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Women with Disabilities: Challenges, Opportunities, and Role Models in 2022

Headshots of 64 women with disabilities in a gridWashington, D.C., March 12 – As we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, which take place every March, RespectAbility recognizes the important contributions made by women now and throughout the history of the United States. It is important to note this includes more than 22.7 million women living with a disability.

In fact, women report higher rates of disability than their male counterparts. According to the most recent Census Bureau disability data, released just this week by the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, fully 13.6 percent of women living in the community (not institutionalized) in America had disabilities, compared to 13.2 percent of men in America who reported a disability in 2020.

Despite significant gains across multiple sectors of American society, disabled women still face worse employment outcomes than men with disabilities. Out of approximately 10 million working-age women with disabilities, only 36.1 percent had jobs, compared to an employment rate of 38 percent for 10.7 million working-age disabled men.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the social and economic injustices that women, and especially women with disabilities, face. Millions of women, especially mothers, have dropped out of the workforce due to caretaking responsibilities and layoffs,” said Nicole LeBlanc, a nationally recognized self-advocate and former RespectAbility Policy Apprentice. “Since the start of the pandemic, 2.5 million women have left the labor market, compared to 1.8 million men. As a society, we must do better to ensure that our workforce can accommodate the unique needs of women and women with disabilities specifically.”

However, there is reason for optimism. “In recent months, we have seen a historic, positive trend in labor force participation rates for all people with disabilities,” said Nelly G. Nieblas, Manager of Policy, Advocacy and Engagement at RespectAbility. “If women with disabilities follow this nationwide trend, we could be looking at as many as 215,000 new female job seekers with disabilities entering the labor force.”

“People with disabilities of all backgrounds and genders deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else,” said RespectAbility’s interim CEO and President Deborah Fisher, Ph.D.

Some celebrities and business leaders are using their voice to share their stories, educating people about both visible and nonvisible disabilities. These role models make a big difference in setting high expectations for youth with disabilities. People with disabilities of all backgrounds can be among the highest achievers on earth. Haben Girma became the first Deafblind woman to graduate from law school when she earned her degree from Harvard Law School in 2013. Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, performer Selena Gomez lives with lupus, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Barbara Corcoran is dyslexic and gymnast Simone Biles has ADHD.

RespectAbility invites you to learn about additional women who are paving their own paths and succeeding in their chosen careers:

  • Qiana Allen: Sharing Her Journey as an Entrepreneur with Lupus
  • Maya Angelou: Legendary Poet and Civil Rights Activist Who Had Disability, Inspires Generations
  • Khadija Bari: Becoming Her Whole Self
  • Halle Berry: Living with Disability While Taking a Stand against Domestic Violence
  • Simone Biles: Olympic & Disability Champion Makes History While Mesmerizing Many
  • Selma Blair: Positive Role Model for Success for Individuals with Acquired Disabilities
  • La’Rina Carolina: Pioneer breaking the inequality lines between deaf and hearing societies
  • Barbara Corcoran: Shark Tank Entrepreneur and Business Owner Proves Dyslexics Can Be Successful
  • Lois Curtis: Woman with Mental and Intellectual Disabilities Fights for Freedom For All
  • Andrea Dalzell: RN Who Uses a Wheelchair Treating COVID-19 Patients in NYC
  • Sneha Dave: Super Talent Creates Network for Teens and Young Adults with Chronic Health Conditions
  • Shannon DeVido: Best Summer Ever Star Shines in Comedy and Beyond
  • Collette Divitto: Showcases Importance of Supporting and Hiring Disabled Employees
  • Tammy Duckworth: Serves as Role Model for Many
  • Ashley Eakin: Changing Media Perceptions of Disability, One Film at a Time
  • Missy Elliott: ‘Works it,’ Serves as Role Model for Young Women with Disabilities
  • Shaina Ghuraya: Triple Threat Creates Space for Spectacular Intersectional Stories to Grow
  • Haben Girma: Deafblind Civil Rights Lawyer Advocates for Disability Rights in Media
  • Whoopi Goldberg: Talented Actress, Comedienne and Talk Show Host Lives with Dyslexia
  • Lori Golden: Self-Advocate and Trailblazer in Disability Inclusion in the Workplace
  • Selena Gomez: Prioritizing Health, Serving as Role Model for Young Women with Disabilities
  • Claudia Gordon: First Female Deaf Black Lawyer and Anti-Discrimination Advocate
  • Salma Hayek: Sharing Story of Dyslexia, Serving as Role Model for Latina Woman with Disabilities
  • Ketrina Hazell: “I am visible. I have worth. I can succeed.”
  • Abigail Heringer: The Bachelor Standout Calls for Intersectional Disability Visibility
  • Mazie Hirono: Recognized for Leadership as an Immigrant and as a Person with a Disability
  • Andrea Jennings: Black History Representation Matters in Arts Activism and Civic Leadership
  • Frida Kahlo: Through Art, Role Model for Artists, People with Disabilities and Bisexual Women
  • Sophie Jaewon Kim: Korean-American Actress Who is Paving the Way for Better On-Screen Representation of the Disabled AANHPI Community
  • Solange Knowles: Role Model for African American Performers with Disabilities
  • Janet LaBreck: Successful Pioneer of Change and Role Model for African American Women with Disabilities
  • Andrea Lausell: Disability Pride & Hispanic Heritage Pride as One
  • Fatima Liaqat: Hot, Lonely, Disabled in Your Area
  • Carly Okyle: The Myth of Non-Progression
  • Nelle Richardson: “We are more than enough, and we are standing firmly in our truth!”
  • Diana Romero: Award-Winning Producer with Multiple Sclerosis Continues to Find Success in Hollywood
  • Cristina Sanz: First Hispanic with a Disability to Win an Emmy Award, Shatters Stigmas
  • Abigail Shaw: “You Don’t Look Blind”
  • Lauren “Lolo” Spencer: The Importance of Authentic Storytelling
  • Harriet Tubman: Legendary Poet and Civil Rights Activist with Epilepsy and TBI, Inspires Generations
  • Donna Walton: Creates Nationwide Movement of Representation with Divas With Disabilities
  • Lexi Zanghi: “Normalizing anxiety and talking about it is so important now more than ever”
  • Lachi: NY Music Sensation & Ardent Disability Champion

