Double Discrimination: Disability and GLBT

We are two friends who met at a support group for disabled gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) individuals. Through our experiences as identifying as both disabled and GLBT, we have often encountered discrimination and even hatred. We are writing this article so that you can begin to understand the double-edged sword of being both disabled and GLBT in a society which many times shows a preference for the able-bodied heterosexual. Statistically, however, the disabled GLBT population is larger than most people expect, especially since most people do not like to think of disabled people as being sexual, let alone GLBT. In fact, 10% of the general population identifies as GLBT (Kinsey, 1948) and at least 20% consider themselves to be disabled (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

Before we go further, let us introduce ourselves.

My name is Ingrid Hofmann and I am Deaf, disabled and gay. I identify as disabled primarily because I have a complete vestibular loss, leading to a loss of balance, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. For mobility, I use a wheelchair, a walker, or my service dog, Bright. After having grown up as a global nomad in several European countries, I moved to Minnesota to study child psychology at the University of Minnesota, where I am currently a Ph.D. student.

And I am Bob Barr. I first became disabled in an automobile accident, over 19 years ago, caused by driving under the influence. Following that, I spent six months in a coma and ten months in three different hospitals, after which I had paralysis of the right side of my body. Following substance-abuse treatment and physical rehabilitation, I received a graduate degree in counseling, as well as a Chemical Dependency Certificate. I currently have 19 years of continuous sobriety and am a Ph.D. candidate in addiction psychology.

From our experiences and research, it is clear that many people in society are uncomfortable with both disabled and GLBT individuals. Discrimination toward both groups of people happens on a daily basis. This discrimination can take the form of barriers, which can be blatant or very subtle. Some of the barriers disabled GLBT individuals face are physical, some are informational, and some are attitudinal.

Physical barriers tend to be the most obvious because they involve physical access. In medical settings, GLBT individuals are often kept from visiting their partners because they are not considered family members. There is current legislative action being proposed at the Minnesota capitol that would eliminate this problem. GLBT venues are often found to be inaccessible for individuals using various mobility devices, such as walkers, wheelchairs or canes. Altering building structure to increase accessibility is a particular hardship for small businesses (which GLBT venues tend to be) because of the finances involved.

The financial hardships for smaller organizations can also lead to informational barriers. For example, providing audio-description, interpretation, large-print, and Braille is often not financially feasible for all GLBT venues, thus not allowing many Deaf and blind individuals to access information and other kinds of content. As disabled individuals within any given disability have unique and individuals needs, their requests for accommodations can vary greatly. For example, not all deaf individuals use the same type of language for communication. Some may prefer American Sign Language, some may use Cued Speech, whereas others may need captioning, and still others may use amplification systems. Although each accommodation may indeed be expensive, the accommodations are important for the individuals needing them. Oftentimes there is financial assistance available to help in providing accommodations. There are organizations, such as VSA arts, that assist arts organizations in making art venues accessible.

Attitudinal barriers, which may not be immediately visible, can be difficult to detect and counteract. They can take on many different forms, ranging from people being unaware about the needs of disabled GLBT individuals to blatant discrimination. The latter may lead to verbal or even physical harassment.

All of these barriers can, of course, lead to exclusion from mainstream society. When disabled GLBT individuals desire to participate in events or organizations primarily focused on able-bodied heterosexuals, they may be confronted with lack of access and lack of acceptance at the same time. Domains in which the double-minority status may be extremely visible are employment, religious institutions, and medical care. Able-bodied individuals may use non-inclusive language or even be outright hostile.

Ironically, because of a double minority identity, disabled GLBT individuals often face exclusion from the minority groups they are a part of. For instance, GLBT organizations often don’t accommodate disability, and disability organizations often don’t welcome or accept GLBT individuals. Indeed, it is unlikely that disabled individuals are automatically more attuned to or accepting of GLBT individuals than mainstream society.

Therefore, as a minority group within a minority group, many disabled GLBT individuals are likely to seek out other disabled GLBT individuals. Some disability organizations provide space and time for GLBT community members to meet, such as at the Courage Center or the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. In addition, disabled GLBT individuals may also choose to set up their own organizations or groups. For example, the Deaf community has organized the Rainbow Alliance for the Deaf with chapters in many different states.

Most people do not fit into boxes. All of us transcend labels. People can fit into many groups at one time. People can have multiple disabilities, be both disabled and GLBT, be members of several minority cultures. As a society, we can only break down barriers when we see people as people and see diversity as enrichment. Everyone can learn from the diverse experiences of others.

We would like to emphasize the need to increase the visibility of and the accessibility for disabled GLBT individuals in society today. The responsibility lies within all of us: the able-bodied, the disabled, the GLBT, and of course the disabled GLBT communities.

A support group for disabled GLBT individuals, sponsored by the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, meets the first Tuesday of the month from 6:00-7:30 p.m. in the basement of 1919 University Ave.