7 Gender, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Disability

Lisa Johnson and Katie Sweet

Learning Objectives:

  • To learn about key issues at the intersection of disability and gender identities, including theoretical perspectives on disability and gender.
  • To understand gendered experiences of disability and how issues such as employment discrimination have varied influences on the lives of disabled people of different gender identities.
  • To learn from disabled people about their experiences at the intersection of gender and disability identities.



This chapter addresses the intersection of disability, gender, and other social identities. We will discuss gender-conscious theories and examine how they are and are not inclusive of disability. Also discussed are normative social gender roles and expectations, including those surrounding reproduction, and how they intersect with disability identity. We will address gender-based employment discrimination experienced by disabled people[1]. This chapter also attends to gender identity and expression via discussion of the experiences of those with transgender, nonbinary, agender, and queer gender identities within the disability community. We will review key gender-related laws, policies, and programs relevant to disabled people in the U.S. We will also discuss historical and current women’s rights movements and the representation of disabled people in these movements.

Disability and Gender

Mohamed and Shefer (2015), drawing on the work of other authors, describe disability as “deeply gendered” (p. 2), an idea which encourages deeper examination of how people negotiate life at the intersection of these identities. However, before we delve into further consideration of disability and gender, it is important to define gender just as disability was defined earlier in this textbook[2]. Like disability, gender is a socially constructed phenomenon, and the construction of gender varies among cultures and has changed over time According to a definition from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN, 2014), gender refers to

a set of cultural identities, expressions, and roles—codified as feminine or masculine—that are assigned to people, based upon the interpretation of their bodies, and more specifically, their sexual and reproductive anatomy. Since gender is a social construction, it is possible to reject or modify the assignment made, and develop something that feels truer and just to oneself. (n.p.)

Gender identity is an individual’s internal sense of gender, which may be male, female, neither, or both, and which may be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth (New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR), 2019). Gender expression is representation of gender through characteristics such as pronouns, clothing, hairstyle, behavior, or voice (NYCCHR, 2019). Cisgender people are those whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth (NYCCHR, 2019). Transgender people are those “whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth” (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016, p. 1). “People whose gender is not male or female use many different terms to describe themselves, with non-binary being one of the most common. Other terms include genderqueer, agender, bigender, and more” (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2018, n.p.).

Studies of disability tend to treat disabled people as a “monolithic and ahistorical group” (Mohamed & Shefer, 2015, p. 5), which can also be described as “intersectional invisibility” (Travis, 2017, p. 840). Given the diversity within disability communities, we should consider how gender identity and gendered experiences interact with disability identity and experience. Doing so contests the “degendering of disability” (p. 840), which is important given that “a genderless conception of disability…leads to neither gender neutral nor gender-inclusive social, political, or legal responses. When gender is ignored, androcentrism fills the void” (Travis, 2017, p. 841). Androcentrism refers to the centering of men’s needs and positioning of maleness as the gender-neutral standard in society (Bailey, LaFrance, & Dovidio, 2018). Therefore, using an intersectional lens to highlight the diversity of gender identities and experiences among disabled people counteracts a default to a male-centric or cisgender-centric framing of disability.


Though statistical groupings cannot fully capture the nuances at the intersection of gender and disability, they can provide a scope for consideration of this topic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019), among adults, 25.4% of men and 28.1% women in the U.S. identified as disabled or were diagnosed with a disability in 2019. Globally, the most recent available data from the World Health Organization (2011) via the World Report on Disability indicate a higher prevalence of disability among women than men. According to the report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS; James et al., 2016), which is the largest survey examining the experiences of transgender people in the United States, 39% of respondents indicated that they had one or more disability[3], compared to 15% of the general population[4].

