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Web Event 2: Queer Disability

Amoylan's picture

A fifteen year-old boy is beginning high school today, the school he is attending was just renovated under a very large budget, it is now very aesthetically pleasing. His mom will drop him off and most likely embarrass him just as any parent of a freshman in high school would. There is a twist in this seemingly “typical” day, his mother will have to lift his wheelchair out of the back of the car and then lift him into it in order for him to get around for the day. She’ll wheel him into the building and he’ll get sympathetic or attempted sympathetic stares the whole way, but it’s okay right? Because he must be used to it. The entrance to the school is accessible in a very literal sense so she brings him to his first class and leaves him to his day.

A fourteen year-old girl is beginning high school today, she will attend the same school as the boy and her day will start off similarly. She will walk in nervously with her parent, most likely get embarrassed by them, then her day will begin. Her disability is not as visible as the first student but rather a constant internal battle of when she is going to tell her parents she is queer, should she have to? Will people at school know? Will she have to tell them? Her mind is a constant whirlpool of questions and doubts about herself and who she really is. Disability is not always visible or physical.

I won’t tell you what either of these students looks like physically because that shouldn’t matter to the story, even though sadly in the eyes of the accommodators, it does. I really hate that word accommodation. Accommodation (definition): a convenient arrangement; a settlement or compromise. Who is so superior that they think their life is compromised by issues of accessibility? There should be no hierarchy in this. People build a wheelchair ramp and think they deserve an award for the most basic level of human nature. What about the girl who’s queer? Where’s her ramp? She can walk in to the building just fine but navigating her life and her internal battle everyday is much like being in a wheelchair in a 12-story building without an elevator. Accommodation is not a privilege, it is necessary. There shouldn’t have to be a compromise, people should not feel like they are settling when they accept that there are people of all different kinds in this world and they need to get around just the same as anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the “arrangement” is convenient, because it is crucial to the lives of so many people. People shouldn’t act like they are doing favors by installing elevators and “accepting” the queer people in their lives; those are the baseline for accessibility, very rarely is that surpassed and that is a problem.

Hopefully we are taught acceptance, another word that I am hesitant to use because it also seems as though there is a favor in there somewhere. Acceptance (definition): the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group. There are a lot of things wrong with this definition if we are using it terms of accepting disabilities and queerness. Adequacy should not be measured by physical appearance or sexuality, sexual orientation or sexual object choice. To be admitted into the group of human beings, you just need to be a human being, there is no initiation other than birth, no one is superior enough to pass judgment on that admissions process.

In a column in Blunderbuss magazine entitled “I’m Queer And So Are You” Zach Howe writes, “This is what America thinks being queer looks like—a bunch of sympathetic white kids just trying to fit in. Because these people already “fit in” in every other way, it is easy to see the injustice of their oppression.” There is no way to tell if someone is queer the way that people can tell if someone has a physical disability, however many would argue that queerness is a physical disability. Imagine the same generic, ignorant questions that one would ask a queer person, being asked to a person with a physical disability: When did you decide to be in a wheelchair? Why don’t you sound disabled? Is this going to change our relationship? When did you come out as disabled? It could be just a phase right? They sound very ridiculous when they are worded as if someone was asking a person with a physical disability right? Well guess what, they sound just as absurd to queer people and people think they are being “accepting” and “accommodating” by asking them, but in reality they are degrading and insulting.          

No matter what language is used when talking about queer people and disabled people, at least to me it will sound like there is an implied hierarchy and superiority. Being a cis queer girl with a brother who uses a wheelchair, our family’s had our fair share of stares and questions. I’ve never resented the questions and he’s never resented the stares but I know that mutually we resent them for each other. He accepts the stares and returns them with a huge smile. He’s smart, he’s sharper than people give him credit for, he knows that he is different; he just doesn’t let it change the fact that he is the kindest, least bitter person I have ever met. He has no chip on his shoulder. There have always been issues of accommodation, is there an elevator, does this person’s house have stairs leading up to the front door, can he come and see my dorm room, of course he can, after we carry his chair down 6 steps. Can I get married to the person I love in the united states? Of course I can, but only in 14 of them.

Legalizing gay marriage is the same as building a wheelchair ramp or installing an elevator; these things are happening as an afterthought in any given establishment, whether it be a high school or a country. People are acting as if they are doing people favors when these things should be procedure, “the norm.”

Normative, norm, normal are words that hold such a stigma of a standard that has supposedly been established. Who gets to set these standards? There should be no hierarchy in the human race. Everyone has their disabilities, “accommodation” does not stop at wheelchair ramps. Disabilities do not have to be visible, most of them are not. That does not mean that we stop searching for them or acknowledging them at the sight of working legs.

Ash Beckham gave a Tedx Talk on coming out of the closet and as she states, she talks about it “not in the traditional sense, not just the gay closet” she says “all a closet is, is a hard conversation.” She speaks about the word hard and how it is so often used as a relative term “who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your five year-old you’re getting a divorce, there is no harder, there is just hard.” This is such an important message when looking at the topic of disability. People initially judge the appearance of a person so automatically that you would never assume that an able-bodied person is being eaten alive by their learning disabilities, we don’t realize that most people don’t wear their hard on their sleeve, they hide it in their closet, as Ash would say. “ We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard to make us feel better or worse about our closets and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard” People spend a lot of time measuring their feats against others and there is no inadequate feat. That is where the misconception lies. No one can tell you that your disability is harder or easier than anyone else’s. Everyone has their own story and all we are allowed to do with them is listen. 


Taylor11's picture

Part of your paper talks

Part of your paper talks about a similar subject that I talk about in my paper.  After talking in class we have a very similar outlook on how disabilities are treated in schools and that it is something that needs to change.  I also really liked how you talk about the word accommodations and the negative connotations that are associated with it.

Anne Dalke's picture

Accommodation as Afterthought

Last month, you were writing about how differently you experience classroom and performance settings: how the first lacks the comfortable “distances” of the second.  This time, you are writing about much larger issues of accessibility that exclude folks of all sorts; you’ve gone from the individual to the social, from the personal to the political, and done so in a way that leads with intersectionality: “What about the girl who’s queer? Where’s her ramp?....”

Your final claim that “everyone has their own story and all we are allowed to do is listen” is actually much more timid than several that you make earlier in your piece: that you and your brother “resent the questions and stars mutually—for each other,” for example.  That description, along with the “ramp for the queer girl” gesture toward a politics of accommodation that is not “accommodating” in the patronizing way your definition suggests, but rather accessible in a way that has to do with equal rights for all.

Ellen Samuels, whose critique of Judith Halberstam we read a few weeks ago, is one of the many scholars (like Eli Clare) who are now doing very interesting work in the nexus of queer and disability studies you lay out here. Read her piece called My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse—and let me know if you find it useful or helpful in your thinking.

Also, please read both Ann Lemieux’s essay on accommodating gender queer and learning disabled students, and taylor11’s piece on restructuring elementary school classrooms for disabled kids, too, in preparation for y’all's talking together in class...