Category Archives: disabled feminism

Cynthia Kim: At the Intersection of Gender and Autism – Part I


thank you to Cynthia Kim for allowing us to repost this (posted originally on 19 Nov 2014) –

At five, I wanted to be a boy. I don’t know what I thought being a boy meant. Maybe I thought it meant playing outside in the summer, shirtless and barefoot. Maybe I thought it meant not wearing dresses.

Dresses were all scratchy lace trim and tight elastic sleeves. Stiff patent leather shoes pinched my sensitive feet. Perfume tickled my nose. Tights made my legs itch and had maddening seams at the toes.

Too young to understand sensory sensitivities, I followed my instincts. While other girls favored frilly clothes, I gravitated toward the soft comfort of cotton shirts and worn corduroys.

Somehow, comfort got mixed up with gender in my head. For decades, “dressing like a girl” meant being uncomfortable. And so began a lifelong tension between being female and being autistic.


For a lengthy stretch of adulthood, I had an entire section of my closet that could best be described as aspirational. Pants suits. Dressy blouses. Pumps and sandals. Skirts, bought and worn once for a special occasion. Dresses, bought and worn never, before being spirited off to the thrift store.

I preferred ripped jeans and running shoes, hoodies and baggy t-shirts. Comfortable and comforting, just as they had been in childhood.

It wasn’t until after being diagnosed with Asperger’s last year that I learned about sensory sensitivities. Suddenly my aversion to dressy clothes, perfume and makeup made sense. A huge weight lifted. I’d spent decades wondering about my lack of femininity. Where other women seemed to revel in dressing up, I saw only itchy skin and painfully tight seams. Instead of making me feel glamorous, lipstick and eyeliner left me counting the minutes until I could wash my face.

Lacking the explanation that sensory sensitivities eventually provided, I spent decades feeling like I wasn’t a “real” woman.

Today I have four dresses hanging in my closet. Made of soft cottons and knits, they’re as comfortable as my worn hoodies and jeans. They’re not aspirational like my dresses of the past. I wear them when my husband takes me out on date nights. No makeup. No nylons. No tight pinching shoes. I’ve found a style that suits me, that makes me feel both beautiful and comfortable.

I’ve learned how to shop in a way that accommodates my sensory needs and I’ve learned that there is more than one way to be feminine.


There are many things I’ve had to learn or relearn over the past year. Mostly I’ve had to learn how to be autistic. That sounds like an odd thing to say. After all, I’ve been autistic all my life. But being autistic and knowing that I’m autistic are two vastly different things.

Knowing that I’m autistic has helped me to reconcile so many confusing aspects of my life. It’s as if I’m slowly reassembling the pieces of myself.

There are few role models for autistic women. There is no Rain Woman, no popular stereotype that comes to mind when you hear the phrase autistic woman. Perhaps that’s for the better. Stereotypes carry with them the burden of proving them wrong.

Still, we face hurdles when it comes to public perceptions of autistic adults. Again and again in my blog’s search terms I come across people searching for an answer to questions that surprise me.

Can aspie women marry? Can women with Asperger’s have children? Do aspies say ‘I love you”?

It seems we’re a mystery.

I hope that when people find my blog, they see that the answers to all of those things are yes. I’m married. I have a child. I tell my husband and daughter that I love them.

Sadly, that wasn’t always the case.


Women are expected to be intuitively skilled at social interaction. We are the nurturers, the carers. To be born without natural social instincts can leave you questioning your innate womanhood.

The first hint of what was to come arrived long before I’d given any thought to what being a woman would mean. At some point in sixth grade, many of the girls in my class became huggers. They hugged when they met each other and when they said goodbye. They hugged when they passed in the hallway. They hugged when they were happy or sad. They hugged and cried and squealed with excitement and I watched from a distance, perplexed. What did all this hugging mean? And more importantly, why wasn’t I suddenly feeling the need to hug someone every thirty seconds?

This was the first of many confusing conversations I was to have with myself.

I was a mother and wife for twenty-four years before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Over and over during that time, I questioned not only my womanhood, but my humanity. I questioned why I didn’t respond the way other women did to their children. I watched the other mothers tear up as the bus pulled away on the first day of kindergarten and felt guilty at my relief. Finally, a few hours alone, was all that was running through my head.

