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Houston, Texas

People discussing health of women with disabilities
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Reference--Nosek, 1996b

Wellness among women with physical disabilities

Nosek MA. Wellness among women with physical disabilities. Sexuality and Disability 1996;14(3):165-82.


Wellness and disability, used in the same sentence, could seriously disrupt the status quo in health care. Traditionally, disability has been equated with illness. Indeed, many children and adults with disabilities were relegated to hospital wards for the long term when I was growing up in the 1950s because society was simply not equipped to deal with disability as a normal part of life. This had very little to do with disease states; it had to do with attitudes and physical barriers. With congressional passage of such liberating laws as the Architectural Barriers Act of 1965 (PL 90-480), the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (PL 101-476), section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (PL 93-112) which was finally implemented in 1977, and our crowning glory, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (PL 101-336), we have begun tearing down these physical barriers. Barriers of attitude, however, need much more than a jackhammer and cement to bring them down. Although we are experiencing some progress in removing discrimination on the basis of disability in education, employment, and public services, the mind-set of medical professionals is more deeply rooted in tradition and has been slower to response. There is a new wave of change in medical practice, however, that focuses on wellness and the whole person. This article presents the notion of wellness in disability as an operating principle and reviews the findings of our study of the population most damaged by traditional medical stereotypes, namely, women. When disability is equated with illness, all of the associations made with illness are called into play. Persons who are ill, for example, are exempt from normal responsibilities, are not expected to be productive, are perceived as victims of a horrible disease process, and are expected to comply with the orders of persons who are experts in that disease process (DeJong, 1979). For women, this has the effect of neutralizing their femininity, creating the perception they are gender-free (Adcock & Newbigging, 1990; Danek, 1992, Lesh & Marshall, 1984), have no need for intimacy and sexual expression and are incapable of being a sexual partner (Hanna & Rogovsky, 1991; 1992), and have no need for reproductive health care services. One woman with a severe physical disability who was interviewed for our study commented, "I always felt like a neutral sex. It's like I'm not a woman, not a man, I don't know what I am because I was never approached like a woman...." The current grassroots emergence of publications targeting women with disabilities (ABLED, It's OK!) and the growing national network of advocacy organizations of women with disabilities (e.g., WISE in Baltimore, Maryland; the New Jersey Coalition of Women with Disabilities; the Networking Project for Disabled Women and Girls in New York) signals a rising rebellion against the asexual, medical stereotype. This chapter describes a study of women with disabilities and analyzes the data from a wellness perspective.

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