Portuguese National Institute for Rehabilitation



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INR – Instituto Nacional para a Reabilitação, I.P.
(“Portuguese National Institute for Rehabilitation”)








Study on the Impact of Disability-based Discrimination of Women: Summary



This study was developed by the following team:

Pedro Bettencourt Correia (Project Director)

Pedro Afonso Fernandes (Project Manager)

Cláudia Fulgêncio (Quality Management)

Carvalho Abrantes

Teresa Lopo

João Fernandes

Ana Dias

NEMUS – Environmental Management and Recovery, Ltd.

Estrada do Paço do Lumiar, Campus do Lumiar (ex-INETI)

Edifício D – R/C

1649-038 LISBON – PORTUGAL

www.nemus.pt



TABLE OF CONTENTS




I. Introduction

The current Summary condenses the main results derived within the scope of the Study on the Impact of Disability-based Discrimination of Women. The latter was an investigative survey carried out throughout the first half of 2009 aiming at analysing and assessing situations of multiple discrimination that women with disabilities might experience, focussing on issues such as education and training, social welfare, access to basic goods and services and inclusion in the labour market and in society.

In Chapter 2 of the present document, the Study’s aims and main methodological options are recalled. These evolved in view of the Study’s own development and, especially, following the suggestions made by the panel of experts and entities that oversaw the work process.

In Chapter 3, the main results are outlined which were obtained from the analyses conducted – both statistical, in nature, as, most importantly, empirical, that is, upon collection of primary information through interviews on a sample of representative bodies and women with disabilities. These findings are organized according to the main research axes: Population; Education and vocational training; Labour market and employment; Social protection and access to other essential goods and services; Civic participation and in sports, leisure and cultural activities; and Safety from violence and abuse.

In chapters 4 and 5, there follows, respectively, a presentation of the chief aspects to be retained from the Study (conclusions) and a set of general (strategic) and specific (operative) recommendations, with a view to promoting the societal inclusion of women with disabilities in the broader context of policies that aim to fight and mitigate the effects relating to combined discrimination occurrences.

2. Objectives and Methodology

2.1. Objectives

With the Study on the Impact of Disability-based Discrimination of Women the goal was, essentially, to characterize and assess the participation and discrimination levels with regard to the female population with disability in Portugal, considering the fields of education and training, social protection, access to basic goods and services and integration in the labour market and in society.

Thus, it was important to gain insight into the extent to which women with disabilities are liable to multiple discrimination in Portugal and put forward adequate measures so as to ensure them their fundamental rights and freedoms, in accordance to provisions made in national, community, European and international legislation on equality and non-discrimination, including those set forth by Article 6 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and by the Council of Europe Disability Action Plan 2006-2015.

2.2. Methodological Approach

With a view to fully achieve the Study’s goals, NEMUS devised a methodological approach based on six research strands:


  • General characterization of the female population with disability;

  • Education and training accessibility for disabled women;

  • Inclusion of women with disabilities in the labour force and access to employment;

  • Access to social benefits and other basic goods and services (health, justice, transport, housing, etc.);

  • Civic role and part taken in sports, leisure and cultural activities;

  • Safety levels considering violence and abuse.

The following instruments of primary or secondary information collection and analysis contributed to pursuing these investigative dimensions: (i) Document review; (ii) Statistical analysis and (iii) Interviews.

The aim of the document analysis performed was to determine the main features of existing programmes and policies relevant to the issue at stake, as well as their major ackowledged outcomes with regard to discrimination against women with disabilities, not only in Portugal but also internationally. To that effect, a significant set of reference texts was analysed.

Simultaneously, relevant sets of statistical data underwent thorough analytical treatment. Besides the information available from the 2001 Population Census conducted by the National Statistics Institute (INE – Instituto Nacional de Estatística) – the most important source for characterizing the disabled population – several data made available by the Vocational Training and Employment Institute (IEFP – Instituto do Emprego e Formação Profissional, the Portuguese Public Employment Service) were likewise worked on.