RespectAbility has also benefited from the work of our Staff and Apprentices, a majority of whom are women. Read about their experiences:

  • Baksha Ali: She Sees What You Cannot See
  • Ariella Barker: This Women’s History Month, I Remember the #MeToo Survivors with Disabilities
  • Kelley Cape: Queer, Quarantined, and Quitting
  • KiAnna Dorsey: Sharing the stories of underrepresented communities
  • Cami Howe: Strong Independent Woman Who Doesn’t Need A Knight in Shining Armor
  • Ana Kohout: Young Activist Aims to Change Beliefs About People with Disabilities
  • Tonya Koslo: Cancer Survivor Who is Helping Others in Need
  • Emily Kranking: A Cute But Determined Girl with Cerebral Palsy: Believe It! #DisabledandCute
  • Vanni Le: Entertainment Outreach Program Manager at RespectAbility
  • Nicole LeBlanc: Reflecting on Women’s History Month
  • Tatiana Lee: Changing Media Perceptions of Disability, one Modeling Job at a Time
  • Laka Mitiku Negassa: Brain Injury Survivor Hopes to Support Reform of U.S. Disability Policy
  • Nelly Nieblas: Combining Policy Expertise with Lived Disability Experience and Intersectional Identity to Bring Equity and Inclusion to Education
  • Krista Ramirez-Villatoro: Fighting for the Rights of Disabled Latinas While Also Remembering How Far We’ve Come
  • Leah Romond: Disability and Traumatic Brain Injury Advocate “Finding Her Place in the Universe”
  • Joy St. Juste: RespectAbility Marketing and Communications Director on ADHD, Motherhood, and Defeating Ableist Expectations
  • Alejandra Tristan: Becoming Proud of My Disabled Identity as a First-Generation American

The Census Bureau estimates that there are, in total, more than 61 million Americans living with some form of disability. This includes physical, cognitive, sensory, mental health and other disabilities such as spinal cord injuries, being deaf and/or blind, having a learning disability or chronic illness.

The individuals mentioned above are especially important to acknowledge during Women’s History Month. However, their work should be valued and appreciated year-round. While the month of March is traditionally recognized as Women’s History Month, RespectAbility also is using this moment to amplify the voices of all underrepresented genders in the Disability community, with a month-long editorial series titled, “Empowering the Next Generation,” acknowledging the important role each of these voices plays in the overall goal of building gender equity and equality for future generations. RespectAbility will be highlighting additional individuals throughout the entire month.

Meet the Author

Philip Pauli

Philip Kahn-Pauli is the Policy and Practices Director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. He works with state leaders to develop solutions for youth with disabilities, support job seekers with disabilities and open pathways into the workforce. To reach him, email philipp@respectability.org.

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