Theoretical Perspectives on Disability and Gender

Feminist theories have been among the theories most engaged in understanding the construction and implications of gender in society. In advancing feminist theorizing beyond a singular focus on gender, scholars increased attention to how gender intersected with other social characteristics such as race and class, and eventually disability (Gerschick, 2000). In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing emphasis, via feminist perspectives, on the gendered experiences of disabled women and men (Shuttleworth, Wedgwood, and Wilson, 2012), “making feminist theories of gender more inclusive, complex, and nuanced” (Gerschick (2000, p. 1263). Authors Fine and Asch (1981) introduced the concept of ‘rolelessness’ experienced by disabled women in a society where there are “fewer socially sanctioned roles…viewed as appropriate for [them], and relevant disabled role models are virtually invisible” (p. 233). In another example of early writing about gender and disability, Begum (1992) explored how the “concerns of disabled women strike at the core of both the disability rights and feminist movements” through consideration of gender roles, self-image, and sexuality at the intersections of gender and disability experiences (p. 70). Though most early feminist disability scholarship focused on women, in 1989, Harlan Hahn began to “provide a more comprehensive interpretation of disabled masculinity…derived from his own personal experience but augmented through his long-term involvement in disability rights and the feminist-inspired gender and disability literature of the time” (Shuttleworth et al., 2012, p. 176).

Gerschick (2000) notes that “disability has a profound effect on the material and nonmaterial experience of gender” (p. 1267) and argues that contextualizing the experiences of individuals with physical disabilities requires attending to “three sets of social dynamics: the stigma assigned to disability, gender as an interactional process, and the importance of the body to enacting gender” (p. 1264). These social dynamics are also noted in Garland‐Thomson’s (2002) discussion of a feminist disability approach, which addresses concerns such as the “unity of the category woman, the status of the lived body, the politics of appearance, the medicalization of the body, the privilege of normalcy, multiculturalism, sexuality, the social construction of identity, and the commitment to integration” (p. 4). A powerful example of the points raised by Gerschick and Garland-Thomson can be seen in the work of vlogger, writer, and advocate, Annie Elainey (2018), who, in a YouTube video, shares experiences of navigating disability, fashion, and gender presentation. At one point in the video, Elainey says:

Currently, pants hurt a lot, and I feel a lot more physically at ease/less in pain when I’m wearing things that don’t put pressure on my knees, like skirts, dresses, and shorts. I feel like I’ve been a little bit forced into them lately by my disability, meaning there are days that I would truly, truly, truly very strongly not want to wear a skirt or a dress or present myself as feminine at all, but I still have to wear those items for the sake of my pain levels. Describing this feeling to people who may not relate, I think, is so hard. I’ve tried to explain it like it feels like you’re forced into a uniform that you feel ridiculous in or an itchy sweater. It’s just uncomfortable. It feels like someone else has control over what you’re wearing, and it feels like you’re being inauthentic. It feels like you can’t be yourself.

In this same video, Elainey (2018) goes on to say that:

There are some [fashion] choices that I would have never come up with or ever gone through with if it weren’t for my disability, and it turns out that they’re very fun, excellent, fashionable choices. So, I’m really kind of grateful for that, that my disability kind of expands my mind and makes me think of creative ways of expressing myself. So, it’s not all bad.

Elainey’s discussion highlights both challenges and opportunities for self-expression at the intersections of disability, gender, and other social identities and experiences.

The importance of nuanced and multi-faceted representations of lived experiences of disability in concert with gender and other identities is a key feature of a feminist disability framework (Mohamed & Shefer, 2015). As highlighted by Garland-Thompson (2002) and in Annie Elainey’s (2018) story, the politics of appearance are often complicated further by disability. Furthermore, as Mohamed and Shefer point out, we see similar complexities at the intersections of disability and gendered sexuality, given that women with physical disabilities are often stereotyped as asexual, and women with intellectual or emotional disabilities are stereotyped as hypersexual. “These paradoxical and contradictory responses to disabled femininity draw on notions of embodiment and gendered ideologies of beauty, motherhood and reproduction, representation, discourses on rationality, autonomy, and choice, amongst others” (Mohamed & Shefer, p. 8).

Regarding masculinity and disability, Shuttleworth, Wedgwood, and Wilson (2012) note that cultural ideas regarding masculinity and disability conflict given that disability is associated with weakness and masculinity is associated with strength. Furthermore, they contend that the study of the intersection of gender (masculinity in particular) with disability assumes a static, ‘generic category’ rather than how “masculinity (or masculinities) intersect(s) differently with various types of impairment” (p. 188). Gahman (2017) adds to this theoretical consideration of disability and masculinity by conceptualizing masculinities as constructed through place, time, and culture, noting that this “proves to be effective in understanding how gendered power relations shift across social, political, and economic sites and situations” (p. 702).