In addition, if occasionally, the results (somewhat dated) of the National Survey on Disabilities, Incapacities and Disadvantages (Inquérito Nacional às Deficiências, Incapacidades e Desvantagens), carried out by INE in 1994, were also resorted to. It was similarly possible to compile data published by the Ministry of Education Directorate-General for Innovation and Curricula Development (Direcção-Geral de Inovação e Desenvolvimento Curricular).

The gathering of primary source information within the current study’s scope required that two kinds of interviews be held: (i) Privileged observers and collective bodies and (ii) Women with disabilities.

In the first case, contacts were made with a group of organizations that, given their respective responsibilities in the matters of disabled people integration and equalization of opportunities, seemed vital to engage in performing a study of this nature. The sample entities were selected in close coordination with INR and with the Study’s Monitoring Commission intending, namely, to assure coverage of different types of institutions, disabilities and local realities.

Initially, it was expected that at least a hundred women with disabilities should be interviewed, preferably those assisted by the above mentioned supportive/sheltering institutions, as it would be necessary to resort to help from mediators/technicians during the actual interviews in some cases (such as mental conditions, for instance). However, as the work naturally progressed, this target proved ambitious given the time frame for completing the study. In fact, not all of the entities previously contacted managed to mobilize at least five women with disabilities, as was NEMUS’ preset intention.

In any case, 56 disabled women as well as the representatives for 26 organizations were inquired upon, amounting to a total of 82 interviews which were partitioned by NUTS II Regions as follows: North – 34 interviews; Centre – 40; Lisbon – 41; Alentejo – 36; and Algarve – 29.

The interviews were carried out in a semi-controlled manner, relying on scripts, improved upon following the suggestions made by the Monitoring Commission, as well as after the first few actual interviews, which also served the purposes of pre-testing and validating the original scripts. In addition, quality control procedures were applied to handling and interpreting the replies collected.

3. Key Findings

3.1. Demographic Issues

In 2001, about 290,000 women with disabilities lived on the Portuguese Mainland, corresponding to 2.9% of the whole population, 5.7% of the female population and 47.3% of the disabled population. That is to say that women were outnumbered with regard to the entire population bearing a disability and that the latter was less recurrent with women than with men, as it affected 6,8% of the male population.

However, ensuing from women’s longer life expectancy in general, in the age group of 65-year-olds or older, they become a majority among disabled persons. In fact, almost 40% of the women with disabilities were at least 65 years old in 2001, while the same proportion was considerably smaller for men (28.3%).

Approximately half of all persons with disabilities in Portugal have visual or motor impairments, with each of these disabilities accounting for roughly ¼ of the disabled population. Hearing impairments (about 13%) and mental disorders (11%) come next.

Distribution of disability type in the case of women does not differ greatly from the general case. There is only to be noticed a predominance of sight-related impairments (28,6%) over motor ones (22,4%).

From the 290,000 women with disabilities registered in 2001, almost 215,000 (74%) did not perform any economic activity. A great many of the latter (60%) were either retired or on permanent leave – possibly earning a social benefit. Compared to disabled men, women in similar conditions stood out by a far larger proportion (9.1% versus 0.2%) of domestic services as well as by reduced incidences of permanent incapacity for work (22.8% versus 28.3%), indicating a greater removal from the labour market.

3.2. Education and Training

Disabled or impaired persons are a group of people traditionally excluded from mainstream school systems. This segregation adds notoriously to the lack of understanding, discrimination and stereotype build-up relating to them, while at the same time hindering their access to vocational training, employment, advancement and self-reliance.

With respect to girls and women with disabilities or impairments, gender-based prejudices are added to those stemming from the disability itself, which ultimately contrive to deepen their exclusion from school systems. While it is considered normal for men with disabilities to search for training, regarding women with disabilities this awareness in society is less common, restricting their access to self-advancement opportunities. It is known that women with disabilities are faced with enormous educational and training shortcomings to a great extent due to low expectations on the part of their families and subsequent early removal from schools. Therefore, a great deal of the dropout rates and low school and training qualifications concerning impaired girls and women is due to protective family environments which, more often than otherwise, does not allow for their development, empowerment, and ensuing autonomy.

