Born in 1875, May Billinghurst was branded the “cripple suffragette” by the press and her peers after a bout of childhood polio left her unable to walk. Undeterred by her disability, Billinghurst was a regular at suffrage demonstrations and used her adapted hand-tricycle to propel herself. Billinghurst’s presence was regularly noted in suffrage as well as mainstream newspapers and she began to attract considerable attention to the movement.
The exclusion of disabled women goes beyond Vogue. Disabled women are rarely featured in the media: even campaigns or content that are purposely striving to include marginalised women routinely miss out those with disabilities. Only last week, Time’s Up – the Hollywood project to fight sexual harassment in the film industry and other workplaces – rallied support for greater representation of women of colour, migrant women, lesbian and bisexual, and trans women. But an initial statement widely shared on social media failed to mention women with disabilities (though “disabled women” are included in the letter of solidarity on the campaign’s home page).
Disabled people, single parents and women have been among the biggest losers under seven years of austerity, according to a report by the equalities watchdog. While the poorest tenth of households will on average lose about 10% of their income by 2022 – equivalent to £1 in every £8 of net income – the richest will lose just 1%, or about £1 in every £250 of net income, the study carried out for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reveals.
While the hashtag does include disabled people, many of the most popular tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media shares feature familiar faces: white, nondisabled cis women. The slew of ensuing mainstream media coverage has reflected this in turn, largely ignoring the issue of disability in conjunction with sexual harassment and violence.
In the real world, women with disabilities are often seen as wheelchair first and woman second. Movies cannot fix that, of course, but at least they could provide some sort of visibility for an underrepresented segment of society. Do I want the same tired disability porn for women that men get? No. When it comes to men with disabilities, Hollywood has to do better. When it comes to women, it has to at least do something.