‘Bringing Women’s Voices into the Heart of Government’

good afternoon. I m Eleanor Lisney – I m a cofounder and director of Sisters of Frida, a collective of disabled women. Our vision is to have a future in which disabled women are empowered, celebrated, informed, connected, valued and at the centre of society.

We re here to talk about the impact of policy decisions across all government departments on the day to day lives of women with austerity and cuts to benefits, housing policy and lack of support – for disabled women where I m concerned.

According to Sarah Champion, the shadow equalities minister, 86% of the burden of austerity has fallen on women since 2010 – a figure that remains entirely static from last year. It would be much more on disabled women but we dont have the disaggregated data yet. But I am not here to talk about statistics but to bring the reality of the impact of policy decisions on the lives of real people. I m been told its the narratives that bring out the reality in a way people remember them. So I hope dont mind if I speak about my dear friend in Sisters of Frida, Sophie Partridge. She would be here if she had not died in the summer. We worked together for the Women Speak Out project with the WRC. I am sure the stress of the having the ILF shut down, she was reliant on it for her independent living coupled with the uncertainty of the her care package by her Local authority, had an effect on her physical and mental health. Sophie as well as many disabled women, need to have a good support package to survive because of their impairments. As a creative practitioner, sophie is a successful actor, performer and writer – she also had problems with Access to Work. AtW support helps to level the playing field for Disabled people to get into, stay in and get on in the labour market. All these problems that Sophie had is a direct result of the cumulative impact of the cuts and austerity measures.

Sophie was not a poor passive recipient of benefits, she worked and contributed significantly to society. But she is not the only disabled women who have had barriers. I know of many other – both young and older disabled women who are struggling because of austerity and cuts to benefits and services. We went to the UNCRPD in Geneva and their concluding observations – the Committee’s concern that disabled women and girls’ rights “have not been systematically mainstreamed into both the gender equality and disability agenda” and support its specific recommendation to “adopt inclusive and targeted measures, including disaggregated data” to prevent the multiple and intersectional discrimination we face. Another of the Committee’s recommendation is to allocate “financial resources to support organisations representing [disabled women]” and develop mechanisms to ensure our involvement in planning and implementing law which affects our lives.

We will be going to CEDAW next year just as we went in 2013 with the WRC, and I fear that our report will be that our status has not improved but has actually been worsen since then. I am also sadden to say that my friend, another Sister of Frida, Eleanor Firman, has also died on Easter Sunday this year. She had been struggling against the cuts of health services.

I m here to say please hear these voices because the consequences are that they affect women’s lives – literarily, they can be and are often, cases of life and death.

At WOW Festival 2015 on the Disability and Feminism panel.

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.

At the National Alliance of Womens Alliance (NAWO )

at their fringe event at the End Sexual Violence In Conflict Global Summit.

12th June 2014

At this Global Summit, we have heard how much violence there is against women in conflict and indeed are likely to encounter in everyday life, with domestic violence at home and harassment and sexual violence in the streets and workplace.

When it comes to disabled women,

“Violence against women with disabilities is a human rights violation resulting from the interaction of systemic gender-based discrimination against women and disability-based discrimination against people with disabilities. It includes family violence, sexual assault and disability-based violence. A range of behaviours are associated with these forms of violence, including emotional, verbal, social, economic, psychological, spiritual, physical and sexual abuses. These may be perpetrated against women with disabilities by multiple perpetrators, including intimate partners and other family members, and those providing personal and other care in the home or in institutional, public or service settings.”


(This is taken from Landmark Research: ‘voices Against Violence’ just published last month is Australia )

It sounds like its far from the war zones and disabled women seem so much better here than what women endure in the war zones in conflict? But those women become disabled – emotionally, socially, economically, psychologically, spiritually, physically and sexually deprived – and as disabled women we share the same gender based discrimination wherever we are globally. Research has shown that disabled women experience abuse at least twice as often as non-disabled women. Women who acquire disabilities then have to pick up their lives when they face discrimination not only for their gender but sometimes also from other women, from their own family members and shunted and the state will collude with putting us into institutions. We are seen scroungers, needy and we cant /do not fulfil our roles as lovers, wives and mothers. So disabled women are sterilized ( very often said to be a form of family planning and also because menstruation is such so messy ) and disabled women live in fear of having their children taken away because they are not seen as capable to be mothers. But then there is research that rape of vulnerable women, especially those with learning difficulties, has effectively been “decriminalised”, according to Professor Betsy Stanko a research academic employed by the Metropolitan Police.

According to Womens Aid, disabled women experience abuse at least twice as often as non-disabled women. Disabled women also experience disability hate crime where often rape can be part of the violence. Gemma Hayter, who had learning difficulties was taken to disused railway line where a bin bag was put over her head before she was stripped naked, strangled, kicked mercilessly in the face and then stabbed in the neck.