In 2001, there were about 9,000 women with disabilities who were studying, corresponding to 3.1% and to 4.2%, respectively, of the total number of disabled women and of the inactive ones. These incidences, though not so different from those observed for their male counterparts (2.9% and 4.8%, respectively), fall considerably short of those relative to women without disabilities (6.9% and 17%) – clearly stressing an exclusion scenario concerning the Education and Training Systems.

Not surprisingly, disabled people’s structure of qualifications (and that of disabled women, in particular) is rather unfavourable compared to the general case. Data from 1994, resulting from the National Survey on Disabilities, Incapacities and Disadvantages, show the majority (53.4%) of persons with disabilities had not finished, nor attended, the fourth year of basic education. For comparison purposes, it should be noted that the same proportion rated at 26.4% for the entire Mainland resident population (with and without disability) in 2001.

Most organizations interviewed (20 out of 26, that is 77%) offered direct or indirect schooling and training programmes for disabled people. However, from their experience, they do not draw significant indication regarding discrimination against women or girls with disabilities in the scope of mainstream educational and training systems. As a matter of fact, the majority of answers (59%) refer discriminating issues that impact on both genders such as shortage of specialized teachers and trainers, architectural barriers and accessibility problems of school buildings and classrooms, or even the incomprehension of teachers and other school staff with regard to the specific needs of the different types of disability.

Thus, specific discrimination against disabled women and girls in accessing school, further education and career choice is apparently more closely related to endurance of social models and stereotypes that define gender determined roles for women. These are often focussed on the family context itself and aggravated in rural areas, where family protection and restraints are most strongly felt (7 replies out of 17, totalling 41%). The process of giving typical social roles on the basis of gender is pointed out, by some organizations, as exerting a negative effect in disabled persons’ choice of courses and careers (6 answers out of 17, or 35%).

The group of women questioned in the scope of this study is more literate than the whole of the female population with disabilities. Whereas in the general population the percentage of illiterate women ranks at 23.6%, within the group it only totals 11.5%. Reversely, with regard to further literacy levels, 15.4% of the interviewees have completed secondary studies, a level that only 2.9% of the entire population of disabled women have attained; and as for higher education, the percentages of both groups are, respectively, of 11.5% and 2.9%. Besides their relatively high literacy, the women interviewed also showed high attendance levels in vocational training courses (60%).

These differences seem to be explained by the age span of the interviewed group, significantly younger than the whole of the population with disabilities. In fact, almost 40% of the women with disabilities were at least 65 years old in 2001, whereas in the group interviewed 84% were not yet over 50 years of age. On the other hand, none of the interviewees was under 18.

In addition, this group comprises women who remain close to assistive organizations, some as users, and others as active members in the non-governmental movement. This gives to these women’s statements a certain ambiguity which must be taken into account: if, on the one hand, they are not statistically representative of the whole of the female population with disabilities with reference to schooling and age group (in particular), on the other hand they have a wider experience in the education and training domains – besides being, in all probability, more aware of their rights and attentive to the existence of discrimination and hurdles in acceding to education and vocational training.

The barriers found in school systems are considered, by these women, as a problem shared by both women and men with disabilities and deeply felt as far as physical accessibilities and teaching methods are concerned, varying in accordance to the type and degree of disability. Negative experiences of obstacles in gaining access to training, in disrespect of legal provisions and involving inequitable practices in candidate selection within some training programmes, were reported to the interviewing team and, furthermore, credited to the disability and not the sex of each candidate.

The existence of a discriminatory culture on the part of family and society alike which hurdles and hinders the scholarly progression of girls and women with disabilities was, on the other hand, quickly pinpointed by some of the interviewees (and their respective assistive organizations), exerting a more pervasive and pressing effect in rural areas and lower income family contexts, as it has already been stated.

3.3. Labour Market and Employment

Labour force integration allows a positive contribution to society and the growth of economic independence and stability. Nevertheless, persons with disabilities, given the imposition of barriers relative directly or indirectly to disability, are typically excluded from the labour market, thus becoming one of the most marginalized groups, albeit quite capable of making significant contributions to society.

