Transcript: DAWN and the Struggle for Disabled Women’s Rights

Introduction: The Disabled Women’s Network (DAWN) was founded in Winnipeg in 1987 by women from across Canada. DAWN’s vision was to bring attention to the special problems facing women with disabilities. It worked extensively to influence public policy and the inequities in the judicial system. Pat Israel talks to Rise Up about the work of the organization with emphasis on the additional difficulties faced by disabled women in accessing the mainstream women’s movement.

Sue Colley: Hello. My name is Sue Colley. I’m with Rise Up Feminist Digital Archive and today I’m interviewing Pat Israel, one of the founding members of the Disabled Women’s Network in both Canada and Toronto. And Pat is here to talk to us about a moment in the history of DAWN, as the Disabled Women’s Network is known, when women who were in disabled consumer movement understood that they needed an independent women’s organization and she’s going to tell us about that happened, what that led to and both the problems that were created and the solutions that you came up within that process.

Sue Colley: So Pat, would you like to introduce yourself to the audience of Rise Up?

Pat Israel: Ok, I’m Pat Israel. I’m now 68 years old. I live in Toronto with my cat, Suki. Used to have a wonderful little dog as well, but she passed away last year unfortunately. I’m in a house that my husband and I designed to be accessible many years ago and it’s nice to be in a house right now in this horrid pandemic. I work full time at a non-profit agency which provides counselling for people. And that’s about all I need to say for now, I think.

Sue Colley: It seems as if disabled women in Canada realized that they had to take on two major issues and advocacy groups really. One was the Disabled Consumer Movement and the other was the Women’s Movement. So can you start by telling us how and when you realized that you needed an independent women’s organization and why?

Pat Israel: So disabled feminists across Canada were very isolated. I seemed to be alone in Ontario, didn’t know anyone else although people kept telling me there’s this woman in a wheelchair out west and she’s just like you. Her name is Pat and she keeps talking about women’s issues and you really need to meet her. And then someone also said “There’s this fine women in Winnipeg, she’s just like you. You’ve got to meet her.” And I thought “Oh my God, this other disabled feminist.” I hadn’t met one. And so a lot of us were involved in the disabled, the mixed disability consumer movement and we finally met at a meeting in Winnipeg and it was amazing to meet another disabled feminist who understood right away what I was thinking of, the loneliness honestly. Like we were all lonely in our areas of Canada and had no one to chat with. We had also all tried to get involved with the women’s movement and basically had been turned away because of inaccessibility.

So, as we got together within the disabled movement, we really felt that we needed our own movement because the disabled movement was not addressing our issues at all. When they talked – you know- their main issues were transportation, employment, housing, income security – all important issues – but we were talking about that disabled women were dying. I mean they were being assaulted, they had violence against them. Even more than other women and they couldn’t even go in a shelter because the shelters were inaccessible, physically inaccessible and staff also wasn’t used to us with our different disabilities. So we had the whole issue of violence that we saw right away and the regular movement didn’t. They didn’t see it as an issue, they didn’t think they had to even address it.

We saw disabled women’s unemployment – disabled men might get employed with a struggle – we wouldn’t even get hired. You know here they were getting some employment, we were even getting less employment. In the area of transportation we were concerned that you might have a disabled mom who had to get her child to a child care centre and the system didn’t allow it. So in everything you had to look on the disabled issues with a feminist lens and we were doing that, but the regular movement just said “No, we don’t have time. These issues are important, just stick with this. And we were “No, our issues are vital and women’s lives depend upon it and we need to work on this now.”

So, we kind of fought with the heads of the groups and certainly you would find in disability groups that disabled women were usually the secretaries and were taking the notes and the leaders were usually the men. And even the term Chairman was still used all the time in disability groups even though when it had changed, it was changing in the world, our movement was still very sexist. And if we brought that up we would get stomped on.

Sue Colley: Right. So, you founded DAWN then in 1985 I think, right? You had your first meeting in 1985.

Pat Israel: Yeah.

Sue Colley: Was it in Ottawa?