Last week I read about systematic abuse of disabled people in an institution in Romania

‘In a residential centre for disabled people, 10 women were sharing a squalid room reeking of urine. Two residents began crying. They said they’d been “punished” by staff, beaten because they’d refused to have their heads shaved.’

Officials when presented with the camera footage of the conditions said they believed that they ought to live in the community. In the UK which was a beacon for independent living, the Independent Living Fund ILF –used to support the most severely disabled is closing. They will probably end up in institutions – many of them are terrified for their lives – you only need to remember Winterbourne to understand that.

Austerity policies around welfare benefits and other support are disproportionately impacting on disabled women and and pushing disabled women into more poverty and insecurity. Many disabled women have been made destitute and homeless as a result of government policy. A bill is being put up by Lord Falconer to make changes to the current law for assisted dying. Disabled people fear that the common perception of themselves as a burden, especially when support services are cut, may contribute to their decision making that they were better off dead. We believe that the focus should be on assisted/supported living not on assisted dying. Not to have a lingering existence where its just being personal care and fed by agency workers who come for 15 minutes every morning and evening.

‘The history of human rights is one of gradual rather than spectacular gains. History also tells us that rights are never just handed down from above, but have to be simultaneously claimed from below’.

(from’ Women and armed conflict from victims to activists’ (pdf)

Disabled women should be afforded equality wherever they are as human rights – enshrined in UN Conventions, especially CEDAW and the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Disabled People). Our fight here for human rights as disabled women for Article 19, for Independent Living, is a fight for all disabled women so that we get included as women who has rights to be part of our communities, to be equal to non disabled men and women.

So when we campaign for human rights here for disabled women we are campaigning for all disabled women wherever they might be, globally, in solidarity.

Thank you.

read more at Sisters of Frida’s website.

At WOW Festival 2014 | Feminism & Privilege

Does mainstream feminism only speak to white, straight, able-bodied, middle class women? This panel unpicks the debate about feminism and identity politics, what it means to be a good ally and whether you can ever leave your privilege at the door. Speakers include Nan Sloane, director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, Reni Eddo-Lodge, writer and contributing editor at Feminist Times and Eleanor Lisney of Sisters of Frida and Mercia McMahon. Chaired by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.



WOW 2014 | Austerity: Who Benefits?

Published on 8 Mar 2014

Why are cuts and austerity politics still disproportionately affecting women? Leading anti-cuts campaigners including Rosie Rogers from UK Uncut, poet, artist and activist Zita Holbourne and Eleanor Lisney from Sisters of Frida lay out today’s cuts landscape and consider what challenges the next round of cuts will bring. Chaired by Guardian journalist Kira Cochrane.


Eleanor Lisney DPAC (Disabled people Against Cuts ) The Peoples Assembly Coventry 6th March 2014



WOW 2014 | Sister of Frida WOW Party 5th March

Eleanor Lisney : Intersectionality and disability

‘Nothing about us without us’ – how often do we declare and hear that as disabled people? I ve certainly carried placards and shouted the slogan on protests but tonight I want to turn it on its head. Disability intersects class, gender, ethnicity, race, religion, age, and sexual orientation – but are they always represented in the disability movement? I was told by a fellow activist that she was asked why Sisters of Frida is needed because she feels discriminated as a disabled person but not for her gender. And my response was that she obviously came from a position of privilege – yes she is white, middle class and in a salaried job and unionised. And I assume she never had the experience of feeling trapped in an abusive relationship unable to leave because she was financially dependent and that refuges meant for women escaping from domestic violence were seldom accessible or supported for disabled women. Women’s Aid outlines particular ways in which disabled women are vulnerable to physical, sexual, psychological and financial abuse – and makes the point that “Getting away from abuse is often harder for disabled women because access to help and support is often controlled by the abuser.”

Racism is embedded in the system and people who have never encountered it can never understand how insidious it can be. And they, yes, even friends, make assumptions and can say things like tokenism when you insist on representation and be condescending about your culture to an extent where it is too hurtful for that friendship to be sustainable. But most of all, the real invisibles and voiceless are those women who have no recourse to legal services – for example, those whose identity documents are held by the abusers so that their residence rights cannot be proven. And how often do we hear about the ones incarcerated in residential homes/ institutionalised which put them at more risk to be exploited and abused, hidden from view.

Disabled women who are discriminated against – from feminist communities, LGBT, faith communities because they insist on congregating in non accessible venues. And the segregation is also from the disabled people’s communities because they do not understand nor interested in other identities. Where do disabled women go to discuss about the roles of being disabled lovers, mothers if they were given the opportunity of being girlfriend, wife or mother. And there are those whose sexuality were being denied or even sterilised (often presumed to be for their own good). And who knows how to support them when they are raped? A report by Professor Betsy Stanko, stated that the ‘rape of vulnerable women, especially those with learning difficulties, has effectively been “decriminalised”.