For women with disabilities, exclusion from the labour market is steeper since they might not be regarded as potentially productive members of society at all, frequently being also denied the roles of housewife and mother on account of their disability. In Portugal, many disabled women and girls are forced to remain inactive, often staying at home or in institutions, performing domestic or other non-remunerated work eventually and only receiving a social pension over which, for the most part, they do not even hold the slightest control. Even when employed, the shortcomings in infant and senior care giving supportive mechanisms make it impossible in the end for impaired women to gain access to career opportunities that would allow them greater economic self-sufficiency. Additionally, women with disabilities suffer with unfair criteria in access to training, vocational guidance, credit and decision-making processes due to prejudiced assumptions regarding their productivity and work capability, and they usually earn lower incomes when contrasted against the remainder of the workforce bearing comparable qualifications.

According to the last Population Census, there were approximately 61 thousand disabled women economically active, whether employed or unemployed, in 2001. This volume indicated an activity rate of only 21%, nearly half the one observed for women without disabilities (43.6%) and inferior to the rate concerning men with disabilities (33.6%).

This lesser participation of women with disabilities in the labour market is noticed, most particularly, in terms of job access. In fact, the correlated employment rate, calculated with reference to a 15-year-old and older population, reached 19.6% in the same year. This is, likewise, but a humble figure when contrasted against those observed for women without disabilities (47.1%) as well as for impaired men (43.6%), making the double discrimination phenomenon on the bases of disability and gender clearly evident.

By contrast, the unemployment rate shown in the 2001 Census indicated a two-digit figure (11.2%) for women with disabilities. Such was not the case for women without disabilities, nor for men with disabilities either, who both registered similar unemployment rates (8.7%). On all accounts, disabled men in unemployment clearly outnumbered (9,500) their female counterparts (6,800).

Data relating to unemployment registered by the Public Employment Service (IEFP) suggest that unemployment of people with disabilities may, presumably, rank below the numbers arrived at by the Population Census, with reference to a broader concept of unemployment. In fact, in the year of the last Census (that is, in 2001), the women with disabilities entered in employment centres’ records were only 1.193, far less than the nearly 7,000 surveyed by the Census. And in 2008, under much more complex economic circumstances than those verified in 2001, 2,810 unemployed women with impairments were registered.

There is, nevertheless, a significant escalation in official unemployment numbers for disabled women, at an average rate of +13% per year between 2001 and 2008, far beyond that observed for women with no disabilities (+2.5% per year). This pace was also increased with regard to impaired men (an average growth of +11.9% yearly over the same period), leading to assumptions as to there being a phenomenon of progressively greater integration of disabled people (regardless of gender) in the labour force, with higher unemployment levels denoting greater proximity towards the labour market instead of a more acute scenario of exclusion from employment in 2008 than what had been observed in 2001.

In fact, previous studies reveal that the unemployed, as opposed to the idle or inactive population, have better probabilities of finding jobs, regardless of the duration of their unemployment (or inactivity) period and other observable characteristics of individuals, disability included. In other words, the fact that the volume of (recorded) unemployment for women (and men) with disabilities has grown in 2008, when compared to 2001, might only mean that these women have, nowadays, a better chance of finding a job, more so as the proportion of those actively looking for a job is also greater than in recent years, namely because they benefited from active vocational training and/or rehabilitation measures.

Data relating to the structure of the unemployment recorded in 2001 and in 2008 seem to validate this assumption. In fact, the search for a first job was more frequent in 2001 than in 2008 in the case of women with disabilities: 23.8% versus 17.1%. As for impaired men, not only are these indicators inferior in both years (14.8% and 13.9%, respectively) as there has also not been such a steep decrease between them (only 0.9 percentage points less, far below the 6.7 gap observed in women).

In other words, women with disabilities seem to be integrating the labour market somewhat later than men, and namely as unemployed persons registered by IEFP’s placement offices. This process is still ongoing since there remains a higher proportion of first job demands regarding impaired women (the already mentioned 17.1%), as contrasted against men in similar conditions (13.9%) in 2008.