Pat Israel: I believe our first meeting was in Ottawa. I think so. And it was interesting because as we struggled with the women’s movement for acceptance we also struggled with the funding bodies for women because we wanted the delegates to our first meeting to all be disabled feminists. It made sense to us and you wouldn’t tell a non-disabled women’s group you must invite non-feminists to your meeting. So the federal government, the women’s program, said “We’re going to pick some of your delegates.” And we were like “No, you shouldn’t do that.” “Well it’s a woman in a wheelchair.” “Well that doesn’t mean she’s a feminist.” It just means she’s a woman who uses a wheelchair, it doesn’t mean she’s a feminist.

So we struggled with them too although they provided good funding, they kind of put rules on us that made no sense. And the very first meeting when we sat there, in a circle and talked, everyone of us had violence in our lives and we just went “This is a top issue.” We knew it, the first day, first meeting, almost the first hour. And that really even was a revelation to all of us that so many of us had that in our lives.

Sue Colley: Well first of all, I think you came up with some kind of mission or goals at that meeting?

Pat Israel: Yeah, there were top issues that we wanted to address and the top one was violence.

Sue Colley: Yeah.

Pat Israel: We were also going to, you know, research and do papers on the violence, employment, self-image, very important. Young girls with disabilities could see that there were older women with disabilities that were activists, that were proud of being disabled women, as well. Parenting, disabled moms were out there. Hadn’t met up with each other. Doctors didn’t know how to work with them, how to provide you know access to the whole parenting. The whole issue of health and disabled women was also vital because we couldn’t get mammograms, we couldn’t get on exam tables. We couldn’t get the basic healthcare that all women needed, we couldn’t get it.

Sue Colley: Ok. So what did you decide to do about these big issues? What were your first steps and where did you go from there?

Pat Israel: So we did have someone who worked a lot in the publications and we produced materials on violence, on employment, self-imaging and parenting, I think, was a little later on. We widely distributed all of our materials to women’s groups, government, disability groups, service agencies which are very different from disabled consumer groups, very very different. Disabled consumer groups run themselves, service agencies have nice people who work with disabled people, but the disabled folks in those service agencies don’t really tend to speak for themselves. And we showed up everywhere. You saw DAWN tables at national women’s meetings, at the disabled women’s groups, they knew us already.

We went to meetings, oh my God, I went to so many meetings and it was the first time that a lot of these groups even had a disabled woman at the table. We didn’t take no for an answer. If we called you and you picked up the phone and it was me at the other end going “We need to be at your meeting, we need to be at your event.” You know we never gave up. We were very determined and we were very skilled activists. We had cut our teeth on the disability rights movement so you had skilled disabled feminists out there. So we were very visible; I think that really helped.

We also worked a lot with the police directly in training and talking to even individual police officers who would call us and just be astonished that you know someone with a severe disability – really the more severely disabled you were and the more people you had around helping you, the more likely you were going to be to have violence in your life and be assaulted by someone. So even the police were shocked by this. So I mean it was amazing years. We were just all busy across Canada and at the same time we were organizing provincial DAWN groups and local DAWN groups because we knew in each major city you needed a DAWN group to work with people there.

Sue Colley: Right. So tell us a bit, and I know that you did try to participate in the women’s movement which was also flourishing at that time and I know you ran into a number of difficulties. Can you describe what they were?

Pat Israel: I’ll give you a little example. My very first meeting that I went to, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, held in Ottawa. I believe they had their conventions every year. So, I checked, I made sure that I talked to the staff. “Are you accessible?” I was assured it was all accessible. And I went and I believe Yvonne Peters who was a blind lawyer from Winnipeg also came to the same meeting. And I went to attend the very first plenary and I opened the door to the meeting to go in and there were six stairs to get down in that room where all the other women were sitting. No one offered any help, nobody cared and I sat there going “Well this is what I’m facing.”

