Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Role Models, Mentors, and Muses for Women With Disabilities


Harilyn Rousso is Executive Director of Disabilities Unlimited, New York

For all women, access to female role models and mentors - other women successful in the world of work who share their expertise - is an important employment strategy. Role models and mentors offer women seeking jobs or career advancement inspiration, support, guidance, contacts, and concrete evidence that women can survive and thrive in the workplace despite the barriers. At best, successfully employed women can also enable other women to discover their creative forces within and develop their full potential; in this respect, they can serve as muses.

For women with disabilities, contact with role models, mentors and muses who are both female and disabled is particularly important. Stereotypes - images of women with disabilities as sick, helpless, incompetent - suggest we cannot work. Our low employment rate suggests we do not work. Yet we can and we do. Successful women with disabilities show how.

The Invisibility of Role Models

If you were asked to identify 10 women with disabilities who had made substantial contributions to society historically or currently, how many women besides Helen Keller could you name? If you could now add famous men with disabilities to the list, would the task be any easier? Although there are many famous women with disabilities - such as Alicia Alonso, Annie Jump Cannon, Temple Grandin, Dorothea Lange, Frida Kahlo, Wilma Mankiller, Wilma Rudolph and Harriet Tubman - their disability status is rarely acknowledged. The exceptions are women like Helen Keller who are best known for "overcoming" their disability. Helen Keller was a suffragette, socialist, and disability activist, among other things, yet those aspects of her life are rarely included in textbooks. Why must disability status either be denied or overcome?

Because of negative societal attitudes surrounding disability - the pervasive perception that people with disabilities are sick, helpless, dependent, childlike and asexual - women with disabilities who are successful are no longer perceived as disabled. In people's minds, disability and success seem incompatible. Rarely is disability seen as an asset or even an acceptable part of one's identity. While this problem of incompatible images exists for people with disabilities in general, it is even more intense for women. Until relatively recently, the images of "womanhood" and "success" seemed incompatible. Successful women were perceived as manlike, seeking a career because they could not "catch a man," because they were not "true women." This has changed to some degree, but powerful women continue to make many people quite uncomfortable. Thus, successful women with disabilities are often seen not only as not having a disability, but also as not truly women. For women of color with disabilities, lesbians with disabilities, and women with disabilities who are members of other oppressed groups, there are additional layers of stereotypes that are incompatible with success.

As a result, women and girls with disabilities are denied access to the positive role models that they need to set positive, realistic expectations and to make expansive educational, vocational and social choices. Scholars Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asch, in a landmark paper on women with disabilities (1981), noted that because of the various myths and stereotypes about women with disabilities, there are few socially sanctioned roles for them to fill. They are perceived as inadequate to fulfill either the nurturing reproductive roles of wife and mother, the traditional roles reserved for women, or the economically productive roles of breadwinner considered appropriate for men. As a result, they experience rolelessness, a lack of clarity about who and what to be and to become. This lack of socially acceptable roles is a severely limiting condition in the lives of women with disabilities, often more limiting than the disability itself. It contributes to the difficulty that women with disabilities face as they seek to enter the world of work.

In the absence of role models, stereotypes prevail, whereas in the presence of role models, stereotypes can be challenged and replaced by positive images. Below is an example of how role models were transforming for me.

The Power of Role Models: A Personal Account

I was born with cerebral palsy, which affects my walking, fine motor coordination, and speech. When I was growing up, I did not know any children or adults with disabilities. Partly this was because I attended regular public school, where I was the only student with a disability. But also, I think I tried to stay away from other people who had disabilities, to avoid them. My disability had caused me so many painful experiences, people teasing, staring, disliking me because of the disability. So I did not want to be associated with the very characteristic that had caused me such distress. It never occurred to me that there might be people with disabilities out there who were interesting, smart, attractive, funny, successful. At least I had never met any.

