“Angel”? Infantilization is one of the biggest challenges faced by women with disabilities

“Angel”, “cute”, “poor thing”. You’ve probably heard these words, accompanied by a childish tone of voice, when you were a child. For women with disabilities these childish words continue to be said even after they become adults. But this infantilization goes further, crossing relationships, work and motherhood and also becoming sexual violence.

“Very close relatives told me to my face that, because I already needed a caregiver, it would be a ‘weight’ for the people around me if I had a child and needed help to take care of the child too”, recalled Ana Raquel Périco Mangili, 27 years old, civil servant who has multiple disabilities – Generalized Dystonia and Severe Bilateral Hearing Impairment.

Even though there are 25.8 million women with disabilities in the country, or almost 14% of the population (according to data from the latest IBGE census), they still face several stereotypes: they feel inferior, neglected, lonely and, above all, infantilized. They have to prove their values ​​and skills at all times; make clear your desires and anxieties; looking for loves that are often unrequited, or loaded with prejudice. They fight day by day for a space that is not given to them, and they are tired.


It is estimated that 40% to 68% of women with disabilities will experience sexual violence before the age of 18, according to a study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). In fact, of the seven women interviewed for this article, six reported having suffered sexual harassment or abuse.

Statistics only show the tip of the iceberg: the child stereotype causes these women to be abused, just as children are, in addition to being (often) fetishized. Interestingly, the word “infantile” comes from the Latin infantia, that is, “person who is not able to speak”. In the case of women with disabilities, this perpetuates the stigma of disability and creates an extremely problematic dominance relationship.

This type of “hierarchization” also happens in romantic relationships. Among heterosexuals, the man is often seen as “dominant”, necessary to take care of this woman and help her to have decision-making power.

As a consequence of this domination, the dynamics of these relationships are usually marked by a lot of insecurity, loneliness and fear. “Better not to waste it, it’s hard to find a partner”, “you can’t choose, you have to be with whoever wants you” – these are phrases that women constantly hear.

“My last ex-boyfriend said he wanted to break up with me because he wouldn’t wait for my mom to die to take care of me. It was one of the most violent things I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Fernanda Vicari dos Santos, 40.

Fernanda Vicari dos Santos / Publication Personal Archive

Photo: Fernanda Vicari dos Santos / Publication Personal Archive

“People see our companions as very benevolent or even as caregivers,” said Fernanda. She is a poor, peripheral black woman and has muscular dystrophy, a progressive degenerative disease, which has made her use a wheelchair for 10 years.


“They are always placed in a position of poor people or as examples of overcoming, which keep them on the margins of society”, explained psychologist Névia Rocha, a specialist in gender and with experience in caring for women with disabilities.

Researcher Valeska Zanello uses a concept called “love shelf” to explain the tendency we have to take what is easier on the shelf – and, in the case of love, the reachable positions are of standard people, white, thin, light-eyed etc. . And women with disabilities always feel at the bottom of the shelf, where you have to take a ladder to reach.

Bárbara Manzano, 28, is a journalist and has Spastic Diplegia, a mild motor disability that affects balance, and was caused by a neurological injury shortly after her premature birth, aged six and a half months. Because of this, she uses a walker, affectionately called “Babi Móvel”. Barbara has already suffered domestic violence from her father and had an abusive love relationship for almost two years. “I discovered that he made fun of my disability to his friends,” she said.

Bárbara Manzano / Disclosure Personal Archive

Bárbara Manzano / Disclosure Personal Archive

Photo: Bárbara Manzano / Publication Personal Archive

Among the most common stereotypes, Bárbara says that she has already felt infantilized and was called “little angel”. Despite being very communicative and relating to many people, she confesses that her love life has always been difficult. “Many women with disabilities live in social isolation and feel alone, as I do.”

Recently, Barbara has surrendered to dating apps. She met a guy she talked to and who complimented her a lot, but when she told him about her disability, he blocked her. “I did not expect. And it made me question all my previous relationships.”


At the family barbecue, when all married women are asked about motherhood, the disabled woman is not even on the agenda. This is where another stereotype of infantilization comes in: that these women cannot be mothers, that they are not capable of physically supporting a pregnancy, nor of taking care of a child. Or even that automatic thought that the child will be born with the same disability.

Today, she has no desire to be a mother, and considers that the environment in which she grew up shaped this desire. And no less! How to consider motherhood amid so many judgments and lack of structure?

Even medicine and the healthcare system have their share of blame. Of the 606 public maternity hospitals in Brazil, none are adapted for visually impaired pregnant and postpartum women, and less than 8% are adapted for hearing-impaired women, showed a study carried out last year by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in partnership with the Universidade Federal do Maranhao.


Capacitism and infantilization bring the idea that these women are unfit to lead. Psychologist Névia points out that the wrong thinking is that “if they couldn’t even take care of themselves, then they wouldn’t be able to make decisions or impose themselves either.”

It is very common for people with disabilities to be in administrative positions, usually without growth prospects. And the relationship of gender inequality remains: only 36% of workers with disabilities who have formal contracts are women, according to the 2017 Annual Social Information Report, from the Ministry of Labor and Employment.

Heloísa Rocha, 37, is a journalist and has worked for Rádio Gazeta for 13 years. It has osteogenesis imperfecta, popularly known as “glass bones”, in grade 3 – one of the most serious. As a result, she uses a wheelchair. She also has short stature, scoliosis, her upper limbs are curved and she had fractures in her mother’s uterus.

Heloísa Rocha / Photo Júlia Rodrigues – Publicity

Heloísa Rocha / Photo Júlia Rodrigues – Publicity

Photo: Heloísa Rocha / Photo Júlia Rodrigues – Publicity

Heloísa insists on making clear her privileges as a white woman with good financial conditions, who had access to education and resources.

Her biggest difficulty as a disabled woman was at work. “I had to run a lot after opportunities,” she said. She met her current boss when she was studying for a master’s degree, was assigned to do a report on the radio and then gained more space. Heloísa is also a model and uses her Instagram profile to talk about fashion and inclusion.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the scenario in the job market has worsened. In São Paulo, the rate of people with disabilities laid off in 2020 was twice that of people without disabilities, according to the Secretary of State for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The servant Ana Mangili says: “My main form of communication is through lip reading. How am I going to lip-read to understand others if everyone is wearing masks?” She began to depend on a companion to leave the house.

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