This is the National Women’s Group and every workshop I went to I had to use a crappy freight elevator, it was in the kitchen and I had to go with food on the floor, cooks, chefs, servers and get in a dirty freight elevator with food on the walls and go upstairs to get to my next workshop and Yvonne had no braille, no accommodation made for her. And at the end we talked to one of the leading feminists in Canada and said “You know this is a really difficult meeting for us and it was a real problem. We were really hoping that you would have improved this.” And she said, “We got a deal on this site.” And kind of like, “Too bad for you.” And I just went “Wow, this is going to be a fight.” This group is not welcoming.

So that’s why we just continued and we did produce some, certainly at the provincial level. DAWN Ontario produced a really good publication on how to make your meeting accessible and sent it to a lot of women’s and other groups so that you couldn’t say you didn’t have our information. We made it widely available. And again, I would go to hotels and other members of DAWN with someone who was trying to, you know, pick an event and a site and just go through the whole place with them and say “Yeah, pick this hotel” or “No, don’t.”

We went through a lot of garbage entrances to get to women’s meetings. And then at some point you start saying “No, if you can’t make it accessible now and you’ve known us for a while then we’re not attending your events and we’re going to tell your funder what happened.” We didn’t want to do that, but some women’s groups just seemed to resist including us for a long time. If you get to the funders and you work with them and said tell them “Fund the access.” Like we weren’t saying cut women’s groups off. We were saying “Provide funding for access.” Women groups will get used to providing this and then we’ll be able to go more easily. We also went as speakers and would talk about what we were going through.

And at first I always found at women’s conferences, only a few women really would come to our workshops. Great, but we needed to be on the plenary sessions I realized. We needed to be talking to all the women who needed to hear us, not just ones who would choose to go to our workshops which unfortunately were kind of a small number.

Sue Colley: Did that change over time?

Pat Israel: It did. Because I mean we weren’t just going in and fighting. We were going in and we were also making friends. Some women just right away said “Wow, yeah you guys should be here. You are part of the women’s movement.” And they understood us, and they became allies. And I just think that the more that you show up and you’re there, people get to know you. When we would set up tables on International Women’s Day, I mean women would come to our table and some of them would cry. And they’d just say – it’s almost like we’ve been waiting for you. And they would pick our materials and either say, “I’m disabled myself. It’s invisible, but I’m so glad to see that this has started now.

And the women might have a sister or a relative or get up for someone else in the group. So, we started to be included. And you saw shelters start to have wheelchair accessible rooms and you know make sure that they picked a spot that either they could build a ramp or it was flat. And also advertisers because when you provide access you need to state it so that we know. To me when I see the wheelchair symbol, that’s a welcome sign for me that you made an effort and you’re showing it and you want me to go. And when I see that I don’t even have to phone you, that’s amazing. Then I know that we made a big change. And we still see the results of that today. I mean DAWN Canada is still here and doing stuff. I think not so much a physical presence, but definitely over the internet and still doing reports and stuff.

Sue Colley: DAWN was also well known for exposing the extent of violence against disabled women. Can you talk a bit about how you publicised this issue and what impact you had on that issue?

Pat Israel: Well I think it was shocking for everyone to hear. I mean even we were surprised at our very first meeting to see how violence came out as the top subject. I don’t think I thought that was going to be. So you know it was such an important issue that you know women’s lives depended on it. Sometimes police would show up to a domestic situation where the man had beaten up the disabled women, but yet he was her caregiver. The police were talking to him first about her. So, we had to do a lot of – again – working with the police. You need to separate the two. It was interesting, the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, when that was their name years ago, had a call on a Monday morning one time. They had actually called on a Friday saying that a deaf woman had been raped and can we call her and help her?

And I got in my office and I checked the phone and I phoned them up and I said “What are you doing?” I said “Do you not serve all women in Toronto?” And they said “Yeah.” And I said, “Oh, but you don’t serve deaf women.” And they were like “Well you’re the Disabled Women’s Network.” I said “We’re an advocacy agency, we’re not a rape crisis centre. We’re not a counselling agency, you’re the Rape Crisis Centre. You need to find a sign language interpreter and you need to get help here that day. Do your job.” And they really took that to heart and they educated themselves a lot too and they started being a lot better. But that’s literally what we faced. People just always said, “Well DAWN exists so just send the woman there.”

