Women with disabilities can work at the frontline of development

Litsy, a 17 year old girl uses a special typewriter for blind people. CBM's partner in Peru, Nuestra Senora del Carmen School runs a community based rehabilitation program (which Litsy is part of) in Canas.

CBM talks to Sonja Vasic, a medical doctor with a disability, who shares her experiences in the field.

Sonja Vasic

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am 60 years old, I was born in Kotor in Montenegro with one of the rare cases of polio, so all my life I have had a motor impairment.  I trained as a medical doctor and worked in rehabilitation particularly with children with disabilities. In the early 2000s I met Handicap International (HI). I realized that there is a big field of disability activism out there. As professional I was part of the NGO sector but more as a consultant on medical issues. Through HI, I started to work more with Disabled Peoples Organisation and it made me become a disability activist. I was engaged by HI to work aboard in Egypt, Jordan and also in Gaza as a doctor and a specialist for children with disabilities. I also worked one year in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

How did you become engaged in human rights activism?

Once you open the human rights box you start to be interested in other human rights areas like gender, children etc. When I want to define myself, I am a person, a medical professional, a woman and a disability activist, so therefore human rights are important for all of these identities.

How important is it for women with disabilities to work at field level?

I think it is very important, once you start working at the field level you realise how disability is created by social structures. The social factors are so important.  I do not only think about access and quality of services but also the attitudes and the traditions. All of these are factors in creating barriers for women with disabilities.

In the countries you have worked in, what was your experience as a woman with a disability?

In my time working there, I had never been disrespected. I was so respected by the people I worked with. I am Christian, I am a woman and I am disabled, so I have many layers and I never felt disrespected because of any of these layers. I never found a hostile environment and in fact found the opposite.

What are the main issues facing women and girls with disabilities?

The approach to disability is still very charitable, not so much in the EU or the US, but other parts of the world, there is a strong charitable approach and not a human rights approach. For me the top human rights issues for women and girls with disabilities are habilitation and rehabilitation, health and freedom from exploitation and abuse.

From your extensive experience as a medical professional, what are the main challenges facing women with disabilities?

I think lack of training of health care workers in human rights is something that is very important. One of the main challenges is the medical model approach.  In many countries doctors and nurses do not respect the rights of persons with disabilities, the medical model approach and professionalism takes over instead of dealing with people face to face on an equal basis.

Do think women and girls with disabilities are represented in the disability movement and in the women’s rights movement?

They are more present in the disability rights movement and not so prevalent in the women’s rights movement. I have some ideas why. There is still a lack of reasonable accommodation, all of these leadership positions are somehow quite demanding, you have to travel a lot and as you are a person with a disability you need to take care of yourself. Affirmative action would help a lot. We need more visibility of women and girls with disabilities in leadership roles.

What would you like to see for women and girls in the post 2015 framework?

I would like to see a reduction of poverty and hunger. I think poverty is such a big source of disability. We need role models of people with disabilities who are disability human rights activists also, women and men with disabilities who have strong voices. I think also the issue of mother and child health is an important aspect of post 2015 and political participation, as this is really important for all persons with disabilities. Finally, I believe that none of the developmental goals could be achieved without explicitly targeting disability through objectives and indicators that measure progress for women with disabilities.