At Business Disability Forum, our focus is on disability (it does what it says on the tin). But within the field of 'disability' is a richness and diversity of human experience that too often we fail to explore.
This week, in light of International Women’s Day, I wanted to shine a light on some of the disability narratives that are particularly unhelpful to women, but also men.
Let’s begin with neurodiversity. Particularly when thinking about autism, the narrative we use is often a male narrative and a white male at that – even perhaps a straight white male. And that narrative may bear little relevance to the experience of an autistic girl or woman.
In that respect, diagnosis is not only a choice but is also, too often, also a privilege. Autistic females present differently from males and are often better at 'masking' or hiding their autism. As a result, they often struggle to gain a diagnosis that may help unlock the support they need.
Our understanding of neurodiversity is relatively new – the term itself was coined by Judy Singer as recently as 1998 – and we are still learning. But we must make sure that as we develop our knowledge and understanding, we do so with the whole breadth of lived experience within it.
Mental health is more often viewed as a female issue, making it far more difficult for men to access support – a matter raised in our evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee in 2019.
But the stereotyping around mental health is also unhelpful to women as the experiences of those from different communities are often overlooked. Resources to support black women to talk about their mental health were published by Business in the Community last year. That this is remarkable needs to change.
Finally, we turn to the hot topic (no pun intended) of menopause. In 2019, Business Disability Forum ran a panel session discussing the conditions and issues that were seldom talked about.
We included Meg Matthews, founder of Meg’s Menopause, on the panel. Some felt that discussing menopause was controversial and could undermine decades of hard work on gender equality. Then, a judge ruled that in a particular case, menopause was a disability because of the significance and length of its impact.
Now, our advice service regularly receives calls from member and partner organisations looking to create workplace policies around menopause. And we are still learning. I learnt lately (and I am about to turn 49 so I am definitely the target audience) that the experience of menopause is different for black and white women.
I am convinced that it is only because we are the first generation of women – from all backgrounds – to be employed in significant numbers and crucially, in positions of seniority, that this topic is finally on the table.
These are very different conditions and every woman’s experience will be unique. Fundamentally though, my advice is the same: talk to people. Listen to what they tell you. Focus on the barriers they are experiencing and together work out how you can remove them.
The time is gone for individual strands in isolation. Whether we call it intersectionality or simply being human, we mustn’t try to turn the clock back. The genie is out of the bottle – and there is no putting her back in.
Diane Lightfoot is CEO at Business Disability Forum
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