Looking back, I bet the other moms walked back to their newly quiet homes and felt a similar relief. The thing is, I never knew for sure because I didn’t talk with any of them. Beyond a friendly good morning at the bus stop, I was at a loss for how adult women socialized. I hovered around the fringes of social groups, watching as other moms made dates for coffee or shopping. They seemed so at ease, as if they’d all gotten the Mom Handbook while my copy had been lost in the mail.

I probably should have been envious but I was too busy being intimidated.


Unlike my difficulties with sensory sensitivities, Asperger’s provided an explanation but little solution when it came to socializing. I’ve had friends over the years, but not, it seems, in the way that other women do. Fortunately, I’ve made one friend who has been a constant in my adult life: my husband Sang.

Again and again as I was researching Asperger’s syndrome in adults, I came across bleak portraits of adult relationships. Broken marriages. Impossible-to-live-with autistic spouses.

Many of the challenges described in the literature were familiar. Our marriage certainly hasn’t been easy. But learning that I’m autistic has given us a new framework for understanding our relationship. Everything from why I find social outings exhausting to why I need to eat the same thing for breakfast every day suddenly had an explanation.

That understanding alone is a tremendous gift. People often question why someone my age would bother getting diagnosed. Especially someone who has a job, a family, a mostly settled path in life.

The explanation that comes with a diagnosis makes all the difference. For years, I knew something was wrong with me but I had no idea what. Most of the possibilities that I came up with made me feel bad about myself. Cold. Unfeeling. Immature. Selfish. Short-tempered.


Getting a diagnosis swept all of those aside. Not only did I get an explanation for how I experience life, I got a user’s guide to my brain. It wasn’t an endpoint in my journey, but a starting place.


To be continued in Part 2 . . .

Cynthia’s book

Kirsten Hearn writes: Sick of Exclusion


Kirsten Hearn will be at Feminism in London Sunday 25th 12 30 -2pm

Multiple identities: Ordinary Lives – the challenges of being disabled and feminist

Disabled women’s rights are human rights! Disability can be physical, mental, neurological; hidden or visible. This panel will look at activism through the prism of disability and feminism and seek to explore further the intersection and challenges of being between the two and the capacity of the two movements to work together for change.


Kirsten Hearn

Kirsten Hearn

I’m sick and tired of having to challenge inaccessible practices within the Labour Party (an in the rest of life too). I’ve got better things to do than be tied up bashing down the doors, so I and others can participate. The discrimination spans all access issues, so all disabled people are targets.

Again, and again, and again, we give guidance on how to make docs accessible. “What part of the words “PDFs are inaccessible for people using text to speech assistive technology, so give us a word doc instead”, isn’t clear? It’s hardly any different in impact from “what part of the words, I haven’t got wings you know so how am I going to get into that riddled-with-steps venue you insist on having your meetings in?”; or “What did you say?” (when a sign language interpreter or an induction loop, isn’t present.
I’ve just opened an email from the Labour Party re the women’s conference tomorrow. Granted, it arrived yesterday evening, but I was chairing a scrutiny evidence session at that time and chose to go to bed afterwards, rather than download my emails. I chose also to do my day job today rather than read my home emails. As a consequence of this, I am only now dealing with yesterday’s backlog. Oh and I have checked, there’s nothing in today’s bunch which provides the accessible document.
Arguing for inclusion within the Labour Party is definitely one of those part time unpaid jobs that I am forced to do if I want to participate in the party. I could use that time instead building a stronger party and working to deliver a Labour Government headed by Jeremy Corbin, in 2020. I don’t care that because of the leadership election and the shadow appointments process, it’s been hard to confirm speakers etc. How difficult is it to produce a word version of a conference agenda, which was initially created in word, anyway? I mean …. !
Providing inaccessible documents is at the very least laziness, but it could hardly be argued that the Labour Party is ignorant, since they have been told. Yes, if poked,, they will deal with access requests, but we shouldn’t have to keep reminding them. It’s not like disabled people have only just been invented; or that we havn’t been campaigning for inclusion since the dawn of time. My question is, why are these mistakes still happening? I don’t know how disabled people can effectively influence party policy, raise the issues of concern to disabled people out there, in the party, if we can’t even get in the door, metaphorically or actually without kicking up a stink. So, not having enjoyed women’s conference last year in Manchester, I thought I wouldn’t go to the women’s conference this year; then when Jeremy was elected, I thought I would, in anticipation that the leader is going to address the women’s conference. Now, thanks to not getting accessible info about the women’s conference, I’ve decided I’m not going. So there will be one less stroppy disabled woman there tomorrow …. and I am sure that lack of clarity about access, belief that things won’t be accessible, feelings that disabled women are not important, are also reasons why less disabled women than perhaps who want to be there, will go to women’s conference tomorrow. And I’ve no doubt that other members of disability labour will have to spent time and energy battling away at conference, trying to fire-fight on access when we could be doing something much more important, like effecting policy, talking about why the austerity agenda, whether heavy or light is the greatest attack on disabled people in our living memory and why labour must not only defend disabled people’s rights but actively promote a disability rights based agenda. Not that I’m repeating myself, but I and others have been saying the above since exclusion first politicised us, in my case for 40 years. When will non-disabled people get it that they can remove disabling barriers if they want to.

