Last month I sent an email to all my friends about an upcoming queer event. One wrote back, “I would love to come but I can’t get my wheelchair up the stairs.”
Even though I have quite a few people with disabilities in my life, even though I read blogs by people with disabilities every day, even though I had complained about the location of this event before — despite all this, I had forgotten that my friend would not be able to come.
I have the luxury of forgetting: I have no trouble with stairs. Most of us in the queer community have this luxury. But we have to make the effort to look beyond ourselves and consider the needs of everyone in our community.
Every time we choose an inaccessible location for our events, we leave lots of our fellow queers outside. And we know all about that, right? Haven’t we been fighting for years for queer people’s access to what straight people freely enjoy?
One of my favourite bloggers is Elizabeth McClung, a dyke who writes about many things, in particular what it’s like to live with a condition that affects her central nervous system and leads to extreme pain and weakness. McClung uses a wheelchair and relies on her partner and on caregivers (some caring, some horrible) to help her with daily tasks.
She wrote in a recent post, “There aren’t two groups: Feminists and Disabled, Queer and Disabled. We are the SAME. Sure, it might be convenient to try and separate the two, to try and leave those who are people with disabilities and impairments behind… [but] it is more than slightly hypocritical to be advocating for equality, for acceptance, for inclusion while those who are just too much damn trouble or who can’t ‘keep up’ are tossed out the back.”
This is old news, right? Queer people with disabilities and their non-disabled allies have been advocating for access for at least 20 years in Canada.
But the amazing truth is, we still have a “community” centre in Vancouver with a long flight of stairs, and we still have events like readings and dances and political meetings in inaccessible locations. We still have a community in which event organizers can say, in response to complaints, “Wow, we didn’t even think about access.”
A couple years ago, in support of the National Day Against Homophobia, the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities published a list of similarities between the experiences of queers and people with disabilities. Both groups are vulnerable to being ignored, shunned, treated like second-class citizens and assaulted.
People with disabilities are often told that they are faking or exaggerating their conditions, or choosing not to be cured. Queers are told that they have chosen a “lifestyle” and could be cured if they wanted.
There are other parallels between queers and people with disabilities.
Think about how some queers (who don’t usually use the word “queer,” I guess, but probably identify as gay or lesbian) insist that we are “just like everyone else.” These people frown on the flaming queers in the Pride parade or anything else that suggests we are not normal. Meanwhile, others in our community celebrate the ways in which we are different from the mainstream, and resist assimilation. We have no desire to pass as straight.
Likewise, some people with disabilities work hard to be seen as normal, to not draw attention to the ways in which their bodies or their needs are different from those of able-bodied people.
Other people with disabilities reject the oppressive stereotypes of victim or “supercrip” (the heroic person who soldiers on in spite of their disability). They refuse to hide their differences and perhaps even highlight their uniqueness or “freakishness,” like the group of people in a recent documentary who have physical disabilities and who created a performance that they call The Last American Freak Show.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that some of the most visible accessible events in the queer community are the Oddball parties, organized by a group of people who make it clear that they welcome all kinds of flamboyant, normal-threatening folks.
Not only do they take the time and energy to make sure that their events are accessible, but in my experience they make a concerted effort to respond to individuals about their specific access needs — i.e. not just the (usually) obvious problem of climbing stairs in a wheelchair, but also things like not being able to stand in line because of chronic pain and fatigue.
When people in wheelchairs or with canes can come to Oddball and dance and flirt and hang out with the rest of the queers, we see how aligned our struggle is as queers and people with disabilities. Both groups are saying, “We are here. Look at us. We are not hiding. We are not going away.”
Some disability activists have encouraged the broader community to support disability rights by pointing out that non-disabled people are only temporarily able-bodied. Anyone can get a disabling illness, or have an accident that causes permanent damage. And many of us will live to be old enough that we lose much of our ability.
But I am not sure about this line of reasoning. Shouldn’t we support people with disabilities even if there is no chance we will ever be disabled ourselves?
I am not pointing out the links between ableism and heterosexism to prove that queers and people with disabilities are the same, that we should band together because we are all fighting the same battle. There are important differences between the experiences of non-disabled queers and disabled queers.
What I am saying is that queer communities have a long way to go in being accessible to people with disabilities, and this is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable because a true community includes everyone, not just those who can make it up the stairs.
None of us benefits from leaving queers with disabilities outside.