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Fighting for the rights of disAbled women

Fighting for the rights of disAbled women

Bonnie Brayton is the executive of the DisAbled Women's Network (or DAWN) Canada, the country's only national advocacy organization focused on the needs and rights of women with disabilities. Scott Neigh interviews her about the issues that disabled women and girls face and about DAWN Canada's work.

Back in 1985, bureaucrats in the federal government dealing with issues related to women, and other bureaucrats dealing with issues related to disability, realized that while there were multiple advocacy groups hard at work in their respective areas, there were no national groups in Canada focused specifically on disabled women. They consulted with various women's groups and disability groups to identify disabled women who already played leadership roles, and put up the money to bring seventeen of those women together for meetings in Ottawa. Before the meetings were done, the women had decided that a one-time get-together was not enough and they started the ball rolling to found DAWN.

Thirty-three years later, DAWN is still going strong. From the beginning, its mission has been to end discrimination against women and girls with disabilities in Canada, in light of the fact that women with disabilities face among the highest rates of poverty, the highest rates of social and economic exclusion, and the highest rates of violence in Canadian society.

Moreover, Brayton estimates that upwards of one-quarter of women in the country have some sort of disability but the official statistics are lower than this. In Canada such stats are derived through self-identification, and stigma and underdiagnosis mean that many women who are functionally disabled in one way or another do not identify as such. Despite these numbers, it is quite rare for governments or advocacy organizations other than DAWN to give the experiences, barriers, and issues faced by disabled women, the specific consideration that they require. Though all of this points towards a large and complex spectrum of needs, much of DAWN's work in recent years has focused largely on the high levels of violence disabled women face.

Though the group has kept working for more than three decades, they have never had core funding, and subsist mostly on funding for specific projects and on donations. It was only in 2007 that the group hired its first executive director, Bonnie Brayton. Though not all of its staff are disabled women, all of the organizational leadership and the board of directors are. They organize their work around four pillars: education, research, policy, and advocacy. They collaborate extensively with other women's groups, disability groups, and also trade unions.

Recent accomplishments include challenging Canada's lack of progress on disability issues by presenting to the committee reviewing Canada's compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities. They have been providing input to the current federal government around violence against women, and with respect to federal legislation related to disability that is in the works. They also completed the first-ever comprehensive research report on the conditions of women and girls with disabilities in Canada, and are hard at work turning their findings into a comprehensive, long-term agenda for policy and advocacy work.

And as for what they would like to see from other activist, social justice, and human rights organizations, they are happy for the extensive opportunities they have to collaborate with other groups. But they are very clear that they want the struggles of disabled women to be taken up in a central way by all kinds of different groups, rather than falling largely to DAWN. They want groups in all kinds of different locations and sectors to do the work and spend the money to ensure that disabled women are at their tables, disabled women's voices are central to their work, and disabled women are in leadership positions.

Image: DAWN Canada logo used with permission.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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