Another theoretical perspective that can be seen as germane to considerations of gender and disability is crip theory. This theory, first promulgated in the early 2000s, grew out of the interdisciplinary fields of disability studies and queer theory. Works employing crip theory tend to focus both on the “margins of disability identification as well as on the intersections where gender, race, and sexuality come together” (McRuer & Cassabaum, 2021, n.p.). Like the feminist frameworks discussed above, crip theory can be used to examine the implications of gendered disability as experienced through physical, psychological, social, political, and other human contexts. For example, Gahman (2017) uses crip theory to uncover the ways in which notions of “manhood” are influenced by normative ideas about able-bodiedness and able-mindedness that are linked to culture and place.

Although gains have been made in applying empowerment and critical perspectives to the intersections of disability and gender, along with other identities, several authors argue that there is more to accomplish. Bailey and Mobley (2019) contend that “when disability is more seriously regarded within Black Studies, race within Disability Studies, and gender in both, there are an infinite number of revolutions that a Black feminist disability framework can help bring about” (p. 35). Miles (2019) furthers the discussion of the intersections of disability, gender, and race, noting the particular burdens placed on Black, disabled women who are simultaneously met with the social construction of women with disabilities as “weak, dependent, and unfit as providers,” and expectations for the fulfillment of a Strong Black Woman schema, which itself is rooted in ableist ideology (p. 44). According to Miles (2019),

The feminist intersectional disability framework is grounded in the following assumptions: First, race, class, gender, and other markers of difference, and the associated systems of oppression, collectively contribute to how disability is acquired, experienced, and socially constructed. Second, the intersection of race, class, gender, and ability oppression contributes to disabled women of color’s differential access to resources, opportunities, and treatment in society. Third, disabled women of color experience marginalization within dominant majority communities (i.e., white, able-bodied, middle-class communities) as well as within their minority communities (i.e., black, disabled, poor communities). Finally, ableism is commonly an unaccounted predictor of structural inequality. Because many social problems examined by researchers exclude disability inquiry and its intersections, the conclusions developed to rectify these problems are often incomplete and inadequate. (p. 46)

Gendered Experiences of Disability

Gender-Based Employment Discrimination

Discrimination is faced by all people with disabilities regardless of their gender identity. However, the way it manifests and how it impacts an individual with a disability can be greatly influenced by their gender identity and expression. Compared to men with disabilities, women with disabilities are half as likely to be employed (Pough & Eld, 2021), and once employed, in comparison to able-bodied women in the workforce, women with disabilities face multiple forms of discrimination, including both sexism and ableism (Kim, 2019). The myriad types of discrimination that women with disabilities experience include unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal access to training, unequal pay, occupational segregation, as well as not receiving the chance to participate in economic decision-making (Pough & Eld, 2021). These discriminatory practices extend even further for minority women with disabilities who receive the brunt of discrimination in the workforce due to intersecting experiences of oppression. Minority populations with disabilities are at risk of being unemployed due to inadequate preparation, such as lack of education or vocational rehabilitation services (Smith, 2008) as a result of shortages of such resources in their communities. Further, even when these resources do exist, women with disabilities, especially women of color, are less likely to have received vocational services that prepare disabled people for the workforce due to lack of accessibility and lack of education about the resources (Smith, 2008). This is a phenomenon often referred to as double or triple jeopardy. This phenomenon occurs when people with multiple marginalized identities experience compounded discrimination and/or disadvantage (Goodman, Morris, Boston, & Walton, 2017).

The varied discrimination that is experienced in the workplace by women and individuals of color is further compounded by a variety of socio-economic factors that are faced disproportionately compared to their able-bodied peers. Women and racial minority groups with disabilities experience the highest poverty levels, and the lowest income and have a greater reliance on income sources outside of the labor market, such as social security disability insurance (Maroto, Pettinicchio, & Patterson, 2019). This directly impacts how women with disabilities are viewed by their able-bodied peers; they are often seen as less competent, less productive, helpless, and weak in comparison to able-bodied workers (Maroto et al., 2019). This has been captured in studies done by Mereish (as cited in Maroto et al., 2019), who found that Asian American and Pacific Islander women with disabilities were more likely to report being discriminated against in the workplace than their able-bodied counterparts. Additionally, Shaw, Chan, and McMahon (as cited in Maroto et al., 2019) found that Mexican and American Indian women with behavioral disorders were more likely to make harassment complaints in the workplace.

