By: JP Delgado Galdamez/TRT Guest Columnist—
Alex* is a writer, identifies as transgender, is disabled** and was recently forced to do their therapy appointments over the phone when their therapist moved to an office in a building that didn’t accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.
“It’s not the same, you lose so much when it’s over the phone, they don’t get to see your body language and many other cues,” said Alex, who used gender-neutral they, them, and their pronouns. “So I don’t get as much now because it’s not in person. It’s not okay, why do we still tolerate this?”
The word “accessibility” has historically been used to describe the physical features a building, event, or system needs to have to fully serve all people, focusing on the needs of people with disabilities (PWD).
Physical accessibility to all places and systems is critical. Accessible information is essential, as evidenced by Alex’s own experience. Accessible services are imperative. Accessible services geared towards LGBTQ people need to, then, be accessible to all LGBTQ people and their many identities.
For example, services are inaccessible if black trans women who are PWD can’t access them, and these barriers are a symptom of racism, transphobia, and ableism, respectively.
Racism, transphobia and ableism, “lead to lack of access, decline in mental health and wellness and even death. When folks with disabilities do not have access to the services they say they need then their quality of life is impacted tremendously as with anyone,” wrote Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the executive director of the Trans Women Of Color Collective, in an email to me.
Because race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, nationality, and many other identities have different descriptors, a single person can hold many identities that prevent them or make them more likely to experience discrimination depending on which system of oppression we focus on. It is essential, then, to look at the composite of those identities and those experiences, instead of looking at them individually.
When asked about accessibility to LGBTQ venues, Julia Sikut, who performs under the drag name Sarah Palegic, notes that, “there are many spaces in Providence and Boston that I cannot access whatsoever whether it be due to stairs or narrow spaces or no accessible bathroom, etc.”
“My number one pet peeve is when there is no information regarding accessibility on a venue’s website,” she continued.
Sikut explained that inaccessibility is exclusionary and a type of legal segregation: “It’s very important that I’m able to find [accessibility] information before I travel all the way to a gig only to find out I can’t get inside.”
This is one example of how inaccessibility impacts LGBTQ people. In this case, the accessibility issue isn’t limited to a physical barrier, it’s also an intangible barrier that forces PWD to plan for multiple scenarios, creating additional work for them and their support system. And if the location where a PWD is supposed to go to is inaccessible, it can create a negative impact on their experience.
There is not a single place where Sikut said doesn’t experience the effects of ableism, including from people who identify as LGBTQ.
“For me, my disability is a large part of my identity, but certainly not my whole identity,” she said. “For strangers I meet, my disability is my entire identity. And this becomes so tiring. I have many folks approach me to tell me I am inspiring, courageous, amazing, etc. without even bothering to ask my name.
“These folks don’t know anything about me yet they are blindly attributing these characteristics to me because the bar has been set so low for disabled people that my mere presence in a nightclub is awe inspiring. It becomes very tiring to constantly be seen as a beacon of strength.”
For Alex, who is housebound and depends on personal care attendants (PCAs) daily, it’s difficult having to hire, train, and keep PCAs if they don’t know about trans people, or people who struggle with mental health conditions, like agoraphobia.
“I’ve been agoraphobic since I was in [the] double digits,” they said. “I lost mobility really rapidly and never got an explanation, so I’m literally trapped in my apartment. If no one shows up, no food, no nothing.”
Agoraphobia, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition; DSM-5) is an anxiety disorder in which individuals have a disproportionate fear of public places, often perceiving such environments as too open, crowded or dangerous. Many of Alex’s former and current PCAs have not understood how much more difficult it is for a housebound person, who is also agoraphobic, trans, and wheelchair bound, to deal with a world so inaccessible. Therefore, the support they provide around leaving their apartment for appointments is sometimes not enough, or misguided.
“A Crisis of Hate: A Report on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Hate Violence Homicides in 2017” was released by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) on January 19, and the statistics line up with the experiences of heightened violence for trans people, women, and people of color.
However, “A Crisis of Hate” does not include information about PWD.
This presents another accessibility barrier: the invisibility of communities in our queer and trans justice movements. Without data, it is difficult to justify funding for accessible programs since the systems that control those sources of funding prioritize hard data over the experience of queer and trans PWD, and it’s essential for organizations to centralize PWD’s needs to combat that invisibility.
The Problem with Pride
There are different ways to work towards building accessibility. Hunter of the Trans Women of Color Collective believes one way is being fairly paid for one’s work.
“We must be paid for our labor,” she said. “All of it! Emotional labor is work. Every time you are asking trans people to explain and justify their existence you should be writing a check. Every time you misgender a trans person or remain silent when we are experiencing violence, you should be clicking the donate button on someone’s fundraiser. Every time you learn something from a black or brown trans person’s Facebook post you need to be pouring into our lives.”
This, however, becomes an issue for PWD who depend on services that limit and control their earnings or savings. For Sikut, living off of Social Security and disability income (SSDI), “makes it so that I cannot save money; I have no room for growth. This has prevented me from chasing some of my dreams such as modeling because ultimately, what I earn might not always be more than what I would lose in benefits. These kinds of laws make sure that disabled people stay poor and have no means of financial growth.”
Alex explains that they need to save money in a jar, “even if it’s easier for PCAs to steal from me, because I can’t have more than $2,000 in my bank account otherwise I lose my benefits.” These regulations are, according to Alex, a symptom of institutional ableism.
“I don’t know when I will be able to work and when I won’t be able to work, and if I’m able to work, I can’t save money because they’ll cut my SSDI.”
“I don’t see local queer activists including PWD in their platforms,” they continued. “We have been an afterthought and it’s violent. I don’t feel safe going to any Pride events, to the ones that are accessible anyways.”
“Trans Women of Color Collective usually hosts healing events, outdoor concerts or parties geared toward celebrating our history resisting state sanctioned violence as well as our ancestors who made it possible for us to exist and resist today,” Hunter explained. “I do not attend commercial Pride events as they are not rooted in the history of Pride.”
She reminds us that, “even before Stonewall there were the Compton Cafeteria Riots of 1966 and Cooper Donut Riots of 1959,” and all of these movements and riots are historically known to be the roots of Pride. Those riots were led by individuals who often held multiple oppressed identities. Marsha P Johnson, for example, was a black trans woman, who was also poor and a PWD.
And for some LGBTQ people, Pride events may sometimes be the only local event in which they may feel safe. For this reason, Pride events need more accessibility information on their websites.
Sikut explains why accessibility information is important. “Pointing out spots for handicap parking, accessible toilets, etc. on a website would be a huge help for disabled people who are trying to determine if they can handle a Pride event.”
Ultimately, when services are built around the needs of those who experience the most compound oppression, they become accessible. This is why our queer and trans justice movements must centralize the needs of those who experience the most violence and inaccessibility.
“Don’t assume your disabled friends are ok. Call them and ask them what they need. Especially if you’re able bodied,” Alex said, after explaining how things like winter, and the snow that comes with it, exacerbates PWD’s lack of access to services. “Don’t assume their needs. Ask them.”
We must, then, think beyond our personal experiences when building our queer and trans justice movements and organizations, and in our personal lives as we make our activism a reality through community support and financial justice.
*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.
**Alex identifies as a disabled person, and not as a person with a disability.
Born and raised in El Salvador, JP Delgado Galdamez is a Boston-based activist, drag performer, and educator. They focus on bringing together politics, anti-oppression work, and comedy through lip synching and commentary. When JP isn’t performing, they are doing trainings and outreach for The Network/La Red, a local LGBQ/T social justice organization that works towards ending partner abuse. You can follow them at @dragqueenjp on social media.