“Ableism shapes attitudes… and systems that ultimately dehumanize… [and] criminalize people whose bodies don’t fit into socially constructed notions of what constitutes a ”normal” human being.”-Edward Ndopu and Darnell L. Moore
As queer folks with disabilities, we experience oppression from a totally different lens. So many of us turn to safe spaces for queer people for relief from the oppression and isolation we experience. Most of these spaces center voices of color and folks from marginalized experiences and are usually considered intersectional. With that said, you’d think that these spaces would be equally safe and affirming for folks with disabilities (FwD) as well, but that’s not always the case. Here’re five ways ableism shows itself in Queer/Activist spaces.
This is definitely one of the most important and relevant examples. Accessibility (or lack thereof) is something that isn’t always taken into account. Here’s some things to think about when holding (physical) space for FwD:
- Does the space have stairs? Are the surroundings of the place/building wheelchair accessible, or accessible for folks who have trouble with walking or balancing? Are the bathrooms accessible?
- Is there anyone that may know Sign Language?
- If there’s food, are dietary restrictions being considered?
- If there’re folks with sensory sensitivity, are they being properly accommodated?
- Are peoples’ triggers being taken into account and respected?
These are only a few starting points. If we aren’t being accommodated, and spaces are left inaccessible, we don’t show up, which can intensify the already strong feelings of isolation we experience. Not all of us are able to go to rallies/protests, queer hang outs, queer night life spaces, because of inaccessibility.
This is another big one. This is something I have experienced personally – inside and outside queer spaces. Being a wheelchair user, I tend to stick out a lot. Folks rarely find me (romantically) desirable, usually because they see the chair before me, and think of everything that might come with being with someone who has a disability. We aren’t viewed in the same light that able-bodied folks are. We’re either seen as disgusting or not attractive, and people try to pass it off as a “preference” or cover it up with other forms of oppression. Friend and Tumblr blogger petitetimidgay – who’s also a wheelchair user – put it best in her video when she said: “Girls I was into would try to cover up their ableism with biphobia… I went into the queer community really hopeful because I figured that they had experienced similar, varying levels of having their sexuality belittled and not taken seriously. But, to be honest, I was met with the same bullshit, and I was not happy about it. Unfortunately, as I learned, prejudices exist across and within different marginalized communities, and you can’t just jump into one community and think you’ll escape the prejudices facing another.” So often we’re deemed undesirable because we don’t meet up to Eurocentric beauty standards, or meet the expectations of what people see as “normal”. I honestly couldn’t have put it better myself, and I know a lot of other Queers with disabilities that echo these same thoughts.
Ableist microaggressions can look a lot of different ways. They can be very obvious, or even very small. Some of the most common microaggressions I see are things like speaking for, or over, FwD. They can also look like shaming folks for their disabilities or making folks feel guilty for things they can’t help/do, burdening them with the Fear of Missing Out, tone policing, asking intrusive questions, referring to FwD as if we’re helpless, tokenizing FwD, implying that we need constant help, and so much more. It’s important to try to understand what ableist microaggressions look like and know how to watch out for them.
This has actually started to be addressed in the Queer spaces I’m in, but I know that’s not true for most other spaces. A lot of words that we use daily are actually slurs that have been so normalized in our society that we tend to overlook. Words like dumb, stupid, lame, retarded, idiot, moron, crippled, etc. Using diagnostic terms as metaphors and adjectives is something I see daily as well (i.e. saying the weather is so “Bi-Polar.”) There’s a lot of ways this actually looks but these examples are a very good start. It’s important to remember that language is everything. A lot of words have very ableist meanings that people don’t really know about. We need to start working diligently to unpack and unlearn these words and the capitalist rhetoric behind them.
5. Unchecked Privilege
Last, but not least – unchecked privilege. This is actually more important than it may seem for able bodied folks. A lot of times able bodied folks forget just how much privilege they hold over folks with disabilities. It’s pretty imperative to know your place and what privilege(s) you hold over FwD. It’s crucial to understand how ableism intersects with other systems of oppression (racism, fatphobia, classism, transphobia, colorism, etc.), and how much capitalism relies on ableism. Understanding how these things intersect and, the privilege(s) you have, and letting FwD be in charge of their own narratives and experiences helps to start to dismantle ableism.
Keep in mind that ableism doesn’t always check itself at the door of our spaces. Allowing ableism to linger in safe spaces can be extremely violent and harmful for FwD, and increases the isolation and marginalization that we’ve faced for so long (some of us our whole lives). Most importantly, folks need to keep in mind that the key to keeping spaces safe and intersectional is learning from mistakes, and being willing to take accountability for these things and grow. We need space held for us. We need folks to take call outs seriously and learn to show FwD the same respect as able-bodied folks. We need to learn what this looks like and begin to change the dynamics in our safe spaces to actually make them safe.