Double stigma, doubly vulnerable

Next week, we all have an important decision to make. Who will best lead the country, represent our interests, and continue to build an Israeli society that we are proud of.

I am thinking about this on the other side of the world, as I join 10,000 others who have descended upon the United Nations for its Commission on the Status of Women. But I am also thinking about those who aren’t high up on most party platforms; those who mostly don’t make the headlines; those we all see every day, but aren’t really seen. Women with disabilities, with whom I am fortunate to work, have coffee, and share life.

There are 650 million women with disabilities worldwide. Comprising 20 percent of the global female population, this is its largest minority, one that is largely invisible on the public agenda, within the women’s movement and, until recently, even invisible in the disability movement.

We cannot afford to be silent or ignore such a significant minority.

Paralympian Pascal Berkowitz has represented Israel in rowing and hand-biking
Paralympian Pascal Berkowitz has represented Israel in rowing and hand-biking

For women with disabilities, having the double stigma of being a woman and having a disability is nothing short of a catastrophe. This double stigma makes you doubly vulnerable. And this increased risk permeates all facets of daily life, including less opportunity for education, employment, health services and family. Women with disabilities are also twice as likely to be sexually and physically abused, than women without disabilities.

Who speaks out for those women with disabilities whose voices aren’t heard? Who will speak out for a woman with an intellectual disability or autism who cannot communicate with a police officer or is too scared to complain when her abuser is her caregiver on whom she is dependent? How can we strengthen the voices of these women so that they can speak out for themselves?

What can we do to change this reality?

In our experience, the development and implementation of education and awareness programs are essential to challenge the double stigma faced by woman with disabilities. The need for self-advocacy groups and training of disability leaders is a must. And Beit Issie Shapiro is doing both.

We created a model that brings together mothers – religious and secular, Jewish and Arab, veteran and new immigrants – to form a common task force to change the state of services in their region. The model has been replicated nationally and these women have become serious change agents throughout the country.

And this work goes hand-in-hand with legislation and policies.

G_PIC_1_Jean Judes at the United Nations


The United Nations recently recognized the challenge, and in a special section of the UN Convention on Rights for Persons with Disabilities, there is a call for special attention to be given to their rights and freedoms, and the need to ensure equal opportunities for this utterly marginalized and vulnerable group.

Israel ratified this Convention and we at Beit Issie Shapiro, together with Israeli rights organization Bizchut, lead its implementation in Israeli society and work closely with various parliamentarians in Israel – including the first female Member of Knesset who uses a wheelchair – to change legislation and advocate for all people with disabilities.

But there is so much more to be done.

As we all gear up to vote, I call on everyone to see the unseen and to ensure that general gender goals and objectives are also inclusive of women with disabilities.

Nothing about us without us! This slogan of the disabilities movement means that nothing happens for people with disabilities without the express involvement of people with disabilities.

We have learned at Beit Issie Shapiro that the greatest achievements in social change that we have managed to lead have only come through collaboration. Therefore, I also call for greater collaboration between disabilities and women’s movements, between government and non-profit organizations, and between each individual.

Imagine the inclusive society we can make if women with and without disabilities fight side-by-side for the rights of all women – then we could celebrate differences and similarity while building a community that is truly inclusive to all.

This is an edited version of the author’s speech delivered on a panel at the United Nations “Education – The Power Behind Empowering Women”, co-hosted by the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations, MASHAV – Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, UN-HABITAT and Beit Issie Shapiro.

About the Author
Jean Judes is the Executive Director of Beit Issie Shapiro, Israel’s leading non-profit organization in the field of disabilities. She is dedicated to bringing about social change in the field of disabilities in Israel, and furthering the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities globally.