Men with disabilities also experience discrimination in the workplace. However, these challenges often differ in how they manifest and their impact on one’s identity compared to women with disabilities. According to Ostrander (2008), disability has a direct impact on masculinity in the workplace because it is continually contested and in need of proving through making a substantial salary. Men with disabilities may find this more challenging as they are less likely than men without disabilities to make a substantial salary based on the jobs that are available to them (Sang, Richards, & Marks, 2016). Woodham and colleagues (2015) argue that men with disabilities face a greater pay penalty than other marginalized groups. Similar to women with disabilities, men with disabilities may be perceived as weak and dependent. In a patriarchal society, able-bodied men and men with disabilities feel as if they are supposed to be portrayed as masculine and independent. Men with disabilities who gain employment express greater pride in their identity, which leads to a change in their approach to masculinity. Different disabilities pose different outcomes for men, as seen in a study in the U.K. where Butler reports that men with a stuttering disability reported avoidance of typical ‘masculine’ jobs such as architecture or construction professions due to not wanting to be seen as less than or incompetent (Sang et al., 2016).

In addition to men and women with disabilities, transgender individuals with disabilities are also subjected to discriminatory experiences in and out of the workplace. According to Chope and Strom (2008), transgender people with disabilities such as mental health issues are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed, given experiences with workplace stigma and discrimination despite wanting to work. These authors state that transgender people who encounter discrimination based on their transgender identity in the workplace may have lower confidence and invoke psychiatric distress (2008). The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS; James et al., 2016) reported that 24% of transgender people from the U.S. were unemployed and 45% were living in poverty. The USTS reported that 29% of trans people with disabilities respondents were more likely to receive assistance such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and/or Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC) due to economic distress and financial instability (James et al., 2016).

Experiences of Being a Transgender or Non-Binary Disabled Person

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), three to five million transgender people have disabilities (James et al., 2016). Although the 2015 USTS does not capture the experiences of all transgender people in the United States, with 27,715 respondents from all fifty states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and U.S. military bases overseas, there is valuable information regarding transgender people with disabilities. In particular, transgender people with disabilities report limited access to inclusive and fully accessible services, including affordable and inclusive health care and community services and supports. Spaces focused on disability may not foster transgender people’s unique experiences, and in transgender spaces, services and facilities may not be inclusive or accessible, for example,  having accessible buildings or restrooms, ASL interpreters, or options used specifically for people who have a visual impairment (James et al., 2016).

In an article on BuzzFeed from 2017, a 28-year-old non-binary trans person with hemophilia expressed not feeling accepted by the trans or non-binary circles due to their disability. They expressed feeling more comfortable in disabled spaces because they felt as if their gender identity and orientation were more easily understood and accepted by people with disabilities (Lynn, 2017). In the same article, a 36-year-old trans woman with a disability described withholding disability information from her primary care doctor out of fear that it would impact her transition treatment or ongoing hormone replacement therapy maintenance. Like many other people transgender people with disabilities, she feels as if her doctor has power over her ongoing care, and she may be more susceptible to losing certain medications or treatments that are needed for her emotional well-being and transition (Lynn, 2017).

Furthermore, according to the USTS, transgender people with disabilities are twice as likely to experience mental health conditions that impact their daily lives compared to those without a disability (James, 2016). They were six times more likely to report having serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions and four times more likely to report difficulty doing errands alone, such as visiting doctor’s offices or shopping, because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition. Experiencing mental health disorders and access to appropriate health care may be some of the reasons that 12% of respondents with disabilities from the USTS attempted suicide within the past year (James et al., 2016).

LGBTQIA+ people with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD) may experience specific forms of exclusion and discrimination related to their non-heterosexuality or gender diversity, which could be interpreted as a behavioral issue rather than self-identity (Smith et al., 2022). There is a lack of literature specific to transgender and gender-diverse people with intellectual disabilities. Smith and colleagues (2022) suggest that this is due to the difficulties recruiting transgender and gender-diverse people with IDD into studies or the lack of support for the IDD population in encouraging exploring their gender identity.