From the 26 respondent bodies, less than half (42%) implemented direct or indirect intervention in assisting the professional integration of persons with disabilities. The respective perception that there are gender-based discrimination stances linked to disability-based ones is relatively stronger under this particular analytical perspective than verified for education and training issues. In fact, 73% of them mentioned several discriminating factors for women with disabilities in view of the labour market; one organization, in particular, sums up the situation quite plainly: “between blind men and blind women, priority goes to men; with regard to factory workers, priority goes to men”.

However, even with organizations acknowledging the existence of double discrimination in the labour market and denouncing the employers’ reluctance in applying equalization laws in disability matters as in gender matters alike, they consider that the issue is still little addressed in terms of intensity and discrimination forms against women favouring men with the same type and degree of disability. So much so as concrete instances placing in competition people with the same type and degree of disability, when accessing employment or career advancement/promotion opportunities, are naturally rare.

Among the 56 interviewed women, there are almost no inactive ones (only 4) and the group comprises 42 women who are currently working and 20 unemployed ones. From those who are employed, a great many work for the organizations that selected them, rarely as hired staff (in which case, most often in precarious arrangements under professional insertion support programmes) and usually doing voluntary work. Exceptions to this prevalent non-contractual work are also to be observed, comprising a few examples of utter labour market integration and professional success. Such is the case of one of the interviewees, who completed two university (tertiary) degrees, holds a permanent executive position with a state organization and is actively involved in a disabled persons’ association.

The existence of multiple discrimination in the labour market specifically was mentioned in 3 of the 6 inquiries confirming the general perception of this sort of discrimination. Nevertheless, when describing more definite situations, the relative weight of disability-based factors seems to surpass any obstacles that might eventually be felt in terms of gender.

The paths treaded by some of these women in relation to labour market issues bear witness to a hard struggle to find employment. In particular, one of the interviewees, despite being extremely involved in volunteering and an active member of an association, holding several training qualifications and having actively been looking for a job for many years, has never managed to find one. Married and mother of three children, she does her household chores while at the same time carrying out the aforementioned activities.

3.4. Social Protection and Access to Other Basic Goods and Services

Persons with disabilities face many kinds of impediments in the accessibility of basic goods and services such as social and legal assistance, healthcare, rehabilitation, housing, transport or communication and information technologies (CIT). These barriers might be architectural, communicational, informational, attitudinal or from third-party dependency. Eliminating these obstacles calls not only for the development of more efficient and effective legal and political frameworks but also for a profound change in the society’s standpoints as well as its cultural attitudes, demanding greater accountability concerning support to disabled people.

In accessing social aid, women with disabilities might be excluded from compensation schemes calculated on the basis of income loss or contribution periods, given that, because they are generally also excluded from the labour market, they would not earn a fair compensation, if any at all. Additionally, marriage can bring about exclusion from certain social benefits, pointing towards an existing legal framework that does not consider them capable of financial autonomy.

The enjoyment of a healthy family life also poses serious problems to women with disabilities, especially because they are usually taught to believe that they will never take part in a relationship, have a family of their own or raise children. The World Health Organization has identified these issues as of the uttermost importance.

In this context, it is to be noted that, according to the 2001 Census, the majority of the disabled population (55.3%) usually earned their livelihood through income from pension or retirement benefits, with proportions being higher in the case of women (58.6%), highlighting a situation of greater dependency and, possibly, longevity given that this phenomenon is also observed for persons with disability in general.

In any case, only 18% of the disabled women lived on work-generated income whereas for men (with impairments) that proportion reached 31%. The lesser economic and social independence of women facing men with disabilities is also visible in the higher proportion of “under family care” arrangements (15.2% versus 8.5%), which should not be exempt from the household chores obligations to which many impaired women are subjected by their own families – as NEMUS could verify through the interviews conducted.