I guess I am speaking about the need for intersectionality also when we talk about disability – that we have more than one identity and we ought to acknowledge that – and that we should acknowledge we need a space for disabled women as disabled women, we need to listen to the different identities. And feminism needs to accommodate intersectionality too – speaking as a disabled woman of colour when I can be the only non white disabled at the table I feel a double disconnect. I m sure some of you here know what I m saying where you stop wanting to engage as a form of self protection.

Harriet Tubman, a disabled American bondwoman who escaped from slavery in the South to become a leading abolitionist before the American Civil War, said ‘If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more’. I think we ought to insist on being intersectional and free people from being locked into labels so that we can build a more inclusive society.


Visual minutes of the event by Stephen Lee Hodgkins
Visual minutes of the event by Stephen Lee Hodgkins

From Inclusion London ‘Re-thinking disability equality policy and practice in a hostile climate’

27 September 2012

This is a presentation from Michelle Daley and myself. Michelle is sorry she cannot be here today but we both would like to thank Inclusion London to give the BAMER disabled person’s perspective from the front line.


In a group discussion once, we were asked what was the most important thing we’d grab in a fire or a flood and I said ‘my passport’.
Why? Because a passport defines who you are – it defines your rights. It means your identity as a citizen – and in this country, it defines whether you have rights. A refugee does not have the same rights as we do – a disabled refugee would have even less rights. In rethinking disability equality policy in a hostile climate – do we include refugees, the stateless and migrants.

I was alerted to a tweet last year – about Manjeet Kaur in Manchester, a woman wheelchair user seeking asylum. She was facing eviction from her accommodation and possible deportation from the UK. Her eviction was prevented by a picket outside her home and other efforts by her and RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research) in Salford,
who are campaigning together. We managed to get some disability activists to join the picket.

We have a series of questions we want you to consider

how do we ensure that in rethinking disability equality that we include all voices – travellers, those in institutions including prisons, and those excluded groups?

How about those who are citizens but do not know they have rights as disabled people?

How do we make sure we include them? Its hard enough as a disabled person to negotiate barriers and discrimination when you are a native English speaker but for those who struggle with the language and are unfamiliar with the system and bureaucracy – how do make them aware that they have also a claim to disability equality?

On the frontline, where LAs are cutting back how do we ensure that BAME people are not left behind in the ‘personalisation’ process, in the maze of bewildering social welfare reforms? Resources are being cut savagely, do DPOs who are struggling for their own existence include advocacy for those for whom English is not their first language? what happens to the practice of equality for all in this hostile climate? are some disabled being abandoned because DPOs are struggling themselves with the dwindling resources in terms of staff, time, finance and energy?

The reality is that choices for disabled people are limited. Choice is an integral aspect of the principle of inclusion – it is about increasing people‟s freedom and opportunity to improve their life chances. However if we continue to have limited choices made available to us, our opportunities to achieve equality of opportunity will continue to be seriously limited. What this means is that our vision of a full inclusion is always being threatened.

There is a serious erosion (and the expectations) of our disability rights signed in the Convention of rights for disabled people. When I was interviewed on radio about access for disabled people, the interviewer opened the discussion by asking that in times of austerity at the moment can we afford to have disabled access, are we being realistic to ask for expensive adjustments? Our rights as citizens and as humans are seen to be expandable and that goes across board as disabled people in the ethnic minorities, women, older people, those in rural communities. As cuts slashes benefits, and impacts on services and wages of those who already earn a barely minimum wage (and their families) there is a scramble on what they can get to survive. Many disabled people in BAME communities still depend heavily on their families for their care needs and this recession means many of their family members are made redundant and the first people to be impacted are poor people in those communities many already living in bad housing and maybe desperate conditions.

I didn’t come with shocking statistics to prove that life is harder in the BAME communities – this is not that kind of a conference I feel. It’s more important for me to emphasise, as Michelle says, the different journeys of BAMER disabled. We are also impacted by what happens to our communities and our young people. In my local community forum, in the stop and search police procedure, I asked also about disabled BAME people who gets discriminated even more because of their colour. Who advocates for them? When you get doubly discriminated who do you go to for help? What about BAME disabled women when it comes to violence against women refuges or in hospital environment when they have accessibility needs as well as dietary and other faith needs?

Equality act 2010 covers some of those rights in the ‘protected characteristics’ but I don’t think we know what happens when they intersect. It’s too new and I m not a lawyer but I do know there are not that many case laws to draw upon.

This presentation comes from our dialogue, Michelle and I with each other, we both care passionately about the disability movement but also as disabled people from those BAME communities and we ask you not to have silos – As Michelle says : Positive and real change can only be achieved with the inclusion of everybody.

Thank you for asking us to be here.

(first published by Inclusion London)

The Guardian 2011 : Cuts ‘taking disabled people back to Victorian age’


Million Women Rise 2010 (with Michelle Daley)


Together! by David Morris. With sub-titles and BSL interpretation.