ALLFIE commemorates International Women’s Day 2024

As we commemorate the recent International Woman’s Day Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi and Maresa MacKeith reflect on education and employment for Disabled women, based their own lived experience and work at ALLFIE.

To commemorate UN Woman’s Day in March, Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi and Maresa MacKeith reflected on education and employment for Disabled women

As ALLFIE commemorates International Woman’s Day, a global annual focal point in the women and girls’ rights movement, Yewande Akintelu-Omoniyi (ALLFIE’s Our Voice Project Youth Officer), and Maresa MacKeith (ALLFIE’s Youth Parliamentary Officer), take a look at employment for Disabled women. This includes from their own lived experience and journey through education and into the world of work, having both recently come into their first paid roles at ALLFIE. Yewande introduces the systemic issues that prevent Disabled women from entering the workplace and how, for society to have inclusive workplaces, we must keep campaigning for a fully inclusive education system. Maresa then discusses expectations in the education system and the skills Disabled women and people develop because of their impairment. 

You can also check out Maresa and Yewande‘s contributions to our International Women’s Day 2023 event on how gender issues, shaped by society, affect Disabled women and how we can challenge structural oppression at intersects of segregated education, poverty, ableism and racism.

Yewande says:

When I got to the post 16 stage in education, I knew that I wanted to work to do something to change things for Disabled Young people. I didn’t want them to experience the same barriers in life and education that I did. However, I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do. My journey in education had been up and down, with some successes and some challenges. During my time studying a BA in education at university in 2010, I stumbled upon the Disabled People’s Movement, and it changed my life. I decided that I wanted to work in this field.  

However, the search to find a job was not simple. After volunteering at ALLFIE for some time, I worried I wouldn’t be able to find a job that I could manage because of my impairments. I also didn’t know how to turn the volunteering I’d done for so many years into a paid job. Often, Disabled women are not valued for the paid and unpaid work that they do. I felt that, although I was volunteering backed up by my years of lived experience, this was not recognised by employers, most of who are non-Disabled people. Statistics show that “compared to men without disabilities, women with disabilities are two times less likely to be employed”. (UN Women)

Additionally, I felt limited by not having certain qualifications such as GCSE Maths grade C, and not being strong in numeracy or in aspects such as budgeting which many jobs require. 

I also had a very fixed view of what work was and what it involved. I definitely think this comes from the education system because we are told by teachers what work is and it is usually a very narrow definition. For example, I always had the idea that it was sitting behind a desk alone and having to work tasks out on your own, without any or minimal support from your bosses or management, in which I would be punished harshly for any mistakes. All these fears and apprehensions led me to not apply for jobs.

What sets many Disabled women back in taking steps into the world of work is the oppression and barriers we face in our education system before we even start working. An example of this is Disabled women not having the same opportunities in Saturday jobs, internships, and voluntary opportunities that a non-Disabled woman would probably have access to in her late teens or early 20s. These environments are also where young women learn about the world of work. It is also not discussed enough how a lot of Disabled women aren’t able to gain the qualifications needed for paid employment due to lack of inclusivity in the education system. This leaves Disabled women in an even more disadvantaged position when trying to build a career.  

The absence of intersectional practices in several careers and jobs is also worrying. As a Black Disabled woman, I was concerned about finding an employer that would understand the different oppressions I face. I also wanted an employer to support and celebrate my multiple identities. 

After coming into my first ever paid job last year with ALLFIE, at the age of 31, I have learnt so many important lessons. Working for a Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO), I have had the chance to learn how to work collectively, something ALLFIE prides itself on. We all support each other and work as a team, leaning on each other for knowledge and expertise. My previous lived and voluntary experience is also valued and seen as a part of my work history. Working flexibly and part time means I can take part in work whilst managing my impairment. I can make mistakes and still be encouraged and uplifted by my colleagues, knowing it is all part of finding my way in the world of work. Intersectionality is a core value and principle of ALLFIE, so I feel safe, celebrated and heard as a Black Disabled woman.  

My main wishes for this year’s International Women’s Day are that every Disabled woman can feel valued at work and have a career they enjoy, like I have had have over the past 14 months. However, this can only happen when we start to discuss and work to break down the systemic issues that prevent Disabled women from entering the workplace. For society to have inclusive workplaces, we absolutely need to keep campaigning for a fully inclusive education system.

Maresa says:

The education system never expected me to earn a living. I was expected to be a receiver of the care system with maybe a little entertainment, but nothing else. From being very young I wanted to be able to give and be seen as a contributor to the world around me. When I was still at school I started writing. I wrote about my experience of segregation and my experience of coming into mainstream education. 

When I was in further education college, two friends and I started running workshops in schools and training sessions on how to include Disabled children in mainstream classes. I then continued on, doing work with young people on friendship. Local poetry groups also gave me confidence as a Disabled writer. Together with other Disabled writers, I sometimes performed in public which gave me confidence as a Disabled person. Although some of this was paid, it still wasn’t seen as a way that I might earn a living. 

As we are writing this article, Yewande and I are thinking of International Women’s Day and the work that women do. So much of it unrecognised as work. Women have skills to co-ordinate, to enable things to happen which is often unseen and not considered as their work. Women are good at looking out for people, of noticing what they need and gathering the support to make that happen. All of this can go unrecognised. 

Yewande and I are both Disabled women, coming to the workplace much later than most non-disabled women. The skills we have as Disabled women need to be recognised to give us the confidence to assume we can work and be seen to contribute to the society around us.

Some of us Disabled people have impairments which have led us to develop particular skills. For example, I need assistance to communicate and have developed specific and valuable communications skills. I use an alternative communication system which requires assistance, I cannot use it on my own. I spell out what I want to say which takes a lot of time. I have to choose my words carefully. I also watch and listen a lot as the right assistance isn’t always there or the conversation moves too quickly for me to interrupt. These are useful skills, but the impairment is often seen as the reason I can’t participate. Sometimes my communication system is not even believed.

As Disabled people we have strengths we can bring to the workplace. We know how to organise and work with others as we are often dependent on help from a network of other people. The unusualness of Disabled people in the workplace, especially those of us who need a lot of assistance, makes us appear exceptional. We are not. We have either been lucky enough or persistent enough to get what we need with people prepared to accept what we have to offer. This could be a normal part of life. 

I feel privileged to be working with ALLFIE. The acceptance of who we are and what we can bring to the job, with the support we need, enables us to be part of the workforce and so be seen to contribute to the wider society. On this International Women’s Day, my wish is that all women be recognised for the work they do, visible or not, and for the generosity of spirit most of them bring. 


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