Several years ago, I attended an LGBT+ conference, but it became clear that I was one of only two wheelchair users out of hundreds of delegates when I arrived.
Dread started to creep through my body. The main room had cascading stairs with the only accessible places at the top. The organisers had incorrectly assumed I could get down steps unaided.
The second wheelchair user had been accommodated, but we were then forced to share the one wheelchair space. It brought a new meaning to ‘getting close’ with someone.
This issue created a bond between us; we spent the rest of the conference together, both equally appalled by the oversight in accessibility.
It was not the first time something like this had happened. As a Deaf and disabled asexual (a person who experiences little or no sexual attraction) trans man, I face double discrimination from LGBT+ and disabled spaces. Falling through the gap between both communities, I am often made to feel uncomfortable one way or another.
The whole event was impossible to get around: one of the workshop rooms was impractical because the doors were overpoweringly heavy with no assistance option, meaning I couldn’t enter. The only accessible toilet was designated a gender-neutral facility for everyone to use, meaning there were massive queues.
To make matters worse, I faced endless insensitive questions from people asking things like, ‘what’s wrong with you?’.
My primary disability is Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – a genetic connective tissue condition that causes chronic fatigue, pain, frequent joint dislocations, and many other health issues due to faulty collagen (the ‘glue’ of the body). It’s something I’ve had since I was little.
Yes, my life might be different to what I initially envisioned – but I have adapted. So, when someone asks what’s wrong with me, it feels they are saying that my existence is wrong.
Throughout the event, I felt distraught, and I ended up leaving early. The experience made me rethink whether I should be engaging in LGBT+ events when they feel so exclusive and not for Deaf and disabled people like me.
However, the silver lining was that this incident sparked my drive to fight for change and the right to exist – to be seen and heard.
I started working to ensure that disabled people on the asexual and aromantic spectrum like me (aspecs) have a place where they feel a sense of community and feel welcome.
Ableism within LGBT+ groups goes beyond denying inaccessibility. I constantly have to justify my identity and existence.
In my final year of university, upon seeing me enter an LGBT+ pub, a gay man told me that he would ‘rather die than be in a wheelchair.’
Despite me telling him that my wheelchair is wonderful – it is my freedom and independence – he continued his spiral of negativity. He told me that my life ‘sounds rough’ and then said he wasn’t interested in me, as he didn’t want to be a carer and is ‘turned off by people with flaws’ (translation: disabled).
Well, newsflash: I’m turned off by ableism.
For a long time, I experienced similar attitudes from people in the dating scene who were unwilling to be involved with a disabled person. Then, four years ago, I met my partner Luke at a disabled conference.
There, I was welcomed by visually impaired and Blind people; Deaf and DeafBlind people; neurodivergent and autistic people, people with chronic pain and illness conditions, to name a few.
However, the seemingly too perfect bubble soon burst – as soon as I had disclosed that I was trans, I was faced with a lot of misgendering. I felt disheartened – it turned out I had not found a new community, a place to belong.
In fact, in my experience, the disabled community has a harmful attitude problem towards aspec people.
I first realised I was asexual in 2014. Previously, I had always described myself as ‘bisexual-ish’ because I knew it didn’t quite fit. I became open about my sexuality but noticed an alarming number of people thinking my disability caused my asexuality.
When explaining the term asexual, I have been met with responses like, ‘but that’s just because you’re in a chair!’ – Deaf and disabled people are still considered incapable of making their own decisions.
These views make me sad because it’s such an outdated assumption and harms both the disabled and LGBT+ communities.
Frequently, society perceives asexuality as wrong;
But meeting Luke was a blessing. Dating someone who is also disabled and aspec has given us an extra-strong connection. I knew he understood me and that I could trust him.
I know I’m fortunate to have love and acceptance from my friends, family, and partner, but too often, it feels that there’s a different standard when talking about inclusion for LGBT+ Deaf and disabled people.
If we bring up issues of accessibility when wanting to engage with an LGBT+ event, we’re seen as an inconvenience and reminded that we don’t belong. It feels like we have to choose between our identities: Deaf and disabled, or LGBT+.
And this discrimination exists online too. I regularly experience aphobia – discrimination towards asexual and aromantic spectrum folk – in online disabled places. I get verbally harassed for ‘adding’ to the desexualisation of Deaf and disabled people by simply mentioning that I’m asexual.
The truth is, I fall through the cracks: too disabled to be involved with the LGBT+ community, but too asexual and queer to enter disabled spaces.
Facing access troubles and LGBT+ phobia inspired me to start a business last April called WheelieQueer.
Being a Deaf, autistic wheelchair user, I know first-hand how stressful and anxiety-inducing it is going through the benefits system. I work as an accessibility coach and adviser to help people claim disability benefits and encourage companies to become more inclusive and accessible. I also provide Deaf and disability inclusion training to businesses.
My hope is this will lead to Deaf and disabled people gaining back autonomy, and my work has led me to reflect on how my identities as a Deaf and disabled LGBT+ person intersect.
Over the years, I had become desensitised to the prejudice faced by both communities and have previously shrugged off various incidents of LGBT+ prejudice and ableist microaggressions. Upon reflection, I realised that ignoring them makes me complicit.
We need more than people understanding different definitions – we need allies to want to inform themselves and start normalising aspec identities by including us in Deaf and disabled and LGBT+ places, but all spaces and communities more generally too.
At the moment, disabled aspec people have very few empathetic people to the double discriminatory challenges we experience, meaning we’re often met with hostility and exclusion. We deserve to feel safe and included.
Society repositioning focus from basic awareness to encouraging self-education, inclusive conversations and spaces will positively change current attitudes.
Disabled aspec people need visibility, but we also need a place to come together, to support and validate each other – which is why alongside Liam O’Dell and Charli Clement, I co-founded the #DisabledAspecsExist movement.
I hope in the future this will lead to solidarity between our two communities – and until that happens, I won’t stop speaking up for, and amplifying, our voices.
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