strength, physical ability, status, authority and autonomy (Morris, 1993).
Wilson et al. (2010) argue that the themes emerging from research with males and females with intellectual disability suggest that gendered stereotypes are reinforced, particularly for males. They note that the research and literature focusing on the male experience appears to be viewed on a ‘behavioural risk hierarchy’ (i.e. strong research focus on behaviour management, particularly on treatment for problematised sexual behaviour), and that less research attention is given to male health (when compared with female health).
In the counselling context, it is important to recognise that gender and disability can operate as structures of oppression for both men and women with intellectual disability. Both men and women with disabilities will experience a conflict between their constructed identities as masculine/feminine and their constructed identities as disabled. They may have their masculinity and femininity (and sexuality) completely denied. Exploring society’s construction of gender may help you to develop a more complex understanding of your client’s experiences.