Citation: Lavery, P. (2003, February). Speaking out for the disabled, speaking out for women. The Link. Retrieved from

Speaking out for the disabled, speaking out for women
Activist Maria Barile comes to Concordia

by Patrick Lavery

What do you think of when you see a person in a wheelchair? Is there a moment of pity and sadness for the unfortunate person? Is there a moment of revulsion? Do you see that person as an equal? Maria Barile, an activist for people with disabilities, addressed these questions in a talk she gave to a Women and Disabilities class before reading week.

The first thing Barile showed the students gathered for her lecture was striking; on an overhead, a girl in a wheelchair, holding a sword, confronted by a dragon.

"What do you see, what do you feel when look at this?" she asked the class. Students gave varying answers, some felt that it was empowering, others saw the girl being oppressed. One person felt the picture illustrated the fear of the disability itself.

Barile spoke to the class about the discrimination that people with disabilities deal with everyday. From odd, hurtful looks strangers give, to the lack of ramps for wheelchair access, Barile gave the students gathered, some food for thought.

Using a series of exercises to illustrate her point., Barile had students separate a sheet of loose-leaf paper into three sections. Each section was labelled positive, negative, and neutral. Barile asked students to place words like wheelchair, money, and winter into the different sections, depending on how the student felt about that word. Students then explained their reason for where they placed the words. Some students placed wheelchair in the positive category, feeling that there was nothing negative about it.

Barile spoke to the students about the disabled women's movement, citing Helen Keller as one of the first disabled feminists.

"She marched with non-disabled women on issues like birth control and equality," said Barile. "She was one of the strong women of that particular era."

Since that time, people with disabilities have forged a group identity, said Barile. "We are proud of ourselves. We claim our identity with pride."

Barile moved on to criticize the manner in which the majority of society has treated people with disabilities.

"The language used has been a tool that perpetuates stereotypes," she said. "Disabled men and women are considered genderless, they are constantly referred to in a neutral way. I am not a disabled man, and as such, things are different for me. I am a disabled woman."

Barile also looked at cultural patterns in society. "These patterns are largely based on norms," she said. "When was the last time you saw a disabled person in a movie?"

Students could not think of many answers to that question, though several thought of able-bodied actors who had played characters with disabilities.

"What does that say to you?" Barile asked the class. "There are three schools for disabled actors, two in the U.S. and one in Britain. When a you cast a non-disabled actor as a disabled character, it makes a statement. Disabled actors are somehow not good enough."

Barile also focused on some of the positive changes that have been made in the last few years.

"People with disabilities have become more active," she said. In a video presentation that followed the lecture, students were informed that disabled activists had organized and executed the longest occupation of a federal building in U.S. history. The activists and protesters held a sit-in for 25 days at the federal building in San Francisco, protesting the lack of adapted facilities in the city.

Barile herself is a member of DAWN Canada, a network for disabled women across the country.

"Discussing a disability, and the language used, is not about being PC," said Barile. "If you use it to be PC, you are missing the boat. I am a woman with disabilities and a disabled woman."