Read the rest at Kirsten’s blog

Sisters of Frida: Disability & Sex/uality Workshop, Part 1


Disability & Sex/uality

Workshop, Part 1  

Sisters of Frida invites you to the first Disability and Sex/uality workshop on 19 September 2015 at Unity Church Hall, 1-5pm. This workshop is for self-identified disabled women who want to create a space to talk about disability, sex and sexuality.

The workshop

As disabled women we have a wide range of experiences, positive and negative, around disability, sex and sexuality. Disabled women are sexy, sexual, passionate, loving, caring, desirable, hot, beautiful, strong and much more! Our experiences of sexuality are also affected by different kinds of oppressions as ableism, racism, sexism, heteronormativity, classism and age.

This workshop is the first meeting of the project Disability and Sex/uality we are developing. In this workshop we will explore the different themes around sex and sexuality that arise from our experiences. We will also look at what we want to explore more and what work needs to happen to develop this project.

The project

The idea for this project arose from a screening of the documentary AccSex, which showed how a group of disabled women in India experience their sexuality. This project is part of Sisters of Frida. We are setting up this project out of a need to create a space where we can safely discuss our sexuality in a supportive and empowering environment.


The topics we will discuss can be sensitive, for this reason, please contact us directly to register and discuss participation as this will be a closed meeting: Note that places are limited, please get in touch as soon as possible. Deadline for registration is 6 September.

Accessibility and needs

The venue is wheelchair accessible. There is an accessible toilet, but without a hoist. There is a small room that people can use for quiet-time. Please get in touch as soon as possible if you need BSL, transcription or if you have other access needs. If you have any concerns or queries about the nature of what might be discussed in the workshop and how it could relate to your experiences, please get in touch. This is a peer-support group, we cannot offer professional support.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Date: 19 September 2015

Time: 1pm – 5pm

Where: New Unity Unitarians

Address: 277A Upper Street, Islington, London N1 2TZ

Deadline for registration: 6 September 2015

Accessibility: Please get in touch to discuss your needs

Screening AccSex London : sexuality and disability & next steps


Report written by Lani Parker with additions from Eleanor Lisney

People were pleased with the turnout and it was a good opportunity to network and talk to each other.
The film generally had good feedback. There was discussion on many topics, including who the film was
aimed at, the editorial devices which were used (such as changing the subtitles in order to give a “feeling
of exclusion”), and the Indian context. It was felt that it was a good film to get discussion going. We thanked Shweta Ghosh with a little momento (Happy Potter mug) from London.

Next steps

– Michelle and Charlotte had ideas for showing the film in different places and will get in touch with
Shweta to organise purchase of film and further screenings.
–  Shweta said that she will write a booklet to go with the film so that issues which have been commonly brought up at the screenings can be discussed and contextualised.

After the film we had a presentation from Stay Safe East (Ruth Bashall and Lucia Bellini) about their work with disabled women, particularly around domestic violence (their remit is slightly bigger than this). There was discussion on the specialist nature of the work running women’s support groups and the need for further groups like this.

Ruth would like to see the work done around the Serious Crime Bill and domestic violence taken forward to lobby the CPS around their guidance for the bill and they (as Stay Safe East) will be meeting with Women’s Aid shortly. Eleanor and others expressed a wish for Sisters of Frida to be involved with this work.

Eleanor, Ruth and Lucia to take forward work with CPS and Women’s Aid on the issue and the Bill specifically.

There was a discussion about a forum or space for disabled women to talk about sex, sexuality and intimacy. This is a big topic and there are many issues, including lack of information, intersections of identity and oppressions, types of impairments, and PAs’ involvement in relationships. Laki said that there is a need for a physical drop-in as well as information online and perhaps an online forum discussing the issues.

