A Lack of Accessibility in Queer Spaces Crushes Community Pride
"I rarely attend standard LGBTQ+ events because I have given up expecting my disabled community to be included."
Pride is for celebrating and rejoicing amongst a vibrant community, but for many disabled LGBTQ+ folks, this is impossible. Although approximately 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ people have a disability, accessibility at queer community events is often sidelined. Inconsistent inaccessibility in these spaces crushes queer, disabled pride and fails to deliver on an intersectional LGBTQ+ community. And although Pride is one of my favorite times of the year, attending events that treat accessibility as an afterthought at best and an inconvenience at worst is utterly soul-destroying. Facing inaccessibility, as a person with disabilities, feels like wearing an irremovable post-it note on my head with the words 'I don't belong here' spelled out in capital letters.
The reality is that prejudicial treatment is rampant even inside spaces reserved for the marginalized, and counteracting it with accessibility can transform Pride for disabled folks. "Discrimination within the community is also as big as it is outside, just because you're part of a marginalized community doesn't mean you are free from discrimination within it," explains LGBTQIA+ race and ethnicity psychotherapist, Zayna Ratty. "Pride should be somewhere where everybody can feel safe. The only way forward is for people to admit there's a problem."
The disabled community is excluded from queer spaces in a range of ways. At Pride events, for instance, not enough disabled toilets are provided along the parade routes, rest points and quiet spaces are not standard practice, and many Pride events are held in inaccessible spaces. And even though most organizers advocate for accessibility, they are not always successful.
For example, in 2019, Brighton Pride failed to provide a big enough viewing platform for all the disabled attendees they had sold tickets to. Some queer clubs lack disabled access, like one of the local clubs I attend, which doesn't have an accessible entrance, let alone a disabled toilet. An even with the meteoric rise in remote events during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the same inaccessibility was evident when I attended remote Pride in 2020.
While some events provided American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, closed captions, and recordings of events, many did not, leaving disabled queer people without access to the same spaces their non-disabled peers were celebrating in. And this lack of inclusion can affect one's mental health.
The psychological impact of inaccessibility weighs heavily on disabled lives by making everyday ventures an involuntary obstacle course. Sometimes it's dealing with inaccessible hospitality entrances or a lack of disabled toilets and at others, it's facing "lazy" stereotypes or having difficulties accessing work opportunities. These effects are exaggerated when we embrace queer identities but find LGBTQ+ spaces excluding us with inaccessibility and ignorance, which can lead to mental distress. "Disabled persons exist in an ableist space that tells them they are damaged, broken, and need to be fixed," says Dr. Kaley Roosen Ph.D. C.Psych, a clinical and health psychologist at Toronto Psychology Clinic. "For the disabled person who is also a member of the LGBTQ+ community, they can experience double marginalization living in a homophobic, heteronormative, and ableist world."
Getting ready for my first ever Pride was thrilling in 2017, I applied rainbow makeup, donned the armor of my favorite outfit, and braced myself to feel the thrumming, inclusive energy all my queer friends had gushed about. I rode a magic carpet of anticipation, ready to meet the community I longed for but when the inaccessibility of the event became evident, long-awaited inclusion became all too familiar exclusion. With a lack of disabled toilets, rest areas, and no quiet spaces, it was clear disabled accommodations had not been prioritized. It crushed the community spirit I craved, something that all marginalized people need to thrive. I live with a complex combination of disabling medical conditions, including fibromyalgia and complex PTSD, and realizing that disabled accommodations were scarce felt like a neon sign telling me to keep out of the community.
When disabled queer folks are denied access to nightclubs, parades, and other events in their own community, sometimes they avoid LGBTQ+ spaces to protect them from additional hurt. I, too, have shied away from many club events that do not feel inclusive of disabled folks because the disappointment is more painful than pre-empting disabled exclusion and staying home instead. "A feeling like 'why bother?' [comes up] predicting that no one will want to or try to include them now or ever in the future," says Dr. Roosen. However, Dr. Roosen adds that if fewer disabled LGBTQ+ people attend events, it can lead to a continued lack of awareness in the LGBTQ+ community "as [event organizers] may not notice any disabled people trying to be a part of events and spaces."
"It creates a vicious cycle: disabled people can't access events and events remain inaccessible as there is a perception that they do not need to access the spaces," says Dr. Roosen.
Even though there's an LGBTQ+ community for disabled folk, their bubble is often much smaller when they are disabled and queer, especially when it's assumed by non-disabled organizers that we do not need access to events non-disabled queer folk thrives at. To survive and connect with our peers, queer, disabled folk forge remote connections instead by meeting fellow disabled queers through social media or attending accessible and inclusive events like The Staying Inn-a virtual pub founded to help people in isolation stay connected during the pandemic. Personally, I've found my people through social media by following and then reaching out to disabled LGBTQ+ folks on Twitter. With LGBTQ+ friends all over the country, I finally have the safe, queer space I need to thrive as a queer, disabled person. I rarely attend standard LGBTQ+ events because I have given up expecting my disabled community to be included. Though I am thankful to have forged a community, it will never heal the sting of exclusion that is embedded so deeply in the psyches of many disabled folks.
For all queer, disabled people to find their community and inject some much-needed intersectional Pride into the community, event organizers need to take the lead and fight fiercely for disabled inclusion. Each time a Pride event assumes disabled accommodations are unnecessary, a disabled person is left without a community to rely on. This has to stop.
Ratty, who is also the first POC Chair of UK's Oxford Pride, advises, "Even if you're having in-person events, ask somebody, don't just think 'this will do.' Get someone in, pay money, get proper advice and get somebody who will tell you what accessibility accommodations you will require." These requirements can be broad-ranging so consulting accessibility experts is mandatory. They can guide organizers on everything from providing sign language interpreters and info on the importance of quiet spaces to guaranteeing intersectional panels and offering tiered ticket pricing.
Non-disabled queer folks must also play their part to heal the community spirit of disabled LGBTQ+ people. To better support queer, disabled folk, the community has to confront its ableism and ensure that disabled people are given a voice so that inaccessible events can finally be a thing of the past. "Another way to support disabled members of the community is to use privilege to bring ableism and inaccessibility issues forwards," says Dr. Roosen. "Disabled folks are tired of having to constantly be fighting to make things accessible on their own. It demonstrates solidarity as well as has the psychological benefit of telling a disabled person that they matter and are worth including."
To start, non-disabled LGBTQ folks should research and understand accessibility needs, so that they can stop asking disabled people to explain, and they need to show up at protests and demonstrations to fight as hard for disabled rights as they do for LGBTQ+ rights. We also need non-disabled LGBTQ+ people to actively reach out to disabled communities because many of us will have been turned off attending Pride and community events due to historical inaccessibility
While an inclusive Pride in every city may be a little way into the future, incremental change can rejuvenate the community spirit of LGBTQ+ disabled people. Ratty adds, "We should be proactively inclusive, we should be asking ourselves, 'Have we always done our best in this community to include everyone else in it? No, is the simple answer. Everyone who is marginalized will not be surprised by that."
Research our needs, consult us at every stage, and include us, even when your internalized ableism claims our disabilities mean we're uninterested. A little wooing may be necessary but you'll never regret reigniting our community spirit; we celebrate and commemorate Pride just as fiercely as every non-disabled LGBTQ person.