Reproduction and Gender Roles/Expectations

Women with disabilities disproportionately face challenges to their reproductive health and rights compared to able-bodied women. Women with disabilities receive less access to needed health care (Silvers, Francis, & Badesch, 2016) as well as receive cesarean sections and induction of labor occur more frequently even if there is no indication that this was needed for a medical reason. Societal views may hinder women with disabilities’ views on whether they can or should have children (Silvers et al., 2016). Those views can often extend to being infantilized or being considered as asexual. In an excerpt from the Disability & Philanthropy Forum’s webinar on gender, sexuality, and disability, Robin Wilson-Beattie, a Black woman with visible and invisible disabilities, addresses how ableism and racism manifest within the field of reproductive health. Wilson-Beattie discusses how ableism promotes the narrative that people with disabilities do not have the right to be sexual beings (Silvers et al., 2016).

Additionally, women with disabilities are vulnerable to adverse maternal and child health outcomes (Powell, Andrews, & Eyers, 2022). Parents with disabilities experience many barriers when accessing health care before, during, and after pregnancy (Powell et al, 2022). Some of these barriers include physical, communication, and programmatic barriers (2021). Physical barriers for people with disabilities may include architectural barriers or inaccessible equipment. Communication barriers may include no translation services for people who are deaf. Programmatic barriers may include a scarcity of policies and procedures about caring for parents with disabilities, negative attitudes, and lack of knowledge among healthcare providers (2021). People with disabilities may be discouraged from having children out of fear that the child will also have disabilities (Silvers, 2016).  Those who have experienced pregnancies report complaints and criticisms from people calling them selfish under the assumption that others will have to raise their children for them (2016). Systemic stigmatizations of women with disabilities have not only led to reduced or complete loss of reproductive autonomy but also to the limited inclusion or complete exclusion from political movements that would otherwise advance and improve their standing (2016).

People with disabilities continue to have reproductive rights taken away from them by sterilization (forced or coerced). According to the National Women’s Law Center Forced Sterilization Report (2021), women with intellectual and developmental disabilities get sterilized more than nondisabled women, women with disabilities are sterilized more often than men with disabilities, and Black women with disabilities are more likely to be sterilized than White women with disabilities. Eugenics, racism, and ableism have been the fuel for forced sterilization of women of color. One study using information from the 2011 – 2015 National Survey of Family Growth found that 41 percent of Black women with disabilities used sterilization as a contraceptive method, compared with 28 percent of White women with disabilities (Mosher et al, 2018). These statistics could be due to a lack of financial resources, trouble getting other types of birth control, and feeling pressured to make the decision to become sterilized (National Women’s Law Center, 2021).

Disability Representation in Women’s Rights Movement

The Women’s Rights movement has been slow to make space for women with disabilities (Goyal, 2016). Women with disabilities have been excluded by most women’s rights movements through either omission or commission (Price, 2011). Price concludes that as of late, more women without disabilities are prepared to stand alongside women with disabilities to elicit the change that they both want to see in the world. In the 1970’s and 1980’s feminists rarely addressed the issues of women with disabilities seeing it as a more individualized problem for women with impairments (2011). Even within the disability movement, the voices of women with disabilities are overlooked because the movement has historically been male dominated. As a result, women with disabilities who engage in political activity, draw upon feminism to aide in the discussion of disability oppression (2011), but do so often without the support of the larger feminist movement and communities.

The absence of support and inclusion of women with disabilities in the larger movement for women’s rights is considerable. Some women with physical, sensory, or cognitive impairments believe they are marginalized in the feminist theory just as much as they are in the patriarchal society (Price, 2011). This is due to women with disabilities having to live with the stigma of being dependent, helpless, vulnerable individuals, and non-disabled feminists are worried that this image will make all women look this way as they try to project a picture of a strong, capable woman (Price, 2011). Fine and Asch (1985) argue that the popular view of women with disabilities has been one mixed with repugnance. Perceiving disabled women as childlike, helpless, and victimized, non-disabled feminists have functionally severed them from the sisterhood in an effort to advance more powerful, competent, and appealing female icons (Price, 2011). Women with disabilities were used for political appearances, such as sitting in on group photos or acting as a token instead of being part of the sisterhood of the feminist movement (Price, 2011).


Title IX, a U.S. federal civil rights law that was enacted as part (Title IX) of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance (Becker, 2019). All public high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools must comply with Title IX. Under Title IX, public schools are required to protect students from sexual harassment and sexual assault (Becker, 2019). Public schools must also comply with federal laws which protect the rights of students with disabilities such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a U.S. federal law which prevents discrimination against individuals with disabilities and ensures equal access to education (Becker, 2019). Unfortunately, Title IX protection and disability protection can clash and provide significant challenges for students, their parents, and the schools which are required to protect all students (Becker, 2019).