No, part of DAWN’s reason was to make sure your group – if you were a cultural group or you were a group for you know, queer woman, that you made sure you were accessible and you were inclusive. We wanted to be part of the women’s movement, but not separate from it. And not for you to just go “Oh well DAWN exists now so we don’t have to do anything.” You know, so we had to get past that too.

Sue Colley: Yeah. And also I think you had a big impact on making shelters and transition housings accessible didn’t you?

Pat Israel: I think we helped, I do because we kept bringing it up with funders and we kept saying “You need to provide more funding and you must provide minimum one-time funding. If the shelter is going to stay at the same place then they have to adapt it. And we would never just take no for an answer. It’s an old building and this and that. Well then figure it out. You need to adapt it, you need to call in people who think about what can happen. Do I need to build a ramp or a lift? How do we incorporate accessibility?

We had a little bit of a fight, kind of at the provincial level because at one meeting they invited a disabled man to come to the meeting. And I said “Why did you invite him?” “Well he’s a disabled man.” And I went “Yeah, do you invite any men to any other women’s meetings? Why does the fact that he’s a disabled man, working in his sector, have anything to do with us as disabled women?” And they were like “What?” And I just kind of shook my head because I thought “Why are we even having this conversation? You wouldn’t do that to non-disabled women.”

So, we had to work a lot with the funders and get them to understand that access was an issue of life and death for disabled women. So, they needed to change even their applications and include access, include funding, making it known and telling women’s shelters that if you’re going to have a new women’s shelter that you must have access features. Because when you build that in that’s when the real change starts to happen and when the shelter reads that line on accessibility like you need to do this, it’s amazing how you can do it when you have to and when it becomes part of the regular routine.

Sue Colley: So, you didn’t get a lot of resistance then from the funding agencies? They actually worked with you to make sure all other agencies started to make meetings and premises accessible yeah?

Pat Israel: Yeah, we worked a lot with them and at the beginning they saw us as disabled people. And I kept saying, “No, we’re women first. Women first. Remember that.” And I actually remember approaching the Women’s Directorate before DAWN was up and running and they produced a wonderful publication and at the beginning they noted a whole bunch of different types of women. And we weren’t there. And I phoned them up and I said, “I’d like to know why we were not on that list?” And they said “Well you’re a disabled person. The disabled funders take care of you.” And I said “Really?” I went “No, no. We’re disabled women and we need to have a meeting now.”

But it was so much better when DAWN was born because you’re so much stronger when you have a group behind you. As an individual disabled feminist in Ontario and in Toronto, I could have a little impact, but I was more like a mosquito and then when DAWN was formed and I was calling going “This is the Disabled Women’s Network and we have a real concern”, it was better. And I think DAWN Canada, and all the other DAWNs, were the first in the world and many people don’t realize that. And we had other groups, DAWN groups formed. I believe there was one, I can’t remember if it was in Jamaica or the Bahamas and they formed and they called themselves DAWN and then the last name of their country. And they said “We were so thrilled to read your stuff, we wanted to do that as well.” And that was really moving to think you could have an impact on women around the world is phenomenal.

I did see in the States there were disabled women’s groups. They were concerned about make-up and you know, dressing right and being pretty and whatever. We were much more the feminist voice and we wanted to be a voice that was inclusive, so we wanted to make sure our materials were written in clear language. That’s an access issue too. We can’t have jargon in the material, it’s got to be clear so every woman can look at it and read it and understand it. So, I mean access is so big, many people think it’s a wheelchair ramp. That is a tiny important part of access; but it’s attendant care: it’s sign language in different languages; it’s braille; it’s maybe put your documents – not maybe – put your documents on tape. Now I think with the introduction of a lot of this, the internet, it’s easier to get publications up. I think deaf people have access to more technology, blind people as well. So, I think it’s easier and that’s good.

