A seat at the table: Tricia Malowney talks women, success and disability

Employment inequality, bodily autonomy, sexual and family violence, and reproductive rights are some of the core issues spotlighted each International Women’s Day.

But women with disabilities are all too frequently left out of these conversations, and excluded from the broader narrative. 

Human rights and disability advocate, Tricia Malowney OAM, has dedicated her life to addressing the complicated connection between women’s rights and disability rights.

“We still have a society that says women with disabilities have to be protected and we think, ‘They can’t do that, they can’t get a job because what if they go out into the big bad world and somebody gets them’?” Tricia said.

“Well, violence happens everywhere. What we need to do is empower women, and we need healthy relationship training for men and women with disabilities.”

After contracting Polio as a four-month-old infant in 1954, Tricia became completely paralysed in her left leg. Back then, social understanding of disability was a far cry compared to what it is today.

Tricia’s parents were told to place her in institutionalised care, move on and have other children. And while they fortunately disregarded this advice, they did go on to have a total of 10 children.

“I went to a mainstream school. I didn’t know anyone else with a disability growing up, I didn’t even know I had a disability – I just knew my legs didn’t work.”

And when she was ready for higher education and her highly anticipated entry into the workforce, the challenges that Tricia faced as a person with a disability were compounded by another trying factor: she was a woman.

“I worked at a bank because they wouldn’t let me go to university. I wanted to teach and the university said, ‘We can’t have someone like you teaching’,” she said.

“I worked at the railways at a time when women could only become clerical assistants, and I had a higher education than my boss but I wasn’t allowed to get any promotions.”

By the early 1980s, Tricia’s focus had turned to the intersection between gender and disability. When the People with Disabilities Australia delegation was formed at the United Nations’ International Year of Disabled Persons forum in 1981, Tricia recalls the lack of diversity in the discourse.

“There wasn’t any gender conversation, and when the second forum came up, the men had their airfares paid for them but the women had to pay their own.”

Despite the barriers placed in her way, Tricia forced her way into university and a landmark role with the Victorian Police Force. While there, she used her position to elevate other people with disabilities.

“There were a whole lot of people with disabilities working for the police in base-grade positions with no opportunity for advancement or to learn anything else – they were sitting in the corner going, ‘Stamp, stamp, stamp’,” she said.

“I started an employment program where every position that was vacant, apart from policing, was filled by a person with a disability.”

Across the globe

Motivated to include women’s perspectives in the national dialogue around disability, a group of women, including Tricia, formed Women with Disabilities Victoria.

She later became the president of Women with Disabilities Australia and has sat on numerous boards (including the NDIA and the Scope Group board) as an advocate for women’s rights in the disability space.

She lists getting people with disabilities recognised in the Family Violence Protection Act as one of her greatest achievements, but her work isn’t over yet.

Tricia has used her platform and voice to unite women with disabilities all over the world, from Myanmar to Sweden.  

What became evident is that the lives of women with disabilities in Australia don’t fare that much better than overseas.

“Some of us have it better, but the issues are the same,” she said.

“It’s about sexual reproductive health, human rights, violence against women with disabilities, transport, education, housing – all of these subjects are exactly the same and it doesn’t matter where you are in the world.”

Tricia highlights that women with disabilities are still enduring legal, forced sterilisation at the age of just 12 years-old in Australia, which is a breach of the Convention of Rights for People with Disabilities.

Men with disabilities are more likely to have a higher education, more likely to live in stable accommodation and be independent, compared to women with disabilities. Meanwhile, women with disabilities experience family violence at a higher rate than any other community.1*

Statistics also show that roughly nine in 10 women with cognitive disabilities have experienced sexual assault at some stage in their lives.

Tricia also aptly points out that in Australia, only 37 per cent of NDIS participants are women. 2* This is largely because medical understanding of developmental and social disabilities, like autism, are based on men’s symptoms. Women, therefore, remain undiagnosed until their 30s or 40s, while their male counterparts benefit from treatment in their youth.

So, what can we do?

Ensuring women have a place at the table to discuss the matters that pertain to them is a start, according to Tricia.

“Women with disabilities need to be at every forum,” she said.

“We need to make sure they’re safe to speak out because women with disabilities are the experts.”

“People think disability is about making sure we have stepless entries or accessible information – and those things are important – but it’s really about community attitudes to us as humans.”

1 https://wwda.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/The-Status-of-Women-and-Girls-with-Disability-Asutralia.pdf

2 https://data.ndis.gov.au/reports-and-analyses/participant-groups/analysis-participants-g