Becker discusses a recent case in Palo Alto, California, which shows the inadvertent clash between Title IX and disability protection laws. In this case, the school district In Palo Alto asked a judge to uphold a lower court’s decision to permit a male high school student who had sexually harassed (via text messages and verbal comments) a female high school student, to remain on the school’s robotics team where the girl participates. The boy had an individualized education plan (IEP) for his “significant pragmatic speech disability,” (Becker, 2019). The school system had initially barred the boy from the robotics team until legal action was taken by the boy’s mother. The school system then allowed the boy to participate in robotics, provided that an additional staff member was present. The girl’s parents then filed a motion which resulted in the school system again barring him from robotics. The boy’s mother then argued that, by barring him from robotics, the school district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA, and discriminated against him on the basis of his disability. She argued that the text messages and comments her son made to the girl were manifestations of his disability (2019). She also advocated that her son’s “emotional health and well-being would be seriously impacted by his continued exclusion” from robotics in an article provided by Elena Kadvany with Palo Alto Weekly News (2019). The resolution of this case was that both children were allowed to continue on the team but ending in a legal battle, the girl was awarded $150,000 for the violation of Title IX by the Palo Alto School District (Veit, 2019).

Allen (2019) suggests there are other statistical trends that may conflict with Title IX and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: (1) more students are being diagnosed with mental health disorders, (2) people with disabilities are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their nondisabled peers, and (3) social movements which aim to protect people from being harassed or assaulted, such as the #metoo movement, have resulted in more efficient enforcement of the Title IX conduct codes in schools. Without the proper education relating to people with disabilities, especially neuro-developmental disabilities, Title IX policies can have irreversible consequences for people who may not have the ability to understand the ramifications.

Voices of Disabled People on the Intersection of Gender and Disability

Keri Gray , founder and CEO of the Keri Gray Group, advises young professionals, businesses, and organizations on issues around disability, race, gender, and intersectionality. She illustrates how the framework of intersectionality, including gender, is essential to true inclusion:

The reality is, is that you have people like myself, who are black, disabled, and women, and so many other things. And when you live at the intersections of all three of those, then you can’t split your political and social dynamics between these different groups. It doesn’t produce real results of freedom and it doesn’t produce real results of access to employment and other opportunities that you’re looking for. (Ford Foundation, 2020)

Niles Clipson, a member of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) National Student Council, in an essay titled, “I’m a Trans, Disabled Young Person, Not One or the Other,” asserts an intersectional framework for social justice:

Accommodations for trans people OR disabled people OR people of color isn’t enough. This type of thinking separates identities that are inextricably linked. Disability justice is LGBTQ justice is racial justice is healthcare justice, and so on. In working towards social justice, we must recognize these as intertwined, and understand that addressing these individually, instead of collectively, further marginalizes those with multifaceted identities rather than work towards collective liberation. I don’t want to have to choose between using the stairs and risking passing out from the pain or taking the elevator and having to interact with the kid who always harasses me for my gender and disability.

In a powerful article focusing on disability, race, and parenting, social worker Vilissa Thompson (2021) amplifies the voices of Black disabled mothers who share their stories of “the complex joys, frustrations, and lessons learned that come from parenting with a disability” (n.p.). Thompson notes that:

Black disabled mothers are subjected to hyper-focused scrutiny, whether they are taking inventory of their family planning options, seeking prenatal care, in the delivery room, or are gearing up to take their bundle of joy home for the first time. And as Black disabled women, they are especially aware of how dangerous the intersections of misogynoir and ableism can be for them and their babies during both pre- and post-natal care. (n.p.).

Thompson’s article also highlights the strengths and contributions of Black disabled mothers. As Reyma McCoy McDeid, a mother and activist profiled in the article notes, being a Black disabled mother is “a revolutionary act” (n.p.).

Other insights from disabled people related to the intersections of disability, gender, and other social identities can be found at the links below.

 Case Example

You are a social worker who is working with young adults in a community-based independent living program funded by the state child welfare department. Among the young adults in the program you work with are Shannon, a 19-year-old who identifies as female, Latina (Puerto Rican), and disabled (she has been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder with psychosis), and Shannon’s partner, Jamie, a 20-year-old transgender man who also identifies as Latino (Dominican) and disabled (diagnosed with PTSD and substance use disorder).