Sue Colley: By 1989 I understand that you had hired a researcher who had done some pretty amazing papers addressing a lot of these issues that faced disabled women. I think there was one on mothering, one on empowerment, one on health, violence. Maybe I’ve got that wrong, maybe that’s too many, but those were the kinds of things you covered and we actually have them on our Rise Up website. So, these were presented to a national conference in Winnipeg right, in 1989. And what do you think came out of that conference?

Pat Israel: I mean I think it probably helped us even propel us into the international field even more. Eventually we did some work with Disabled People’s International, and showed up at one of their conferences which was interesting. They tended to send men to meetings for disabled women and we were like “Ok guys, no. You’re not the best representative to come to this meeting. Pick a woman.” “Oh no there’s no women.” And we’d go “Pick a woman. That’s who you’re sending. You’re not coming.” So, they were like kind of stunned. And we did go to the Disabled People’s International meeting and I wish they’d filmed it. It was good. It was a battle royale at times, but we got our point across very firmly and there were some amazing men there too and women. But, again they were resistant.

I think all that research really helped. There had been no research on disabled women because nobody cared to do it. No one saw us, I think as important enough to do research so we did our own. And our researcher was always busy. We did a lot of surveys, we did in-person stuff, we held meetings, all of that. And you know, part of what we did kind of locally, I found in DAWN Toronto, was work with the Independent Living Centre in Toronto and really try and get across to them that they needed to start addressing the issue of disabled parenting.

And they did – to their credit they did. And they’ve had a disabled parents group running for years now which is fabulous. But before we came along and said, hey, disabled moms need to be connected to each other. We had a great provincial conference of people who weren’t doing it. So, it was kind of interesting how you know we really saw the issues and they weren’t hard to find. They weren’t. The disabled women kind of across this land were so isolated and just didn’t have great services. And even doctors and breast screening centres, we worked with them as well. Because the breast-screening centre has to have staff who have to know how to get you in, position your wheelchair properly, lower the machine, maybe move you around a bit because of your disability, everything like that.

And you know it’s better now. Before it was almost like “Oh no, how are we going to work with you?” So, we worked a lot on the healthcare stuff with the staff. I worked, there’s a physiotherapist, she’s actually a teacher now, and she’s done amazing stuff with working with physiotherapists and other healthcare people in the area of disability and she’s just been such a great person. So I mean, these issues had just been sitting there not addressed and we took on the task with really a lot of vigour and determination and we’re so happy to see things progress and get good for disabled women. That was just so amazing.

Sue Colley: What do you think was DAWN’s most important action or achievement in that period, 1970 – 1995 let’s say?

Pat Israel: Probably to get the violence issue understood. That was probably a big one. I think when we began people would have preferred that we shut up. It was a dirty issue. It was an issue, especially with the disabled mixed movement, I didn’t want to hear. But we did it and that was probably you know, a big one because I think we saved women’s lives. And I think we saved women from living a life of abuse and seeing no escape. It was interesting, I worked on a provincial committee – it was when they were doing all this investigation about doctors and abuse by doctors – and with people who used bliss boards. They were created kind of like a language; the person would point to the board and then you could read it and understand them. It was developed by people who were somewhat religious. So, you didn’t have words like ‘violence’, you didn’t have words like ‘rape’ and that ‘sexual assault.’

So that was amazing to see that develop to the point where they really started controlling their own language because someone else had, you know, created this little board that people could read and it was sweet and cute and you know there were balloons and joy and happy faces. But you needed to put the ones about violence on there, and assault so that they could “speak.”

Sue Colley: That’s very powerful. But you also had fun didn’t you? Meeting women and maybe you should tell us a bit about the joys of the movement?

Pat Israel: I think the joys that I saw were young women realizing that being a disabled woman actually can be an amazing life. I experienced myself just getting into disability culture, seeing films that we produced, seeing the fact that when I grew up my life was controlled by well-meaning non-disabled people. And then I was at a disability conference once and I was sitting across from another disabled man who is also a leader and a disabled guy from Montreal who was the facilitator. And then the rest of the room was all, you know, really nice people who were working on behalf of disabled people. And somebody said “Oh we open them all up for two hours once a week “for those” people so they can just go and, you know, have an easy time.”