There are many things to consider with an online forum. Ruth said that GAD have a forum but it is by invitation. Seems like a sensible idea to explore along with online safety issues in the future if we were to take forward this idea. The idea would be to have a website and resources, perhaps a forum and an informal drop-in.

–  Laki and Dyi to set up meeting for Sisters of Frida to start to discuss these issues amongst ourselves and to look at collating resources.

–  Ruth to send resources she already has access to.

We discussed about funding and future strategy and future steps.

Engaged Allies: Academia, Activism & Crip Feminist Power


Reblogged from Kirsty Liddiard who helped in organising this event – with thanks also to Armineh Soorenian (Sisters of Frida North)

photo of participants, some in wheelchairs, all women except for one black man Screening AccSex: Disabled Women Activism & Sexuality event, University of Leeds, 2015

The above photograph represents the end of a brilliant day-long event which I helped co-organise along with some lovely folk from the Centre for Disability Studies at Leeds University and the disabled women’s cooperative, Sisters of Frida (of which I’m a proud member). The day was action-packed: a talk from Sarah Woodin (Leeds University) on disabled women and forms of violence; a presentation on youth, feminism and the cripping of the political/personal dichotomy by Icelandic activists Freyja Haraldsdóttir and Embla Ágústsdóttir and their organisation, Tabu; a UK premiere of Accsex (2014), a film which uncovers the pleasures (and precarities) of the connections between disability, sex/uality, gender, and race; and a Q&A with its creator, film-maker Schweta Ghosh. You can watch the trailer for Accsex (2014) here.

Within stifling dichotomies of normal and abnormal, lie millions of women, negotiating their identities. Accsex explores notions of beauty, the ‘ideal body’ and sexuality through four storytellers; four women who happen to be persons with disability. Through the lives of Natasha, Sonali, Kanti and Abha, this film brings to fore questions of acceptance, confidence and resistance to the normative. As it turns out, these questions are not too removed from everyday realities of several others, deemed ‘imperfect’ and ‘monstrous’ for not fitting in. Accsex traces the journey of the storytellers as they reclaim agency and the right to unapologetic confidence, sexual expression and happiness.

– Ghosh (2014)

A powerful line up makes for a powerful event, in more ways than one. To look again at the photograph, it’s far more than just a shot in time. It represents more than students, lecturers, activists, community members, allies, or otherwise interested people seeking alternative understandings of disability and gender coming together to connect (as if that isn’t exceptional enough). To me, the photograph is emblematic of the exciting possibilities that can emerge when the best parts of academia and activism come together. In this short post, I’d like to very briefly sketch out some points as to what this means to me as a disabled woman and scholar:

Safe(r) Spaces: Firstly, academic/activist events like this show that we can create (and demand) safe(r) spaces to speak about our lives as activists, campaigners, scholars and women.  Events like this offer rare occasions for disabled women and their allies to come together, think together, politicise and rage together, and take solace in sharing intimate knowledges of our lives (that are seldom acknowledged or celebrated anywhere) together.

Resistance and intellectual freedom: In the context of the Academy, the fusion of academia and activism can offer refreshing spaces of resistance, creativity and (intellectual) freedom. Never has this been more important to counter the significant corporatisation and marketisation of higher education in the neoliberal University, and what some have called the privatisation of knowledge. Another recent event I helped organise, Theorising Dis/Ability, worked in similar ways. You can access the talks from the Theorising Dis/Ability seminar here. I’m currently co-organising another event with my friend Jenny Slater (Sheffield Hallam) around the intersections of queer and disability/crip activism, Interrogating queer, crip and the body: an international symposium, for which you can access free tickets here.

Poster : Interrogating queer,crip & the body: An international symposium Interrogating queer,crip & the body: An international symposium

Making space for activist scholarship: For me personally/politically/professionally, academic/activist collaborations enable me to continue the work I love to do. It is a reminder of the importance of activist scholarship, which needs such spaces to not just survive, but thrive. I’m lucky that these loves are nurtured by many, many brilliant colleagues. For example, see the “dishuman” manifesto that I’m working on with exceptional folk like Katherine Runswick-Cole (MMU), Dan Goodley (University of Sheffield) and Rebecca Lawthom (MMU). This work is as theoretically rich as it is grounded in disabled people’s lives and meaningful social and political change.