Shannon and Jamie live in separate apartments, funded by the agency that runs the independent living program. However, when they are not working or at school, they spend most of their time together. Shannon and Jamie have been dating for one year. They met at an event sponsored by the independent living program focused on budgeting and finances. Jamie, who is currently receiving gender affirming hormone therapy, began transitioning several months after he and Shannon met. Jamie often speaks about how Shannon has supported him ‘100%’ in his gender identity and expression.

Jamie frequently talks about his experience in foster care prior to entering the independent living program. Especially salient for him was how he felt his gender identity was ignored by his social workers and caregivers[5]. Jamie has openly identified as male since he was 13 years old. After being in several family foster placements, he was placed in a group home. Because the group homes in his area are separated along a gender binary, Jamie was placed in a home for girls with psychiatric disabilities. He faced a lot of bullying from the other residents and was often misgendered by staff. When he tried to speak with the staff about hormone blockers, they refused to give him any information or even have a conversation about it, saying it was ‘too risky, especially since you’re dealing with mental illness already.’

Shannon and Jamie are part-time college students. Shannon is a member of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for young adults. She has been working with other members of the group to develop programming on how gender and other identities intersect with disability. Shannon decided on this project after conversations with Jamie about their different experiences as disabled people based on their gender identities and expression. Shannon said that she often feels that she is stereotyped as unstable, irrational, and overly emotional as a woman with mental illness, while Jamie, as a man, is less vulnerable to these stereotypes but can feel hindered in expressing his true emotions.

Shannon is majoring in social work and minoring in gender studies. She believes that her experiences in the foster care and mental health systems give her insight and motivate her to make changes so that other youths do not have the same negative experiences she had. Jamie feels very differently about this–to him, the system is beyond repair, and he does not want to have anything further to do with human services once he completes the independent living program. He is majoring in computer science and wants to start a tech company one day.

Though Shannon and Jamie are not considering having children anytime soon, they think about how gender and disability may influence their experience in this area. They talk about adopting one day, but Shannon is especially worried that she will not be considered fit to be a mother because of her disability.

For both Shannon and Jamie, spirituality is an important part of their lives. Shannon is Wiccan, and considers her spiritual practice to be a coping mechanism, especially when dealing with injustices she faces as a disabled person. Jamie identified as Christian growing up. He now identifies as a Humanist and sees many of the tenets of Humanism as supporting his desire for justice as a disabled transgender person.

Discussion Questions

Putting yourself in the position of the social worker working with Shannon and Jamie, consider the following:

  • What knowledge do you need to gain related to the intersections of gender, disability, and other identities/experiences to work effectively with Shannon and Jamie? What additional questions would you have for Shannon and Jamie about their personal lived experiences, given their disability, gender, and other identities/experiences?
  • Can you identify examples of ableism, gender discrimination, and transgender discrimination experienced by Shannon and Jamie?
  • Can you identify examples of strengths demonstrated by Shannon and Jamie?
  • How might you utilize theoretical perspectives discussed in this chapter or in other chapters in the textbook in your work with Shannon and Jamie?
  • What resources in your area might you recommend (groups, services, providers, etc.) that could be useful supports for Shannon and/or Jamie? Are these resources (e.g., healthcare, mental health), disability and gender(trans) inclusive?
  • With an understanding that degendering disability and focusing only on disability experience/identity can lead to neglecting to address relationship experiences and needs, how might you support Shannon and Jamie in developing and maintaining healthy relationship skills?
  • Can you identify any advocacy organizations in your area that Shannon and/or Jamie may be interested in connecting with?


Allen, M.T. (2019). When civil rights collide: Intersection of disability rights law

and Title IX in education. National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy. Retrieved from http://www.narpa.org/conferences/2019/intersection-of-disability-rights-law-and-title-ix


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[1] Both identity-first and person-first language are used in this chapter.

[2] See Chapter 1 of this textbook. Wendell (2013) offers a perspective on the social construction of disability: “I see disability as socially constructed in ways ranging from social conditions that straightforwardly create illnesses, injuries, and poor physical functioning, to subtle cultural factors that determine standards of normality and exclude those who do not meet them from full participation in their societies” (p. 481).

[3] As described in the 2015 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau

[4] In 2015

[5] See this report by the Massachusetts Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youth (2021) for an example of a review of LGBTQ youth experiences in a foster care system.



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