Already in 2001, resource to the former Guaranteed Minimum Income (Rendimento Mínimo Garantido) – currently Social Insertion Income (Rendimento Social de Inserção), appeared to be more common among people with disabilities and, in particular, for women. These findings might suggest a connection between families with disabled persons (and women) and situations of poverty and social exclusion, which might give rise to multiple exclusion situations beyond the dimensions of disability and gender.

In the discrimination in accessing social protection and other basic goods and services, the 26 contacted representatives focussed 50% of their answers on “exclusion stemming from the family” and 45.7% on “informational exclusion regarding rights and duties”. It is to be noted that 12 (46.2%) of those entities centre their intervention on “social protection and access to other basic goods and services” issues.

In contrast, only 10 (17.8%) of the disabled women interviewed claimed to benefit from support programmes and, among them, 8 (80%) stated their satisfaction relating to the assistance made available, mainly technical aids – a specific type of assistance resorted to by a large majority (80%) of these women.

Of the 41 interviewees who commented on multiple discrimination, only 6 (14.6%) considered that the phenomenon does exist. These women’s responses, with respect specifically to this axis of research, show a distribution of the combined discrimination awareness that spans, in half of the answers, issues relating to “communication and mobility” and, in 33.3%, to “community, social and civic life”.

With regard to perceived discrimination on the basis of disability, in relation to women in general, those aspects that globally relate to sexuality, family planning and maternity, are referred to in terms of “formative exclusion and exclusion from access to sexual life” in 19 of all organizations’ answers (82.6%), of “absence of family planning and access to family life” in 3 answers (13.0%) and of “forced sterilisation” in one answer (4.3%). The issue of “discrimination motivated predominantly by disability” is also important and pointed out in almost half (47.8%) the collected answers.

3.5. Participation in Civic, Sporting, Leisure and Cultural Activities

Civic involvement offers every citizen the opportunity to try to solve their problems in a constructive way and coordinating closely with the society they belong to. This type of tool is most important in solving the specifically relevant difficulties that might stand against the individual’s full and effective development and inclusion. In general, civic participation should comprehend all aspects of one’s life, not being solely restricted to defending rights and freedoms.

The civic participation of impaired women is essential for taking their needs and worries into consideration in political and social decision-making processes since they do not, typically, have other means of expression. Linked to absence of means, a lack of participation may spring from low self-esteem, fear, shame, isolation and voluntary or involuntary coercion, too. So as to allow for their integration, women with disabilities should be valued for their potentialities and not their vulnerabilities. Besides requiring (in)formative support in the areas of citizenship and rights, this process should also call for participation in cultural and sporting activities, thus strengthening their physical and psychic balance. This political and procedural inclusion trend, also known as empowerment, puts stronger emphasis on what people want for themselves regarding the way in which they are included in society.

Consequently, the way in which these women are portrayed in the media has to be in accordance with their own opinions and views, and not only as victims or exceptional individuals, contributing for advancing equality of rights and opportunities. On the other hand, community-based activities, such as voluntary or associative work and leisure, sports and cultural activities, as well as active participation in local political life, must become more accessible.

About two thirds (17%) of the 26 contacted institutions base their intervention on the axis of “civic participation and in recreational activities”. Nonetheless, the activities for free time occupation the women interviewed most often refer to are those that take place in close proximity to or within the family context, with “strolls” (51.8%), “socializing with friends” (50%) and “television” (42.9%) clearly standing out, in this regard.

“Arts and crafts” (14.3%), listening to “music” (14.3%), going to the “beach” (10.7%) and “being with the family” (10.7%) were also mentioned. Time occupation with activities such as “swimming, working out, hydrogymnastics and hydrotherapy”, which came up in 37.5% of the answers given by the impaired women interviewed, is also quite relevant.

The dynamics of women’s participation in adapted sports for persons with disabilities in Portugal, which has been fostered by the growing activity of the Portuguese Federation of Sports for the Disabled (FPDD – Federação Portuguesa de Desportos para Deficientes), are also noteworthy. This evolution may be easily ascertained from the international participation of Portuguese women athletes in the Paralympics Games: in the 2004 edition, 24% of the athletes were women; in Beijing, they made up 34% of the Portuguese delegation.