The politics of visibility and disruption: Most importantly, academic/activist presences like those within the event above solicit/invite/welcome a multitude of bodies, minds, selves, knowledges and politics into the Academy. These are often bodies and selves that are at best tolerated, and at worst violated, in neoliberal educational spaces. To be present in the Academy in such ways – to proudly take up space, make noise, and be disruptive within the the very walls that so often exclude us – affirms Crip feminist power. Crucially, it does so in an academic landscape where we are largely absent as students, let alone as educators, speakers, creators, and leaders.

Tabu: the political is personal

Tabu: the political is personal

Note: This post is dedicated to the memory of Judith Snow who passed away on 31st May 2015. A proud disabled woman, visionary and advocate, she truly changed the world.

Lucia Bellini’s speech for Million Women Rise 2015 at Trafalgar Square



Sisters of Frida Steering group member, Lucia, spoke for disabled women against domestic violence and violence against women at Million Women Rise at Trafalgar Square. Lucia works to tackle violence and abuse against disabled and Deaf people.

Lucia and Ruth Bashall from StaySafe East

Lucia and Ruth

Eleanor Lisney: ‘when gender, race and disability collide’


This was the speech by Eleanor at the WOW Festival on the Disability and Feminism panel.

Eleanor Lisney

Eleanor Lisney

The title of this session is ‘resurgence of mainstream feminism ignores the voices of disabled women and discuss what happens when gender, race and disability collide’ – I am going to start with saying that I am not sure we always allow ourselves to be ignored.

Sisters of Frida was started when we realised that there was a noticeable absence of the voices of disabled women. One of the first things we did was to join the UK CEDAW work goup and we went to Geneva so that we have a visible presence to challenge the government on their reforms with other women’s groups such as Southall Black Sisters. We were mostly self funded but we saw that it is essential that disabled women are represented in processes like CEDAW reporting as too often our experience as disabled women is invisible, this is an opportunity to change this and show how the cuts and legal changes are affecting us. When it came to the turn of the shadow report for the CRPD, we realised we were the people with some experience as having been through the CEDAW shadow report process. And by the way the United Kingdom has become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by the United Nations committee responsible for oversight of disability rights into charges of “grave or systemic violations” of disabled people’s rights.

However in the discourse of feminism, disabled women are seldom included, it is true but even so, we are getting invited – we are here at WOW:) but seriously, disabled people are often seen as a ‘burden’ on the feminist from before birth to the older parent often portrayed as with dementia. The decision of aborting a disabled child is seen to be totally understandable, disabled people needs caring for – usually by low paid or unpaid carers where women sacrifice themselves as carers. Disabled women are also seen to be undateable. They are not deemed to be fit to be mothers, they worry about their children being taken into care, or not given custody of their children if there is a marital breakup with a non disabled partner.

There was rejoicing of the series of amendments to the Serious Crime Bill, currently going through the House of Lords, and is expected to be on the statute books this year where under the terms of the Bill a person convicted of coercive control could face up to 14-years in prison and there will be no statutory time limit for the offences, meaning abuse dating back years can be taken into account. Good news for feminists but not so much of a cry when it was found that disabled women would be exempted. Partners of disabled women could avoid domestic abuse prosecution even after ‘coercive control’ is criminalised, the government added an amendment to the proposed law which creates a defence against charges of coercive control by people who take care of disabled partners. If they can convincingly argue that the actions they took were both in the best interests of their partners and “in all the circumstances reasonable”, they will not be prosecuted. There was a consultation but no disabled women / people were asked.

I am sometimes asked: is there a gendered difference in disability campaigning, surely we re all in it together. The division does not help, they say, and even disabled women tell me that. We should look for commonalities. I am not able to respond to that coherently. I think I m more able to respond when it has to do with social justice and the question of race but maybe because nobody has said to me let’s look for commonalities white people and black people both suffer from social justice, why insist on the differences. Certainly no black person.

I would say because there are  differences and we need to speak for disabled sisters because if we don’t who will? Last year I was fortunate enough to speak in the NAWO panel at the Global Summit to end violence against women in conflict – addressing gender equality as the root of all gender-based violence. I am reminded that Women are raped, tortured and killed or left disabled because of their gender. If they survive many can’t go back into society because of the stigma of having been raped, on top of being disabled. There is a gender difference.

As an East Asian disabled woman I can feel the conflict and am pulled in different directions by the different identities. When I m in a disability environment, which is still very white dominated, I ask for black representation, with people of colour, I ask for access and inclusion for disabled people, with feminists, I ask for the same.

– Eleanor Lisney