Recently, one of my best friends started their drag queen career at a local LGBTQ+ club. I was so excited for her and couldn’t wait to see her perform. Unfortunately, I’m only able to watch recordings of her performances because the club is not wheelchair accessible. After talking with some other friends and peers and reading about other people’s experiences, I realized that many disabled LGBTQ+ individuals cannot access their local queer communities because of attitudinal and physical barriers. Given that most LGBTQ+ groups pride themselves on inclusion and community, they need to recognize, and practice, full disability inclusion as well. As mama Ru would say “Shantay, [we] stay.”
Perhaps the biggest barrier disabled LGBTQ+ individuals face is the ableist societal notion that disabled individuals do not want or are unwanted in relationships. Presuming an entire population is asexual, it essentially erases their existence within queer communities and other gender and sexual orientation conversations and spaces. In reality, disabled individuals fall on the spectrum of sexual orientation just as their nondisabled peers do. LGBTQ+ spaces must acknowledge disabled individuals share the same identities and work towards including individuals with all types of disabilities in that community.
To achieve true inclusion, it is necessary for groups and venues to reexamine their policies which often unintentionally prevent disabled individuals from participating. For example, events that don’t allow bags make it difficult or impossible for individuals who may need medical supplies or assistive devices to attend. One individual, I heard from pointed out that rules about drinks and medications put her in a position of having to choose between not having necessary medications with her or being turned away from the event entirely. Multiple people report being confronted at events by individuals questioning their presence at events with statements like, “cripples aren’t welcome.” Others have requested accommodations or asked about the accessibility of an event only to be met with hostility and the message the organizers were not going to bother to make events accessible to disabled LGBTQ+ individuals. Such policies and attitudes keep individuals away from the community and make it nearly impossible for disabled LGBTQ+ people to meet others in their area.
Physical accessibility is critical to disabled individual’s ability to participate. Things like ramps, accessible seating, sign language interpreters, and accessible bathrooms are often overlooked. Mobility devices often do not work well on grass and gravel surfaces and are especially difficult on uneven areas. Individuals who need accessible bathrooms or sign language interpreters often cannot attend events because these services are not provided. By ignoring such issues, the organization leading the event is sending the message that disabled individuals are not welcome in LGBTQ+ spaces even if that is not the intention.
For those with invisible disabilities such as autism, anxiety and chronic fatigue syndrome, the lack of seating and designated break areas can make certain events, especially those outdoors, impossible to attend for fear of heat exhaustion and sensory overload. Clubs with flashing lights can trigger seizures, dizziness and migraines and food that is not correctly labeled can cause allergic reactions or trigger other illnesses to flare up. Lastly, those with learning and developmental disabilities often cannot access material found on the internet about the community because it is not written in plain language. By making spaces and materials inaccessible, disabled queer individuals are being denied access to their community.
What you can do
Of course, some organizations and areas are already disability-inclusive, but a majority are not fully there yet. One of the best things you can do is to educate yourself about disability and the LGBT+ community. There are many great writers and video bloggers with varying disabilities that talk about this intersection of identities and experiences. Making events accessible should not be viewed as burdensome but simply as practicing what most LGBTQ+ organizations pride themselves on. If you are a member of the community, consider what spaces your group and community use to hold meetings and events and other aspects of your event. Can everyone, regardless of ability, access your gathering and participate once they are there? If you are planning events, involve disabled individuals in the planning process. By having individuals help with the planning process, organizers can ask for guidance when questions arise. Be sure to also include a variety of disabled individuals so more than one type is represented. Most people will be happy to help make your event accessible to all those who identify as LGBTQ+. There are also articles and lists online to help with the planning process to help ensure your event is accessible. Also, if individuals contact you and inquire about the accessibility of a location or event, do not become defensive or brush off their concerns. If your location or activity is not accessible and cannot be changed last minute, ensure that you will find a new location next time. Most people with disabilities will understand time restrictions and last-minute requests might not be feasible but putting in the effort for future events will go a long way. Clubs and other perminant spaces do not have to completely rework their routine but simply having a few nights a month without flashing lights and slightly quieter music can allow people to participate without risking their health. If permanent LGBTQ+ spaces are inaccessible, consider moving or raising money to address physical barriers. When disabled individuals cannot access spaces, it is often presumed that we do not exist. By making such spaces accessible, people will see that disabled individuals have the same sexual and gender orientations as the rest of society.
Erin Vallely lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and is a proud wheelchair user. Having graduated with a B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology with a Spanish minor from Wells College in Aurora, NY, she plans to pursue a career in disability rights advocacy and public policy. In her spare time, Erin enjoys reading about other people’s experiences, supporting other minority groups, and traveling.