In free time occupation “out of doors”, going to “theatres, museums, cinemas” (17.9%) is first and foremost. “Taking part” in activities and events promoted by “associations” is mentioned in 7.1 % of the answers.

From the 6 women who commented on multiple discrimination with regard to this research axis specifically, two (33.3%) mentioned “interpersonal relationships” as one of the strands where this is perceived, one (16.7%) alluded to “leisure and free time occupation” and also one woman (16.7%) referred to the “associative” area.

It is noteworthy that, in the group of women who were interviewed, a relevant percentage of active members of associative movements working as volunteers could be observed, although persons with disabilities’ involvement with associations is still, in general, weak in Portugal – as was mentioned above. Nevertheless, there seems to be a preoccupation with increasing women’s participation, both on a staff as on a management level within the scope of the organizations contacted for the purposes of the current study.

With respect to the distribution of the organizations’ views on discrimination-awareness relating to this specific research axis, in 60% of the collected answers the “discrimination based predominantly on disability” is stressed, as is the “predominantly gender-based discrimination” referred to in an equivalent number of answers.

In other words, the discrimination against women with disabilities regarding their civic intervention and role in social activities has multiple grounds, centred both in the disability itself (possibly the most significant factor) as in gender issues.

3.6. Safety against Violence and Abuse

Associated to social exclusion, there are typically to be found negative social phenomena such as violence or poverty, making it especially important to protect from such phenomena those groups most liable to social exclusion. Women with disabilities in particular are a group highly vulnerable to physical and sexual violence and abuse. Such abuse may come about in society, which generally leads to over-protective attitudes from the respective family environment towards them, but it may also arise from within the family or institution, given disabled women’s potential incapacity with regard to self-defence or communication. This excessive protection, on the other hand, might also be pinpointed as the reason for poor personal development, according to the results of the 2003 Valencia Congress.

In a general way, violence against women with disabilities remains one of the most serious concerns in terms of their mental and physical well-being, and it is particularly preoccupying in poverty-stricken settings or with little access to information, such as in isolated rural contexts.

Most particularly, impaired girls’ sexuality is a sensitive issue, since these persons are typically deprived of sexual identity. Family education and interaction with other young people are essential in this respect. The disregard for these women’s sexuality, even in comparison to impaired men’s, leads to more recurrent cases of sexual abuse, basically related to power abuse or forceful sterilizations in some countries and cultural contexts.

In the distribution of the organizations’ answers on perceived gender-based discrimination, 8 entities (38.1%) indicated “greater probability of sexual or other form of abuse” when women with disabilities are considered, as opposed to male counterparts. With respect to the distribution of their views on the perception of discrimination regarding other issues not covered by the research’s themes, in more than half (57.1%) of the answers there were references to acts of “domestic violence or within an institution”.

In the distribution of the disabled women’s answers as far as their social standing is concerned, in 6 statements (13.6%) “household overload” was pinpointed and in two (4.5%) “violence issues”.

These findings suggest that domestic violence perpetuated on women and girls with disabilities, although not a universal phenomenon, is recurrent and not to be overlooked in relative terms. These acts are liable to occur, in particular, within women’s own family and to be associated to other abuses, namely, relating to domestic service performance. Likewise, the collected (indirect) evidence on the occurrence of violence situations inside disabled people’s sheltering and supportive organizations is also quite concerning.

4. Main Conclusions

The concept of intersectional discrimination against women with disabilities is easy enough to define but equally as hard to identify and quantify.

It is also an issue as of yet little addressed by research, as by rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities policies alike. Documentation on gender biases and on discrimination against disabled people is abundant. But the integrated approach to these two perspectives is often rare, and in the reference sources that were gathered for this study few are the titles dealing with it.

The theme may have suffered a certain faintness of interest, according to the hypothesis put forward by some studies, due to the fact that the disability dimension to it often overshadows other problems that may also impact people in this situation as well as the society perception in general.

