The Power of Dissent and Disability

A woman who needs no introduction, the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, stated many years ago: “When I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, 'When there are nine,' people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that.”

Dana Marlowe

Dana Marlowe

I am no Ruth Bader Ginsberg — have you seen her workout routine? — but her quote about disrupting the long-held norms of a quorum resonates with me. Why has it taken this long for someone to object to male-centric events, panels, speakers, and more? I know I’m not the only voice in this chorus thanks to wonderful sites like GenderAvenger, but for a while that wasn’t the case. A few years ago, I was invited by a man to speak on a technology panel. Reading through the bios of the other speakers, unless Chris could be short for Christina, I’d be the only woman on the panel. I’d like to say that it didn’t matter, and to some degree maybe it shouldn’t. After all, weren’t we all the top of our fields and experts for the panel?

Except, it does matter. It matters quite a bit. Did the conference directors just not look for other women? Was I the most geographically desirable? Did another man say no and they scrambled? I’m not sure, but the glaring difference between my blazer and theirs at this conference is still a jarring memory for me. It goes beyond buttons on the left or the right for our jackets. It’s a question about visibility.

As the Principal Partner of an IT consulting company called Accessibility Partners, I work in the realm of making technology accessible and usable by people with disabilities. Most of my industry conferences that center around the themes of access, inclusion, and disability are a heterogeneous mix of women and men presenting and attending, but beyond the gender of the participants, there are attendees who are blind, deaf, in wheelchairs, have intellectual disabilities, and more. People with disabilities comprise nearly 20% of the population in the United States, and nearly 100% of the population at conferences I routinely attend. That means 1 in 5 folks at the conference you just went to have a disability, and yet, when I leave the familiar atmosphere of events that exclusively promote inclusive design and equality, I realize how much of a tourist I am. I have seen what comes the closest to the promised land of mixed-gender events. Accessibility conferences are not necessarily Camelot events for gender equality, but they’re much closer than most other industry programs I’ve attended. I can’t take that for granted and live in my disability bubble.

Seeing and hearing marginalized voices of those with disabilities is always an empowering experience for me, because it’s a chorus of opinions that must be heard for equal rights. GenderAvenger proves that women’s voices must be just as vocal and visible, and I extend that plea to women with disabilities, especially women of color. There are more women with disabilities working in a variety of industries now than ever before, and yet how many of them can you name? Who is making Forbes lists or showing up as the top 40 under 40s? Seek out those voices for your next event, beyond pledging for just women. Share how accessible and inclusive your event is. Need help? Ask. Specifically request that you are looking for panelists with disabilities, and reach out to local disability advocacy groups.

…be your own Ruth Bader Ginsberg and dissent.

Women with disabilities have a unique perspective that can only enhance a panel. If someone says that the event can’t be made accessible, that accommodations are too expensive or time-consuming to include people with disabilities, be your own Ruth Bader Ginsberg and dissent.

Dana Marlowe

Dana Marlowe can turn moment into a movement. As a social entrepreneur, Dana’s career path has led her to become an internationally-known disability advocate. As the founder of Accessibility Partners, Dana works to surpass the digital divide, and help make technology more accessible to people with disabilities. Within the business, her workforce is comprised of over 85% of people with disabilities to help spread awareness, education, and demolish attitudinal barriers by bridging communication and technological gaps.