And I looked across to my friend, John and I went “Do you want to take this or you want me to do it?” And he said “Oh well you take it.” And I went “Ok. Folks, every day at the mall, all hours are for people with disabilities. You’ve got to realize we don’t want the special days anymore, you know.” And the room was kind of an uproar for about half an hour. And the facilitator looked at me and went “Oh my God, what did you just do?” And I went “You know what had to be done.” So, when you look at disabled women and you saw young women starting to realize that they were beautiful strong women, it didn’t matter what they looked like, didn’t matter their disability and that they could press for change.

And when you saw a disabled mom meeting another disabled mom at a conference, and one mom had even made a video on how to lift your baby off the floor, put the baby in the crib, put the baby on her lap, how to put the baby in a car. No one had made a video like that and we showed it at the conference. It was amazing to see the moms connect with each other. And that was just so good because they hadn’t had that chance. It was nice to meet non-disabled feminists who you connected with immediately. And to this day I still have friends who I talk to and don’t see anymore – right now during this – but I still know them, and we talk.

We lost a lot of wonderful disabled feminists over the years who passed away and I remember Tannis Do who was phenomenal and adopted a young deaf girl. I mean she wanted to bring her up for a visit to Canada and they said “No, you can’t.” But you can adopt her. And she’s like “What?” She was a single, deaf woman who was a lesbian and she went “Alright, I’m going to adopt her.” And we all went “What?” And she did. And she brought this young deaf woman up to Canada who became an amazing adult woman and you know I remember Tannis she was phenomenal. She wrote amazing stuff and was very bright. And we lost a great warrior when we lost her. And we lost Joan Meister and Shirley and last year Sandra Carpenter passed away. And I miss them terribly.

But many of us are still here and still going on and I think now, as an older woman, I’m kind of tackling the whole issue of ageism and that’s such fun. But I just kind of think when people look at me, they are like “Oh there’s an old woman in a wheelchair.” Then I’ll be like “Excuse me? Yeah, no that’s not happening. You’re not talking to me that way.” So, the older – you know – disabled feminists, you know we get older, but we’re still feisty. And you know, I think we have joy in life. And I think as an activist we change the world and that’s an amazing feeling you know, a really amazing feeling. And you know that those young people with disabilities, they’re just feisty and they’re using social media greatly and I love it.

I mean I love to see what youth is doing and to see them just not take any shit which you never should have. And that’s great. So I think there is a lot of joy and there’s a lot of just such lived experience and expertise. So I hope people remember that and don’t just look at feminists who are getting older as like “Oh they’re not very useful anymore.” We’re still very much the person we were. We’ve just got even more skills.

Sue Colley: So the last question I have for you is what do you think might be the most interesting thing about your story for activists and researchers in the current period?

Pat Israel: I mean I think the story of disabled feminism developing in Canada is, I guess it’s a real example of women who were isolated, were able to meet each other and come together and I think now it’s easier to do that a bit with the whole social networking and stuff. So I think look at our example and see it as something you can follow and no matter what you’re going after, no matter what you have to change, I think we set – kind of – we set the score high and we went for it and we did a lot of it. And so, I think you can look at us and go “Hey, that’s pretty cool they did that.” And also think of us when you’re doing stuff because you know that once we get over this pandemic stuff. I mean we still go to marches, we still go to rallies and sometimes the most powerful thing is older people leading the rally and leading the fight because people are wow, that older person is there.

You saw that one man in the States who kind of the police shoved to the ground and hurt him and I just thought he was an older guy and he was there protesting and standing up for the rights of people. And we never lose that. We never ever lose that; we continue. So I think when the people of today, and I watch them as they’re fighting against racism, and they want to you know stop the guns in the States and stuff – like do it! Stay with it, stick with it, keep fighting. It may take a long time, but never give up and remember that we’re here too and we support those movements. And we want to see the change. And the change is inevitable and I think fighting for it is in our DNA and we never lose it. So that’s about it.

Sue Colley: Lovely, thank you. Thank you very much, Pat. That was really fascinating.