In the meanwhile, a few years back, major international organizations started drawing attention to the specific needs associated to the position of disabled women and promoting the adoption of guidelines and policies focussing more on female disability issues (as stated in the previous sections on international strategic guidelines) and, in some countries, several feminist organizations, very active in this domain, appeared1. Furthermore, some projects organized by public powers were tried which specifically addressed women with disabilities. But the recommendations made so far seldom translate into measures fighting multiple or combined discrimination. In fact, they more often concur to the maintenance and strengthening of existing policies on disability and equalization of opportunities, each contributing, on its own, towards the same goal.

The problem lies in finding out where barriers and discrimination affect to a greater extent persons with disabilities of the female gender than those of the male gender. Statistics might possibly document this phenomenon in an unbiased manner but do not always manage to, typically because of the unavailability of findings gathered simultaneously by (type of) disability and by gender. However, the diversity of situations involving type and extent of disability, gender, literacy level or social standing make it a highly intricate process to consider the relation between the contributing issues of combined discrimination in such areas as education, labour market, sports or civic involvement, among others.

This is the reason why measures specifically targeting women with disabilities are less frequent both in Portugal as in other countries, although there seems to be a trend towards it and there are those who consider that there is a legislative and political void in that matter.

* * *


In the interviews held with selected organizations, the excessive inhibition and family protection of women with disabilities was highlighted, resulting from of fear and resistance with relation to society and from lower expectations on the part of the family regarding their development and emancipation. The latter aspect, specially, finds its expression in the “domestic instrumental condition” suffered by some disabled women interviewed.

This sort of discrimination originating in the family correlates to situations of informational exclusion and of conditioning of personal, social and civic advancement, limiting the opportunities for disabled women to fully participate in the whole range of areas of a full life utterly included in society.

Simultaneously, the greater vulnerability of these women and, in particular, of women with mental disabilities with regard to violence situations, either domestic and/or perpetrated inside institutions, and a higher exposure to abuses (including sexual ones) was also frequently referenced as a serious predicament associated with girls and women with disabilities, although this is an issue which, given its sensitiveness, is not sufficiently studied and quantified – nor it is, in fact, one of the preset goals of this study to produce definite results on such a particular matter.

The intensity of the discrimination depends greatly on the type and extent of the disability, with mental or intellectual problems often referred to as being associated to more concerning situations, as it is furthermore possible for this discrimination to be aggravated by other issues such as social status, ethnic background or age.

The participation and inclusion rates, for any of the research axes dealt with throughout the current study, are seemingly marked by accessibility issues, both in a strict sense of the term (physical mobility/accessibility to public areas and buildings) as in a broader sense (access to education and training, to the labour market, to a full participation in society and to all other fundamental rights of all citizens). In particular, the effects of discriminations on the basis of gender seem to be more considerable with respect to the labour market, civic participation and access to family and reproductive life. Regarding education, the development of inclusive systems – the benefits of which are acknowledged by the majority of interviewees – should be made, nevertheless, with sensitivity and good judgement, and in keep with all other social support structures, according to existing resources.

* * *


In brief, combined discrimination seems to result from the effects associated with the intersection of several conditions, not being restricted to the sum of the effects anticipated on the basis of each condition singled out. Thus, the comparison of situations ensuing from single discriminations, in this case based either on gender or on disability, to discriminations resulting from their respective intersection (which enhance the former in a synergetic way), allows to anticipate several possible scenarios in terms of social exclusion. So, the discrimination experienced by women with disability can be:

  • In general, similar to the one felt through the application of just one of the conditions, that is, by women or by disabled people in general;

  • The result of a relatively straight sum of the discriminating effects regarding each of the conditions (that is, without synergetic additions derived from the multiple discrimination);

  • More intense than expected from the plain sum of the discriminating effects imposed on each of the conditions (with multiple discrimination synergies).

Table 4.1 outlines a synthesis of the main results obtained throughout the current research where an attempt has been made at isolating the discrimination forms exclusively based on gender or on disability from the forms of combined discrimination associated to women with disabilities. This table was organized, in line, by research issues with a view to a better presentation of the main results.

Table 4.1 – Typification of the Study’s forms of discrimination by research axis





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