When I was 22, I had an unexpected, important experience. I worked one summer for a prominent economist who happened to have cerebral palsy. I was astonished when I met her at the job interview. It was a bit like looking at myself. Betty had quite a powerful effect on me. I was impressed that a woman with cerebral palsy, not a very socially acceptable disability, could make it in a man's field. Another thing that impressed me, perhaps more than the first, was that she was married. That amazed me. When I was growing up, my parents and I believed that if you had a disability, you couldn't date, marry or have children. So I totally put aside any hope of a social life and concentrated on my studies. Betty's lifestyle, her marriage to an interesting, dynamic man, made me reconsider the negative assumptions I had made about my social potential. She planted the seeds of positive possibilities that continued to grow throughout my life.

Later on, when I decided to become a psychotherapist, I again realized how helpful it could be to network with other people with disabilities. At one point I was asked to leave a postgraduate psychoanalytic institute because some of the faculty did not think that a person with cerebral palsy could become a therapist. This was the most blatant example of discrimination I had ever faced. I was shocked and distressed, and began looking for other therapists with disabilities who had made it. Their support enabled me to stay in the field - and begin a lawsuit against the institute.

Both these experiences convinced me of the power of role models, and later on inspired me to start a mentoring and role model program for adolescent girls with disabilities.

More Than Role Models: Mentors and Muses

Although I described Betty as a role model, she was actually more than that to me. She was a combination of a role model, mentor and muse, not to mention a dear friend. While there is some overlap in the first three terms, there are also some differences. Let me explain what I mean.

A "role model" is someone with impressive qualities or achievements that another person admires. Role models by their very presence offer the hopeful message "You can be like me." But role models can sometimes unintentionally communicate "You must be like me" rather than encouraging the admirer to become her own person. Role models are important, but may not be enough.

"Mentor" is a term that dates back to the story of Odysseus in Greek mythology, who put his son in the hands of his trusted friend Mentor to serve as parent, teacher, guide and counselor to the boy when Odysseus went off to fight the Trojan War. Drawing on this model, the mentor role can include teaching, guidance, advice and encouragement, at best fostering the notion of "I will help you be whoever you wish to be."

Some feminist literature suggests that because mentoring was originally derived from a relationship between males, it might not fully meet the needs of females, who are socialized differently and face more limited opportunities (Sullivan, 1996). Growing up in a society that favors men and boys, women are often taught to be passive and accepting of limits; thus, to achieve success, they may need a relationship that encourages them to defy restrictions, become expansive and develop their full potential. In addition to mentors, they need muses. Muses in mythology provided inspiration, encouraging people to recognize and develop their own talents.

In truth, women with disabilities need access to role models, mentorsandmuses. Sometimes one person can serve all three roles, but ideally, women with disabilities would have access to a range of successful women with disabilities who could provide support and inspiration in a variety of ways.


As long as successful women with disabilities remain invisible in our society, women and girls with disabilities will need direct contact with other women with disabilities who are working in jobs they care about, actively participating in family life, and taking their rightful place in the community. We need these women as role models, mentors and muses. It is only through their presence and wisdom that we can learn how being disabled and female can be an asset, a source of resilience and creativity that must not be denied nor overcome, but rather celebrated.


Some of the material in the initial sections of this article comes from Rousso, H. (2001).

  • Fine, M., & Asch, A. (1981). Disabled women: Sexism without the pedestal. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 8(2), 65–80.

  • Rousso, H. (2001). What do Frida Kahlo, Wilma Mankiller and Harriet Tubman have in common? Providing role models for girls with (and without) disabilities. In H. Rousso & M. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Double jeopardy: Addressing gender equity in special education services. Albany: SUNY Press.

  • Sullivan, A. S. (1996). From mentor to muse: Recasting the role of women in relationship with urban adolescent girls. In B. J. Ross Leadbeater & N. Way (Eds.), Urban girls: Resisting stereotypes, creating identities (pp. 226–254). New York: New York University Press.